People today are familiar with the battlefield heroics of Irish soldiers of the famed Irish Brigade, Army of the Potomac, during the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865. The Irishmen who wore Union blue compiled a distinguished combat record on battlefields across America. The role of the Irish who faithfully fought to save the Union has been well-documented and widely recognized by generations of American and Irish historians.
However, such recognition has not been forthcoming to the Irish who fought for the South. What has been generally overlooked was the fact that the Irish in America were engaged in their own civil during the four years of America’s bloodiest war. The Irish served in disproportionate numbers in every Southern army.
In fact, the Irish not only served in disproportionate numbers in all armies of the newborn Confederacy, but also in larger overall percentage terms than the Irish in Northern armies. However, the Irish have become the forgotten soldiers of the South. Therefore, what has been most forgotten about America’s fratricidal conflict was the fact that the Irish across America fought their own civil war among themselves from 1861 to 1865.
Father John B. Bannon was one of the forgotten Irish who served with distinction for the South. As well as that he also became the South’s secret emissary to the Pope and to the Catholics of Ireland. He performed admirably in both roles.
Born on December 29, 1829 in the small agricultural village of Roosky, Co. Roscommmon, Ireland, Bannon served as the inspirational chaplain of an elite combat command, the First Missouri Confederate Brigade from 1861 to 1863. Before he embarked upon a distinguished career for the Southern republic he had devoted his life to God and to helping the impoverished people of Ireland. He was educated at the Royal College of St. Patrick at Maynooth, County Kildare. Bannon was ordained a priest in May 1853.
Thanks to the exodus of the Irish fleeing the Great Famine, Bannon was dispatched to America to labor for the benefit of his long-suffering countrymen. With high hopes for performing God’s work and to assist his people, Father Bannon crossed the Atlantic and joined the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Located in America’s fertile heartland and situated on the west bank of the wide Mississippi River, St. Louis had been originally settled by French Catholics.
Here, Father Bannon administered to the sizeable Irish population of St. Louis, especially at the Irish enclave of “Kerry Patch” on the city’s north side. Of course, this distinctive Irish community was so named because many of its lower class residents of the Catholic faith hailed from County Kerry. Actually, “Kerry Patch” was an ethnic ghetto, where the Irish were segregated from the non-Irish of St. Louis.
Father Bannon saw America’s ugly side in St. Louis, where anti-Irish discrimination and prejudice was as great as in the Old World. The Irish people were often targeted by anti-Catholic riots unleashed by angry Protestants, the so-called Nativists, during the 1850s. Bannon was eventually assigned to St. John’s Parish, which consisted of mostly middle-class parishioners in early November 1858, in the western part of St. Louis.
Here, Father Bannon immediately set out to make his great dream come true: the creation of a beautiful new church for the parishioners of St. John’s Parish. The dark-haired priest envisioned a new church that would shine its heavenly light across the parish and stand tall as a bastion for Catholicism. Bannon initiated donation drives that reaped dividends. In relatively short order, the enthusiastic, young priest had collected more than $5,000. Near the end of February 1859 when the winter began slowly to fade away, the digging finally began on the church’s foundation near the corner of Chesnut and Sixteenth Street.
Meanwhile, Bannon entered into another challenge. He also served as a chaplain of Captain Joseph Kelly’s militia company known as the Washington Blues, which contained a large number of Irish soldiers. Finally, in November 1860, Bannon’s St. John the Apostle and Evangelist Church, a stately brick structure, was completed. Father Bannon’s pride and joy still stands today in the heart of St. Louis opposite Union Station.
However, Father Bannon’s world was about to be shattered forever. As a strange fate would have it, he only conducted religious services for a relatively short time at his new church, because war loomed on the horizon. Like the state of Missouri, so St. Louis was divided between loyalties to North and South. The firing of Southern cannon on Fort Sumter in Charleston, SC opened the Civil War in April 1861.
Serving as chaplain of the militia, Bannon became a prisoner when Northern forces captured the pro-Southern Missouri Volunteer Militia Brigade in early May at Camp Jackson in St. Louis. Missouri then descended into the horrors of civil war, and the state was early won for the Union. Missouri Rebels under “Old Pap” Price withdrew south to the southwest corner of Missouri by the winter of 1861.
Distressing war letters from Bannon’s former parishioners, now Rebel soldiers, complained of the lack of a Catholic priest, who was needed to attend to spiritual needs. After Mass at his beloved church on December 15, Father Bannon answered the call, riding out of a Union-occupied St. Louis and heading south at great risk. After reaching the far-away army’s encampment in the dead of winter near the end January 1862, he then became the chaplain of the First Missouri Confederate Brigade, one of the elite combat units of the Civil War.
During hard-fought battles on both sides of the Mississippi River in 1862 and 1863, Chaplain Bannon was often at the front to assist wounded men and to bestow the last rites to dying Irish soldiers. He often risked his life as a consequence. Bannon was proud to serve as a member of a people’s army that was battling for the liberty of a new republic. In this regard, he felt that he was engaged in a holy war, equating the South’s struggle for liberty to Ireland’s own centuries-long struggles for liberty against a powerful, centralized government and its abuses.
In one emergency situation during a major battle, the physically robust Bannon served as a fast-working member of a gun crew. The Irishman performed capably to the amazement of his fellow Confederates. He often demonstrated his resourcefulness and daring on America’s battlefields, and this was but one single example. Consequently, the stout Bannon, heavily-bearded and looking more than a soldier than a typical chaplain, earned the well-deserved reputation of “the Fighting Chaplain.”
From late May / June to early July 1863, Bannon endured one of the war’s longest sieges at Vicksburg, MS on the Mississippi River and far south of St. Louis. Here, Bannon administered to the needs of both Catholics and Protestant Rebels. During one Sunday Mass, he continued his solemn services despite Federal shells striking and entering St. Paul’s Catholic Church. The bitter end for the besieged Confederate Army and Vicksburg was only a matter of time. Vicksburg and its defending army surrendered on July 4, 1863. As his luck would have it, Chaplain Bannon became a prisoner for the second time in barely two years.
Crucial Confederate defeats, like the loss of Vicksburg, failed to dampen Bannon’s sense of duty and commitment, however. In August 1863, Bannon left his Missouri Irish troops, now paroled after Vicksburg’s surrender, and journeyed east by train to the Confederacy’s capital of Richmond. Bannon was now at the right place at the right time.
President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet needed to find a solution because they were losing a war of attrition in battling against the North’s manpower superiority and military might. Thousands of newly-arrived Irishmen continued to fill the depleted ranks of Union Armies to compensate for battle losses to negate Southern victories. The Confederacy was faced with inevitable defeat in part because of the exodus of Irish immigrants from Ireland who were enlisted in large numbers into military service by aggressive Union recruiters as soon as they stepped off the sailing ship.
Consequently, Bannon was called to the White House of the Confederacy. Here, President Davis presented Bannon with a new challenge. He now became a Confederate secret agent. Bannon’s new mission was to return to Ireland to warn the Irish that a grim fate awaited them, if they joined the Union Army to serve under blundering generals.
With the Confederacy unable to receive Irish immigration because of the Federal naval blockade, Bannon’s mission was crucial. Even more, Bannon’s novel idea of attempting to seek recognition for the Confederacy from the Pope was accepted by the Davis government. Bannon’s proposal offered the tantalizing possibility that a Catholic nation, such as France, might follow the Pope by bestowing recognition for the new nation battling against the odds. Such foreign recognition was now absolutely critical for the Confederacy’s survival.
From the Atlantic port of Wilmington, NC Bannon ran the Union naval blockade aboard a swift blockade runner in early October 1863. Bannon first visited Rome with the hope of garnering recognition for the Confederacy from the Pope. He then journeyed to his native homeland, reaching Ireland at the end of October. Bannon then began his covert operations as a Confederate secret agent.
He had a large number of handbills printed to give timely warning to Irishmen bound for America. Bannon’s handbills were posted at Ireland’s major ports and even on the doors of Dublin’s churches.
Bannon’s well-chosen words presented the truth how about how “many an Irish Emigrant on landing . . . becomes a Soldier [and] In 48 hours he is landed in the Swamps of Carolinas, or on the Sand Bars of Charleston. There to imbrue his hands in THE BLOOD OF HIS COUNTRYMEN, and fight for a People that has the greatest antipathy to his birth and creed.” Quite simply, the Irish immigrants were used as little more than cannon fodder by the Northern war machine, paying a high price as a result.
Bannon also sent letters, handbills, and posters to the parish priests across Ireland so that they could warn their impoverished flocks about the dangers of joining the Union Army, which was seductive alone for the $13.00 per month pay: a Faustian bargain made by thousands of Irish in the midst of the most murderous war in American history. In his poster, Bannon also explained how the last “remnant of Christian civilization [was] dominant in the South” unlike in the North.
Bannon’s poster was his most effective effort in part because he emphasized how, “As a priest of the Catholic Church, I anxious to see the desires of the Holy Father realized speedily” in supporting the South in a brutal conflict known as the War of Northern Aggression. To his delight, and after winning over the Irish clergy across Ireland, Bannon witnessed how “a great revolution”
had taken place across Ireland from his tireless efforts. Sympathy for the South and its struggle now reached a zenith in Ireland. Indeed, Father Bannon had achieved the most important secret agent success on Irish soil in the history of the Confederacy. The former priest of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist Church became the most capable and successful Confederate secret agent not only in Ireland but also in Europe.
Despite Bannon’s successes, the tide of Irish continued to flow to America because of economic reasons, however. Bannon then traveled once again to the Vatican to discuss the possibility of the Confederacy’s recognition with the Pope. In his mid-thirties, Father Bannon never returned to the Confederacy or ever again saw his beloved church in St. Louis. He remained in Ireland, joining the Jesuit Order in August 1864. The Southern republic for which he fought finally died in the spring of 1865, ending the dream of committed Irishmen like Bannon.
During the 1870s, Bannon won a reputation as “the greatest preacher” in Ireland. He then became the Superior of St. Francis Xavier’s in Dublin in 1884. As could be expected, Bannon was long haunted by the searing memory of his war experiences on American soil. In his last letter, written in 1895, to an old comrade in St. Louis, Bannon penned with heartfelt emotion: “I often wander back in thought to St. Louis and the South and all the friends of days gone by . . . Tis a sad memory that ‘Lost Cause’ and all its varied incidents. Yet, tho’ sad I would not blot it from my memory or expunge it from my life [and] A few years more and we too will have passed away and become a memory . . . . “
On the eve of the First World War, Bannon quietly passed away on the morning of August 14, 1913.Thousands of miles away in his beloved St. Louis, a requiem Mass for Father Bannon was held at his beloved St. John the Apostle and Evangelist Church. Near the end of his life and having no regrets, Bannon had written a letter from Ireland that explained how: “Yet, for the same men, for their spiritual consolation and salvation, would I again face the same weary marches, vigils and privations [in] discharging a duty acceptable to God; religion and humanity . . . .”
Clearly and although long forgotten, Father Bannon was a key religious, political, and diplomatic figure in the history of the Confederacy. Few men of his day played a more distinguished or diverse role in America’s deadliest conflict than Father Bannon, who had devoted his entire life to God.
Note: The story about the remarkable life of Father John B. Bannon has been revealed in full in a ground-breaking University of Alabama Press book entitled “The Confederacy’s Fighting Chaplain, John B. Bannon" by the author of this piece Philip Thomas Tucker. The scholarly work won the Douglas Southall Freeman Award for the best book in Southern history.