Notre Dame sent seven priests to serve as chaplains during the American Civil War and I will happily provide brief sketches on each of these brave men, three of which died during the war or shortly thereafter due to disease or privations of their service.
The first is Fr. Paul E. Gillen, which is fitting, as he was the first of Notre Dame's Holy Cross priests to go to war. Fr. Gillen did not leave much in the way of personal papers or reminisces, but there is a nice -if short - sketch of him in Fr. William Corby's Memoirs of Chaplain Life and a longer sketch on David Power Conyngham's unpublished manuscript, "Soldiers of the Cross," a copy of which is in the archives of the University of Notre Dame.
Paul Gillen was a native of Ireland and came to the United States in 1840 where he was engaged as an agent for a popular Irish weekly.
Shortly before the Civil War he became a priest and entered the Holy Cross community at Notre Dame.
When the war broke out, Fr. Gillen was on business in the northeast. Impressed with the number of Catholic men joining the ranks he appealed to his superior for permission to offer his services.
Fr. Gillen arrived in Washington, D.C., in July 1861 and did not leave the army until after the surrender at Appomattox.
Fr. Gillen did not seek a commission with a particular regiment, but preferred to roam from unit to unit as needed.
Fr. Gillen was famous for his all-in-one church-dining table-bed, which he made from a carriage and could take from regiment to regiment.
On the battlefield, Fr. Gillen exhibited great courage. One officer, impressed that Fr. Gillen was not afraid of walking alone behind enemy lines after a battle, exclaimed that the chaplain was “One of the damndest venturesome old clergyman I ever saw.”
Eventually, General Grant issued an order forbidding citizens and unauthorized vehicles within the army’s lines. Determined to continue his ministry, Gillen obtained a commission as chaplain with the 170th New York Infantry, where he continued his work until the end of the war.
Gillen died in Brooklyn, NY, in October 1882.
My forthcoming book, Notre Dame in the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, Fall 2010) will include some wonderful first-hand impressions of Fr. Paul Gillen's service in the army.
More profiles of other Notre Dame chaplains are coming!