Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Notre Dame Civil War Chaplain Profile #4 - Fr. James M. Dillon

I'm pleased to add another installment introducing the Holy Cross priests from the University of Notre Dame who served as chaplains in the Civil War.

See these posts for previous profiles:

#1 = Fr. Paul E. Gillen, CSC
#2 = Fr. Peter P. Cooney, CSC
#3 = Fr. Joseph C. Carrier, CSC

Below is an excerpt from my book, Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010) describing some of the life and ministry of Fr. James Dillon, CSC, as a chaplain in the Union army.

Fr. Dillon and "The Temperance Regiment"

Father James Dillon was in the Northeast on university business in the summer of 1861. While there, he became acquainted with officers who were organizing and recruiting the 63rd New York VolunteerInfantry, which would become part of the famous “Irish Brigade” of the Army of the Potomac. The regiment—like the other core regiments of the brigade—was almost exclusively Catholic, and at the urging of its officers, Father Dillon volunteered to be the regimental chaplain. Father Dillon was “young, but of mature mind, and quite eloquent,” a fellow chaplain wrote, adding that he “was impulsive and ardent, and threw his whole soul into any good work he undertook.”

By all accounts, Father Dillon—more than any of Notre Dame’s priests—took particular care to “guard his boys against the prevailing vices.” The worst of these temptations was drunkenness, which was endemic to camp life in the army. In sermons, Father Dillon declared drinking to be the “father of all crimes,” especially among the Irish.To foster good behavior among the men, Father Dillon established a “Temperance Society,” and hundreds of the men in his regiment joined on the spot. The effects seemed immediately beneficial: attendance at religious service increased and incidents of “camp carousals” decreased. Father Dillon was so pleased that he arranged to distribute medals among the men who had taken the pledge.

Like all of the priests Notre Dame sent to minister to the soldiers, Father Dillon was cool under fire. “Father Dillon was always ready to take part in a skirmish or a ride throught he enemy’s country,” a brigade surgeon remembered. Indeed, in one instance, Father Dillon even managed to bring order out of chaos inthe heat of battle (albeit “outstepping the lines of his proper duty”) when he rallied the regiment at the Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1,1862. The regiment was under fire, and its officers were hors du combat. There was great confusion as to whom they should obey. One of the men exclaimed, “This is Father Dillon’s regiment!” A chorus joined in, yelling, “Yes, yes! Give us Father Dillon!” The good chaplain came forward, assured the soldiers that he would remain with them and then calmly passed among the ranks, informing the men that they should obey the officer now in command.

Father Dillon was not even thirty years old when he joined the army;almost exactly a year later, he was honorably discharged. “Against the advice of the best army physicians he remained in the army much longer than he should have,” Father Sorin wrote a year later, explainingthat exposure in the camps had aggravated lung problems that Father Dillon had endured since his youth. “He went to Europe, but returned after twelve months in about the same state of health,” Father Sorin continued, adding that doctors had advised Father Dillon to travel to California and that “it will take a year to pronounce on the improvementin his health.”

Unfortunately, the relief did not come, and Father Dillon died of complications of his lung troubles only a few years later.

You can learn more about all of the brave priests from Notre Dame who served as chaplains in Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory.

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Schmidt, please contact me at liza.downey@gmail.com - I have a question and request for you, but I don't have facebook so I can't get you from there :)

    I promise it's nothing scary! Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks for the great work you do for the Glory of God and the edification of His people.

    Liza Downey