Monday, March 28, 2011

The Perfect Gift for Civil War Catholic Sister-Nurses: Two Big Guns! What?!

Lift the great guns from the snows that enfold them,
Heat the great furnace,—War’s echoes must cease;

Swift in the might flames melt them and mould them

Into one image—Our Lady of Peace

Testaments to the epic story of Notre Dame in the Civil War can be found from the country’s capital city to an Indiana town to the battlefield at Gettysburg to the campus itself. Indeed, I have written before about the Baldwin monument in Elkhart, IN (here) and the Fr. Corby monument at Gettysburg (here and here).

Perhaps the most unusual (and earliest) of the memorials to the Notre Dame community's service in the Civil War were the twin captured Confederate cannons—named “Lady Polk” and “Lady Davis”—that found a home on the campus of St. Mary’s. The guns were large experimental rifled cannon, each more than ten feet long, weighing more than seven tons and designed to fire solid shot that weighed more than one hundred pounds. The guns were placed in Rebel forts on the Mississippi River but fell into the hands of the Union navy in early 1862. Later in the year, Commodore W.H. Davis, commanding the Western Flotilla, wrote the
following order:

"I wish you to stop at Island No. 10 and take on board the fragments
of a gun known as the Lady Davis, which burst in the hands of the
rebels. I wish you to stop again at Columbus and to take on board
the fragments of a gun known as the Lady Polk, which also burst
in the hands of the rebels…they are to be placed at the disposal of
Sister Angela, superior of the Sisters of the Holy Cross, who are the
principal nurses in our military hospitals, and that they are to be recast into a statue of peace for one of the religious establishments of which Sister Angela is the superior.
" (1)

The cannons were delivered to Cairo, Illinois, in the care of Captain A.W. Pennock, who wrote to Mother Angela that he would “be very happy to keep here the guns…subject to any directions or orders which you may think proper to give me.” The cannons were then transferred to the naval yard in Mound City, Illinois, where they remained for some time before finally finding their intended home at St. Mary’s. They sat on the grounds under the flagpole flying the Stars and Stripes, and students often had their photos taken sitting on the “Ladies.” (2)

Mother Angela’s original plans never
came to pass: instead of being crafted into a monument of peace, the cannons actually went to war again. In September 1942, the sisters offered the guns to the government as salvage ore. Mr. L.J. Harwood—
chairman of the Salvage Committee, Civilian Defense Council, St. Joseph County, Indiana—wrote to thank the sisters and St. Mary’s Academy for their thoughtfulness:

"I frequently have occasion to observe people who possess a tremendous

amount of negative patriotism. That is, they are patriotic enough to give away some of their holdings if a large amount of pressure is put upon them. This gesture of yours, however, is quite different from this. I believe that you recognize that patriotism does not end until the object needed is finally secured. In this case the cannon are of no avail until they are melted, and if it had not been for your noble gesture, they probably
would have remained on your campus until after the duration." (3)

In her 1881 collection, Crowned with Stars, poet Eleanor C. Donnelly paid tribute to the sisters’ wartime service and to their unique monument in “The Cannon in the Convent Grounds":

See, where they lie 'mid the frosts of the Winter,
Just as they lay 'mid the grasses and flowers

All these long Summers,— a War-breathing cen ter.

Mocking the calm of these woodlands of ours.

Nearly two decades of peace have been numbered

By Time (the old clerk) on his chaplet of years.

Since first in this sylvan seclusion they slumbered.

Sprinkled with blood-drops and shining with tears.

O'er the cold metal, now rusted and rimy.
Year after year the green mosses have crept;
Silvery sweet, thro' yon tubes, dark and grimy,
The bells of St. Mary's their echoes have swept.

Oft on those arches the robin sat singing
The song of the Spring to the mate on its nest;
Athwart the black nozzles, the Summer wind winging,
Breathed perfume and balm from the groves of the West,

Gently the dead leaves have fallen upon them
With delicate whispers of rest and release;

And even the snow-flakes, thick-fluttering on them.

Have swelled, in their turn, the soft chorus of Peace

Come, put your ear to these lips, black and hoary.
List to this voice, breathing ruin no more;

The harsh tones grow sweet as they tell of the story

Of Mercy's blest part in the pageant of War;

Tell of the nuns of historic St. Mary's,

Binding the camp and the hospital bloom

With Heaven's own glory : like minist'ring fairies,

Shedding God's sunlight thro' suffering's gloom.

Floating, sweet saints, on the dark winding waters.

Alone with the wounded, the dying, the dead,

Christ of the Holy Cross ! bless Thy dear daughters,

Brave help of our heroes who battled and bled!

Lift the great guns from the snows which enfold them.

Heat the vast furnace,—War's echoes must cease;

Swift in the mighty flames melt them and mould them

Into one image — Our Lady of Peace !

Tranquil and tender from out the dark iron,

Soon the dear face on her children shall shine;

Grandeur and grace not of earth shall environ

The form of our Mother, the sinless, divine!

Trophies of Death in Life's' image dissolving,

Beautiful Peace veiling visions of gore,

Praise to our God! while the years are revolving,

Madonna of Peace ! thou shalt leave us no more!

You can see photos and read more about this and other Notre Dame Civil War monuments in Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory (The History Press, 2010).


(1) Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 23, 364–65; an excellent essay on the genesis of the guns, the misnomer of “Lady Davis” and their disposition can be found at John Ross, “Columbus, KY: Gibraltar of the West,”
(2) Anna S. McAllister, Flame in the Wilderness: Life and Letters of Mother Angela Gillespie, C.S.C., 1824–1887 (Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1944), 201.
(3) Ibid, 341.
Eleanor C. Donnelly, Crowned With Stars (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University, 1881), 129–31.

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