- The Washington Times - Friday, July 16, 2004

Father John B. Bannon, a Catholic priest and leader of a St. Louis parish, ministered to congregations and soldiers, manned artillery during heated Civil War battles, served as Jefferson Davis’ special secret envoy to Europe and finished his life as a Jesuit priest in his native Ireland.

Even before the commencement of hostilities in the Civil War, Bannon joined a St. Louis militia unit, the Washington Blues. War seemed inevitable, and the Irishmen of Bannon’s Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society participated enthusiastically in church and militia life. Although pastor to many of the men, Bannon also insisted upon wearing the militia uniform and drilling with the troops.

During growing tensions in Missouri, Bannon refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Union. One might be surprised to find a Catholic priest siding with the pro-slavery forces, but the feisty Irishman did not view the problem that way. He stood by the men of his parish, who looked at the actions of the Union forces in Missouri as harassing, oppressive and akin to British subjugation of the Irish.

When the local Germans turned out almost unanimously in support of the Union, one Missourian wrote, “the infidel, Sabbath-breaking, beer-drinking Dutch [Germans] were of the same breed as those who harried Ireland.”

In December 1861, Union leaders, fed up with Bannon’s vitriol-laced sermons advocating the Southern cause, issued a warrant for the priest’s arrest. Bannon fled St. Louis one step ahead of his Union pursuers.

‘A noble man’

Bannon became a Confederate and donned the butternut uniform of the South in January 1862. He agreed to minister to Gen. Sterling Price’s “Patriot Army of Missouri” even though he received no pay and officially, he was not mustered into the Confederate Army. A man of conscience, Bannon felt his place was with the Irishmen he had served as their pastor in St. Louis. Bannon remained in the field, mostly with the First Missouri Confederate Brigade until after the fall of Vicksburg, Miss., in July 1863.

Bannon gained the admiration of nearly everyone he encountered. A caring, stubborn, humorous and energetic man, he participated in every facet of military life, sometimes serving as a scout, obtaining provisions, securing lodgings, while at the same time keeping up a daily ministry to his men. Noticed usually for his holy actions or raucous laughter, the tall well-built Bannon was difficult to miss, even when motionless and silent. A soldier wrote in his diary, “Father Bannon’s … commanding figure enabled him to be recognized.”

The diaries of the men Bannon served abound in praise. “A noble man on the march … he always had an encouraging word and [stood] ready to help those who became exhausted & etc. I have seen him walking while some tired fellow was riding his horse.”

Bannon himself recognized the soldiers’ complaints about many other chaplains, who “were frequently objects of derision, always disappearing on the eve of an action.” Bannon assisted men in the danger of skirmish lines, battlefronts and all kinds of engagements. At Pea Ridge, Ark., he was seen tending to the wounded as bullets flew all around, “armed only with the viaticum [Eucharist] the tourniquet and with a bottle of whiskey.” Bannon was ready to offer a wounded man prayer, extreme unction (the last rites) or stronger liquid solace, as the need arose. The sacrament of confession often included a wounded man’s last words.

Armed with a bottle

Bannon frequently ministered to and befriended army leadership. At one point, Bannon offered a drink to an exhausted Gen. Price himself, saying, “Take a drop, ‘twill do you good, and then you can get a nap!” Gen. Dabney Maury of Price’s command recalls, “The good Father never drank a drop himself but he was indefatigable in his care for the wounded and wearied people and always carried into battle a quart of good whiskey.”

Price admired Bannon greatly. After the fighting at Cross Timber Hollow, Ark., Price wrote, “The greatest soldier I ever saw was Father Bannon. In the midst of the fray he would step in and take up a fallen soldier. If he were a Catholic, he would give him the rites of the church, if a Protestant and if he desired, he would baptize him.”

Bannon’s stubbornness startled Gen. Earl Van Dorn, who ordered him out of battle and to the rear to attend to the wounded there. Bannon responded, “I can attend to them later. I must attend now to those not able to be removed from the field.” Threatened with arrest for disobedience, Bannon replied, “I am doing God’s work, and He has no use for cowards or skulkers. A Catholic priest must do his duty, and never consider the time or place. If I am killed, I am not afraid to meet my fate. I am in God’s keeping. His holy will be done.”

An artilleryman

On the second day of fighting at the battle of Pea Ridge, on March 8, 1862, Bannon rapidly dismounted and leapt to the assistance of a struggling artillery crew of the First Missouri. Bannon’s practiced and efficient assistance allowed the gun’s crew to keep up a withering fire despite heavy losses. Bannon was now to be known as “the Fighting Chaplain.”

We do not know how often Bannon assisted artillery crews in battle, in a less than spiritual way, but we do know that Bannon practiced the various roles of artillerymen so that he could add his strong back to a short-handed crew when needed. On May 16, 1863, at Champion Hill, Miss., Bannon again jumped from his horse to become an artilleryman, this time assisting Guibor’s Missouri Battery. As before, he “helped them serve the guns in desperate emergencies.”

On July 13, 1862, Gen. Henry Little, CSA, Bannon’s good friend and technically his commanding officer, witnessed Bannon in his quiet, spiritual duty as he assisted a condemned man on his last day on Earth. James Doyle of the 2nd Tennessee had been tried by court-martial for desertion and condemned to die by firing squad. Bannon said Mass, distributed Communion, and listened to the condemned man’s confession and his last words until execution time arrived.

Despite Bannon’s valiant service to the Confederacy, he was not officially a member of the army and received no pay until Feb. 12, 1863. Confederate Secretary of War James A. Seddon appointed Bannon a chaplain of the Missouri regiment, which technically did not warrant a chaplain in its official manning plan. Bannon had served without 1 cent of pay for almost 13 months.

Siege of Vicksburg

“During the siege of Vicksburg, Father Bannon was daily at the breastworks and could not be kept away,” scribbled a soldier into his diary. At Vicksburg, Bannon faced his greatest challenge. He made a point of visiting his Missourians at the front daily, but he never forgot those hospitalized in town. He ate horse and rat meat (which the city folk called “ground squirrel”) before the siege would end.

Dr. John Leavy made note of Bannon when he wrote in his journal of “Father Bannon, the Catholic priest who accompanied the artillerymen of Guibor’s command [and] who joked and laughed with them in bivouac and went with them into action … and who prayed with the dying on the battlefield.”

During the Vicksburg siege, Union artillery shells frequently disrupted Mass, doctors in hospital, and every other activity. After one explosion in a hospital, a soldier wrote, “Father Bannon was unhurt, and by his quick action he rendered Dr. Britts, saving the doctor’s life by stopping the flow of blood.”

When a shell came screaming through the church during Mass, a soldier wrote, “The congregation [had risen] to rush out, but Father Bannon continued the service as though nothing unusual had happened.”

Leavy recounted a discussion with Bannon at City Hospital during the shelling. “While talking to me about the urgent necessity for attending to one’s religious duties and the uncertainty of life, a large fragment of shell came through the building, and struck a St. Louis boy in the hip, crushing the bones, and imbedding itself in the tissue.” Leavy attended to the wounded man’s bleeding. Bannon went to work to save his soul.

The soldiers also noticed Bannon’s daily treks to visit the men engaged with Grant’s army in the trenches surrounding Vicksburg. On one occasion, when summoned to assist the severely wounded at the height of the fighting, Bannon’s “magnificent black horse … started to gallop more than a mile to the position.” The observer noted “the troops on both sides, Federal and Confederate, struck by his heroism, started up from their trenches, ceased firing, and cheered him loudly.”

Father John Bannon left an indelible imprint on many men.

Back to Ireland

After Vicksburg, Bannon traveled east to Richmond. Here, Jefferson Davis persuaded him to make the perilous trip to Ireland and to persuade the Irish to stop their migration to the Union side. Irishmen upon arrival in New York or Boston were easily recruited into the Union Army with cash enticements and the promise of regular pay. The Confederacy desperately wanted to stop this influx of new men into the Union Army. Bannon had become a diplomat.

John Bannon went to Ireland at the behest of his government. And he traveled to Rome in an effort to persuade the pope to recognize the Confederacy. But Bannon’s final service to the Confederate government failed to change the outcome of the war.

Because of the ever-tightening Union blockade of the Confederacy, Bannon was unable to return to his adoptive home. After the war ended, authorities in St. Louis made sure John Bannon would never again be allowed to preach in his beloved city.

Bannon would live out his days in Ireland after joining the renowned Jesuit order of Catholic priests. St. Ignatius Loyola, a Basque nobleman and soldier, who found God in all things, started the Jesuits, or more formally the Society of Jesus, in 1540. This militaristic order was perfect for Father John Bannon, who found God even in America’s most horrific war.

John Bannon: an ordinary Irish farm boy who became a heroic soldier, priest, diplomat and servant of the people of God.

John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.


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