Book Review: “The Civil War Diary of Father James Sheeran: Confederate Chaplain and Redemptorist”

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James Sheeran, a chaplain for the 14th Louisiana Infantry, wrote in his collection of diary and letters, “If perchance this manuscript should fall into the hand of any person unacquainted with me, I ask as a favor, that it may be destroyed, as it was never intended for the public eye.” The Civil War community can rejoice that no one heeded that request.

    Sheeran and his diary are familiar to those who study the Army of Northern Virginia. Throughout the 20th century a couple of editions of his diary were published, and have been oft-quoted since. However, a new edition of the diary has hit the shelves, and this copy is without a doubt, the most thorough of any before it. The Civil War Diary of Father James Sheeran: Confederate Chaplain and Redemptorist, edited by Patrick Hayes and published by The Catholic University Press of America is a hefty tome. And for good reason too; previous editions of Sheeran’s manuscript only “printed several long extracts. . . but these were highly selective,” or “Sheeran’s own voice is frequently subordinated to the editor’s commentary,” Hayes explains in an introduction (7).

Hayes’ edition of the manuscript however, does neither. The book picks up where Sheeran did in his diary, in the late summer of 1862 before the Second Manassas Campaign and goes all the way through to the end of the war, leaving nothing out. Hayes’ commentary is confined to unobtrusive footnotes at the bottom of the page. By including everything, and not just battle passages that may read faster, the editors of this edition have ensured that researchers and scholars can get a feel for daily life in the Army of Northern Virginia.

Sheeran’s voice shines through the text, with minimal editorial corrections to spellings or grammar. His opinions read as one would expect from a die-hard Confederate—for example, when Sheeran learned of Lincoln’s assassination, he dismissively wrote, “He is summoned before his God” (553). Of the first time he saw Stonewall Jackson, Sheeran wrote, ‘Such was his plain attire that, had I not been informed, I never would have taken him for a commissioned officer” (15).

Beyond the daily impressions of life within the Confederate army, readers can also get a glimpse into the life of a religious figure of the time. As the United States fought the Civil War only a couple of generations removed from the Second Great Awakening, religion played a large role to the soldiers and civilians alike thrown into the conflict. Sheeran, a Remptorist of the Catholic Church, thus frequently talks of performing mass to gathered soldiers and attending to the wounded; Sheeran paid special attention to giving Last Rites to dying men of the Union Irish Brigade following the battle of Chancellorsville (165).

With the end of the war comes the end of the diary, but Hayes has included an appendix consisting of Sheeran’s vocational autobiography; as Hayes explains, “In Sheeran’s time, every young man who entered the Redemptorist novitiate was asked to write a short biography of his vocation, or call, to the religious life” (555). This appendix added more interesting reading as Sheeran explains his personal background and his family, which helps to flesh out his personality.

Thus, even for those who may already own a copy of an earlier edition of Sheeran’s writings, this new book has enough new material to warrant buying a copy. It is perfect for those studying religion in 19th century America or for those Army of Northern Virginia aficionados who want another primary source to put on their book shelf.

James Sheeran, The Civil War Diary of Father James Sheeran: Confederate Chaplain and Redemptorist, edited by Patrick J. Hayes.

The Catholic University Press of America, 2016

596 Pages, Index.

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