Tales from a Monk in the Union Army: Petersburg

This is the first of a series.

In 1864, the United States army was perhaps as diverse as it ever had been. By then, blacks, whites, Republicans, Democrats, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews all served side by side in defense of the Union. But one member of the Army of the Potomac, Pvt. Bonaventure Gaul, did not find pleasure in doing so.

St. Vincent Abbey and College, c. 1855. Saint Vincent Archabbey Archives.

Gaul was one of six Catholic Benedictine monks from Saint Vincent monastery in Latrobe, Pennsylvania that were drafted into service in July 1863. Despite the protests of Abbot Boniface Wimmer, the brothers (Ildephonse Hoffmann, George Held, Ulrich Barth, Leo Christ, Gallus Maier, and Gaul) reported to the 61st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry in the VI Corps, Army of the Potomac on July 14. Following their arrival, an order from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton relegated the monks to hospital duty and released them from shouldering arms in combat. However, Gaul expressed his dissatisfaction with such a responsibility. “We have no service [at arms] but we still have to participate in all the difficulties of war,” he wrote.[1]

A native German who emigrated to the United States with Catholic missionary aspirations, Gaul had little stake in the American Civil War. In his letters back home to Saint Vincent, he compared the war to a fight over a “beer glass” and determined that its cause did not justify the suffering it incurred. “The people are very frightened of the war but understand nothing,” he wrote. Gaul also made no secret of the displeasure he took in fighting what he viewed as the Protestants’ war. “I do not gladly see a confrere as a soldier,” he mused in a letter to one of his fellow Benedictines.[2]

Br. Ulric Barth, O.S.B. was one of Gaul’s close friends from St. Vincent drafted into the 61st Pennsylvania. Saint Vincent Archabbey Archives.

In the spring of 1864, Gaul served through the bloodiest campaign of the war (Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign) and tended to casualties of the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, and Cold Harbor. By summer, he found himself slogging through the trenches of Petersburg. “I have gone through many hard times, but this gypsy life outdoes it all,” he confessed to a fellow monk at Saint Vincent.[3]

As the armies settled in for a siege, Gaul made no hesitation in expressing his discontent with his situation. “Since the beginning of the war, nothing has been achieved,” he groaned. “General Grant sacrifices all but has not gained Richmond. The Southerners will reach Washington sooner.”[4] Gaul’s assessment of the situation might seem melodramatic, since the Union army was closest to Richmond since the summer of 1862. However, the Southerners that Gaul referred to were Lt. Gen. Jubal Early’s Confederate army, which had begun marching rapidly into Maryland and threatening Washington, D.C. He also called attention to Grant’s reputation for taking high casualties, which garnered him the nickname “The Butcher.”[5]

In his letters, Gaul noted an apparent prejudice in the Union army toward Catholics, especially during the Petersburg Campaign. “All have their religious services in the field around [this] place, just not the Catholics. [. . .] Without the reception of the holy Sacrament, in which so much blessing and strength is contained, it is hard to go without. A prisoner in a penitentiary has it better than we in this case,” he lamented. While both armies contained a diverse amalgamation of races, classes, and religions, most soldiers (both North and South) adhered to some form of Protestantism. Gaul, therefore, constituted a minority and therefore lacked the privileges of other soldiers. “As soon as I can free myself from this yoke, I will have no guilty conscience,” he professed.[6]

Map of the Kautz-Wilson raid in late June 1864. Gaul witnessed the battle at Ream’s Station on June 29, just south of Petersburg. Wikipedia.

On June 29, Gaul marched to Ream’s Station with the 61st Pennsylvania to “open a line of retreat for the Cavalry Divisions under command of Generals [James H.] Wilson and [August] Kautz,” who had completed a raid on the South Side Railroad. “The rebels came on foot,” Gaul remembered, “the cavalry fled and left the infantry behind, which did not yield.” The Pennsylvanians held but were ultimately “rubbed out by the rebels,” the monk stated. He went on to claim that most of the Hundred Days Men (soldiers recruited for a period of 100 days) “are not worth gunpowder.” Though these soldiers fulfilled routine duties as guards, laborers, and reserves, they sometimes saw battlefield combat. “If they were like our men [here] at Petersburg, no rebel would venture over the border. They run right away—so it was with some of the boys here on our retreat,” the monk recalled.[7] Despite Gaul’s unfavorable opinion of the war, he took great pride in knowing that his 61st Pennsylvania was a veteran unit and performed accordingly to its reputation.

However, he remained pessimistic about the conflict in general. “Our war has not yet reached its goal, in that more than 200,000 men have already been slaughtered in the past four months and we have come not one step further,” he stated, echoing the thoughts of many Americans. “The Yankees put up with everything for the sake of the Union. One has to marvel.” Whether Gaul wanted to or not, he would see the war through to its bitter end.

To be continued.


[1] Letter from Brother Bonaventure Gaul, 1864, translated by Fr. Warren D. Murrman, O.S.B., VH-41, “Letters of Civil War,” Archives of St. Vincent Archabbey.

[2] Letter from Brother Bonaventure Gaul, 1864, ASVA.

[3] Letter from Brother Bonaventure Gaul, 1864, ASVA.

[4] Letter from Brother Bonaventure Gaul, 1864, ASVA.

[5] Letter from Brother Bonaventure Gaul, 1864, ASVA; Phil Greenwalt, “They Called Grant a Butcher. But can a butcher have regrets?” Hallowed Ground Magazine, Fall 2018, 28-31.

[6] Letter from Brother Bonaventure Gaul, 1864, ASVA.

[7] Samuel Bates, History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5: Vol. II (Harrisburg: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869), 413; Letter from Brother Bonaventure Gaul, 1864, ASVA.

24 Responses to Tales from a Monk in the Union Army: Petersburg

  1. This is a fascinating story, thank you for sharing and I’m looking forward to the following article and how he fared in 1865.
    I have a very good book discussing UK conscientious objectors during WW1, many Quakers and people with strict religious and moral views.

    1. There’s one more coming up in October about his experience in the Shenandoah Valley, so stay tuned!

  2. Really excellent article. Was unaware there was not some form of religious exemption. Also interesting to read a non Irish Catholic.

  3. A revelation to me. I have always read that no Catholic clergy were ever drafted into the Union Army (or are Brothers not considered clergy?). Are these letters available online? Looking forward to Part Two.

    1. I would guess that in this case the lay brothers were not considered clergy. Their draft papers list their monastic duties as “miller” or “cobbler” as their occupations, rather than their religious vocation. The letters are unfortunately not available online, but maybe they will be one day!

  4. I echo everyone’s reaction to this engaging article. A wonderful story written in a compelling manner. Can’t wait to read the rest of the story. (To coin a phrase) Being a Catholic, I find it interesting and disturbing at the same time that Catholics were either ignored or downright discriminated against in the AOP.

    1. This was not that long after the horrific nativist anti immigration riots in many, mostly northern cities, as well as a particularly bad one in Baltimore.

      1. and similar riots in Philadelphia as well during the 1840s.

      2. thanks Evan … great essay and a equally impressive bit of scholarship finding Civil War primary sources in a Benedictine Abbey in western Pennsylvania … how did you happen across PVT Gaul’s letters?

    2. That was certainly the case from Gaul’s point of view, but there are other accounts of discrimination toward Catholics as well.

    3. Mark- I got my undergrad at Saint Vincent College (adjacent to the abbey) and became privy to the letters in the archives. They hadn’t been cited in almost 100 years, so with the help of a Benedictine priest, we translated them from Old German Script to English.

  5. Given the opposition of the monks and their abbot to being drafted, why didn’t they pay the commutation fee to get them released from service? Most men, rich or poor, who were drafted were able to do so, either with their own money or their communities. Their order must have been very poor or isolated from the community.

    1. The Abbey likely could not afford to pay for all of their members to be exempted. However, they prioritized exempting their priests over their lay brothers, hence why Gaul and his fellow monks had to report for duty.

  6. Will, I was wondering the same thing, but then I read that Abbot Boniface Wimmer wrote to Stanton in June 1863 that since all the money it received from the King of Bavaria had been used up in charitable enterprises in the United States, it could not possibly afford to pay for exemptions for all of his community. In March 1864 the commutation provision was abolished, which made the price of hiring a substitute skyrocket. However, that would not have affected Brother Gaul, because he was drafted in 1863.

    1. Stanton, the Union Carnot, would not have been impressed or swayed by assertions of charitable expenditures. Man of Iron, if slightly brittle.

  7. Did you know the Benedictines were also at Mission San Jose in San Antonio Texas in the 1850’s-1860’s. The mission and others are part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.
    Here is a link to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park http://www.nps.gov/saan

    Approximately 3,000 of 6,000 florins from King Louis of Bavaria was for use in San Antonio, where according to Fr. Francois Bouchu (not a Benedictine) there were roughly 1000 German-speaking Roman Catholics, 1000 English speaking Roman Catholics, and 8,000 Spanish speaking Roman Catholics.

    At Mission San Juan visitor contact station there are photos of the Germans speakers, church, etc, plus the national historical park contains ruins of the Berg’s Mill for which the community is still named.

    1. I did know that the Benedictines were in San Antonio but did not know it was an NPS unit! By 1861, the Benedictines were basically all over the continent.

      1. I work at San Antonio Missions NHP. Please contact me privately regarding the Benedictines at Mission San Jose.

  8. There was anti-Catholic bias in both armies, but Catholics were welcomed in the Confederate army more so. Fr. James Sheeran, chaplain to the 14th La. Inf. encountered some bias, but it was generally more a polite sort of inquiries. And he was always respected. But, of course, the Conf had manpower issues the North never had to face.

    1. Manpower issues as well as cultural and political differences. I don’t think the South was as divided on issues of nativism like the North, at least during the war.

      Sheeran’s diary is an interesting read; he actually ran into one of the St. Vincent Benedictines that served in the Confederate army when Sheeran was temporarily transferred to Bragg’s army.

      1. No, probably not. At least in Sheeran’s case, he was always accepted by many various groups of people in and out of the Confederate army. The only pushback he received – if we can call it that – was relatively polite questions about Catholicism from folks who apparently had no experience with the so-called “papists.”

      2. So that was his encounter with Fr. Bliemel, who apparently made a bad impression. But, Fr. Sheeran never explained what the perceived problem was with Fr. Bliemel – except that he was not “fancy.”

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