Neither Blue nor Gray – Dominican Chaplains in the Civil War

November 4, 2012

Two soldiers at a 50th Gettysburg reunion – Smithsonian

The Province of St. Joseph has been blessed with many military chaplains in its history, most recently Fr. Edward Gorman, OP and Fr. Joseph Scordo, OP both having served in Iraq. But the tradition goes back to the earliest times of the Province in the time of the Civil War. Of course at the time the Province was split between Ohio (Union), Kentucky (neutral), and Tennessee (Confederate). One could imagine that this would cause serious divisions and tensions within the Province between the different loyalties — but that appears not to have happened. As Fr. John Vidmar, OP says in his history of the Province*: “Priests ministered on both sides of the divide, and sometimes ministered to soldiers of both armies.” Frs. Luigi Orengo, OP and John Nealis, OP were known for ministering to troops within their parish boundaries as they passed through.

Fr. Joseph Jarboe, OP

Two fathers did serve alongside the Armies, one for the Confederate forces and the other for the Union army. Fr. Joseph Thomas Jarboe, OP was ordered to leave his parish in Zanesville, Ohio and report to Memphis, Tennesse for assignment “entirely without his looking for it.” Although we do not know much about his service, there is a wonderful story of his battlefield courage. At the battle of Shiloh while Fr. Jarboe was cutting the shoes off a Confederate solider’s feet to anoint him a bullet knocked the knife out from his hands! This did not disturb him, for he continued with the anointing, finishing the job with the solider’s own knife, which he carried with him for the rest of his life to remember the man and their exchange. He was later arrested on the battlefield while helping other wounded soliders and barely escaped execution for being a spy (!) when he was recognized by a convert named John G. Keys. He was sent back to Ohio and did not return to the war.

Fr. Constantine Louis Egan, OP had a more sustained involvement with the war; he was one of only two full-time chaplains in the Union Army, working with the Ninth Massachusetts Volunteers. He saw plenty of action, including the bloody Battle of the Wilderness where 150 men of his unit were killed or wounded in a ten-minute period. One can only imagine the spiritual service he was able to render to these men in their final moments. One of the soldiers reflected:

“Father Egan was a true priest and chaplain and a noble-hearted Christian gentleman, greatly beloved by all the regiment and highly respected throughout the Fifth Corps and the Army… wherever his priestly duties called him in the army, there he was to be found: in the camps, hospitals and on the battlefield… His presence and priestly service was, indeed, a blessing at times to the wounded, the dying and the distressed.”

Fr. Constantine Egan, OP

After his Massachusetts unit was disbanded he was commissioned by President Lincoln to serve in the Fifth and Ninth Corps until the end of the war. As a fitting end to his service and a sign of his impartiality towards all men from whichever side of the fighting, he was able to minister to a fallen Confederate soldier, shot by his own officer, on the final day of the war. We have his own description of the event:

“I alighted from my horse and went over to him to aid him spiritually if he wished, and if not, at least to render him all the temporal aid I could in consequence of his great suffering… Examining the wound, I found it was fatal, and from his agony and suffering I concluded that the poor fellow had not long to live; I told him so and entreated him now to fight the last battle for Heaven. I asked him if he had been baptized, he replied in the negative. I told him that baptism was necessary in order to go to heaven, and he seemed willing to be baptized after the instructions I gave him. Then, laying hold of a canteen of water, I baptized him ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.'”

Fr. Egan had no concern for which temporal side the soldiers were on; he was worried about the eternal side they were choosing, even in the midst of battle. This impartiality and charity won him the highest commendation a chaplain can receive in his obituary:

“In the thickest of the raging battle, amid the hail of shot and shell and charge of horse and bayonet he was to be seen wherever there was a wounded or dying soldier. He never cared for himself. To him Blue and Gray were alike and to them alike did he administer the sacraments of God.”

St. Paul said in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” May God continue to call chaplains like Frs. Jarboe and Egan, who saw no distinction between Blue and Gray.

*Most of this material is found in Fr. John Vidmar’s excellent history of the Province: Fr. Fenwick’s “Little American Province”

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