In July 2013, I was honoured to give an oration at the graveside of Fr. John Bannon. The following, though long, is the text of my speech. Regards, Liam. (This post is part of a week-long series I've titled, 'Their Stories, Our Heritage, Not Forgotten', in honor of Irish Heritage Week 2020.)
For Fr. John Bannon SJ; 1st Missouri Confederate Brigade 1861-1863 Remembered at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Republic of Ireland, Saturday, July 13th 2013
“Members of Glasnevin Trust, the Jesuit Community, members of the public and fellow “Pards”. Let me first begin by acknowledging and giving sincere thanks to Father Tom Leyden, Superior of the Jesuit Order and George McCullough, Glasnevin Trust for their kind permission to allow us to gather here today to honour Father John Bannon on the centenary anniversary of his death. Thank you all.
Born on December 29, 1829, in Rooskey, County Roscommon, John Bannon would become one of the leading lights of the Confederate cause in Ireland.
He began his clerical studies in 1847 and was ordained six years later. Shortly after, the new cleric opted to administer his duties in the far-off city of St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A., at that time home to approximately 10,000 Irishmen.
A noted hard-worker amongst the Irish poor, especially in an area known as the “Kerry Patch,” so-called due to the large number of Kerry and Cork natives living there, Father Bannon was to the forefront of fundraising for a new church, named St. John the Apostle and was the chief supervisor of its construction.
By the late 1850s when war fever was taking hold across America, Father Bannon, like many of his parishioners, joined a local militia unit, “The Washington Blues” commanded by Captain Kelly and when war was declared, Father Bannon was appointed as chaplain of 1st Missouri Confederate Brigade, under the command of General Sterling Price. The priest quickly endeared himself to the troops and General Officers by regularly putting himself in the line of fire and disregarding any personnel danger. Father Bannon, at the Battle of Pea Ridge, even disobeyed the Confederate army commander Earl van Dorn, who was told by the cleric:
"General, I serve a much higher rank than you!”
The Irishman was allowed to continue his work on the battlefield.
Times of battle proved to the busiest for Father Bannon: Before a battle, he was to be found moving from campfire to campfire hearing the confessions of the many Irish within the ranks of the Missouri brigade; during the battle, he was to be seen going to tend and give comfort, as best he could, to the wounded, while in the aftermath of the fight, he was administering the last rites to those who had died.
(Left: Siege of Vicksburg by Kurz and Allison.)
He was among the Confederate prisoners taken at Vicksburg in July 1863. Paroled the following month at Mobile, Alabama, he traveled to Richmond, Virginia, where he was invited to a meeting with Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. At this meeting, he was asked by the president to undertake, on behalf of the Confederacy, a mission to his native land and discourage his fellow countrymen from enlisting in the Union army. Prior to this, he was asked to take a letter, from Davis, to the Vatican and His Holiness Pope Pius IX seeking papal intercession.
Although no formal recognition of the Confederacy was received from the Vatican, Father Bannon was asked to forward a letter from His Holiness addressed to “The Illustrious and Honourable Jefferson Davis, President Confederate States of America” -- this, in diplomatic terms, (was thought to be) a “de facto” recognition of the Confederacy as an independent state and caused a huge uproar in the United States.
Father John Bannon set foot, once again, on his native land in late October 1863 and threw himself, zealously, into his cause, but before taking some time to contact the relatives of some 50 of his former Missouri comrades to inform them of their deaths
In the following months, Bannon traveled the length and breadth of Ireland urging any Irish thinking of emigrating NOT to join the Union army, he had thousands of hand-bills printed with a similar message and organized their distribution at the many seaports around Ireland. Further to this, he had posters printed and distributed to every church in the land; this poster displayed the exchange of letters between President Davis and the Pope and was joined by the following words, which Father Bannon himself, wrote:
“As a priest of the Catholic Church, I am anxious to see the desires of the Holy Father realized speedily – therefore I have taken this means to lay before you the expression of his sentiments on the subject of the American War, knowing that no Catholic will persevere in the advocacy of an aggression condemned by his Holiness.”
By May 1864, when Father Bannon’s mission in Ireland ceased, the enlistment of Irishmen in the Union army had dropped by two-thirds. He duly advised Confederate Secretary of War Judah Benjamin that his funds were depleted; Bannon was allowed to leave the service with the thanks of the secretary and a bonus of $3,000.
August 1864 saw Father Bannon enter the Jesuit Seminary at Milltown and was soon appointed to St. Francis Xavier parish in Dublin. He remained there, carrying out his priestly duties, even being made superior of the parish between 1884-89. Bannon never forgot his wartime experiences and never lost his admiration for the Confederacy and, while he rarely spoke publicly about the war in America, it seems that he often regaled Jesuit students with stories of his time there to such an extent that they became so enthused, the older man was ordered by the Jesuit superior to stop such talk. As the years passed by, Father Bannon was visited on many occasions by former Missouri comrades, traveling Europe. These men made it a point to pay a visit to Ireland, especially to meet with their former chaplain and these meetings went on for many hours.
Fr. John Bannon died, early on the morning of July 14, 1913. His funeral was attended by over 80 priests representing different orders, churches, parishes and dioceses throughout Ireland at the very spot where we stand today.
Fr. JOHN BANNON SJ; December 1829 – July 1913.
At this point, Sgt. McAlister stepped out again to end the proceeding with this verse from the pen of Theodore O’Hara, Col. 33rd Alabama Inf., C.S.A.:
On Fame’s Eternal Camping Ground
Their Silent Tents Are Spread
And Glory Guards With Solemn Round
The Bivouac of the Dead