Monday, December 31, 2018

"Almost" Christians: Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee

   Recently, I finished reading A Frenchman, A Chaplain, A Rebel: The War Letters of Pere Louis-Hippolyle Gache, S. J. (1981). Goche was born in France and later became a Jesuit priest. He immigrated to the United States in 1847, leaving behind a region smoldering in anti-Jesuit sentiment. Gache was recruited to work at Spring Hill College near Mobile, Alabama. However, he also served in various parishes in Louisiana. When the war came, Gache was assigned as a chaplain in the 10th Louisiana Infantry, and soon found himself on the Peninsula below Richmond. After a year of service, Gache was reassigned as a hospital chaplain in Lynchburg, Virginia. (His compiled service record, listing his last name as Guache, stated he was assigned to a hospital in Danville on August 29, 1862. However, all of his subsequent letters come from Lynchburg.)

   Without going into centuries' worth of religious history, it will suffice to say that Gache had no use for Protestants. Writing in January 1862 from a camp near Yorktown, Gache described to those back at Spring Hill College his encounter with a local pastor: "The Baptist minister visits me every time I stay at the Ewells. He tries to get me to come and visit him, offering me the use of his library and, if it had not been converted into a hospital, his church. He truly treats me as a brother, but I'm not going to give him any encouragement. I take advantage of every occasion to tell him and the others of his ilk that I don't see them under any other aspect than as gentlemen, but that certainly I don't consider them as ministers of the Gospel." (95)

   In another exchange between himself and Father Philip de Carriere, Gache chides Carriere for using the term "Catholic chaplain." "And what do you mean by 'the Catholic chaplain?' Are there any other chaplains than Catholic chaplains? Is it your intention to acknowledge an ecclesiastic character on the souls of the so-called Protestant ministers? If you do, you are simply a heretic..." (155)

   The death of Stonewall Jackson obviously presented a challenge to Gache. He had recently bemoaned the death of "Four or five" young men who had died "without making any express profession of Catholicism." (162) Jackson was a member of the Presbyterian church. Gache wrote that Jackson, "in his own way... was a very good Christian. The face of this austere Presbyterian expressed all the characteristics of a devout member of that sect; yet, he was not a bigot--at least so far as I have heard. He often remarked publically that it was in God that he put his confidence, and after each victory he always ordered the chaplains under his command to offer prayers of thanksgiving." Jackson, after his wounding, and being told that he would die, "expressed sorrow for his sins. Since he was probably in good faith, one can hope that his pious sentiments must have led him to an act of perfect contrition. Surely, He who so loves to bestow mercy, must have bestowed it abundantly on this man."

    Likewise, Gache took time to write about Robert E. Lee: "General Lee is also very religious, not in an ostentatious and wordy manner, but sincerely and genuinely... The general is an Episcopalian, but at the same time he is, as are almost all of the men of his class, very favorable toward Catholics and he has the greatest esteem for them." Gache goes on to talk about the Catholic leanings of Joseph E. Johnston, former secretary of War George W. Randolph, and Varina Davis. (176-180)

   Gache's disdain for Protestants never seems to fade after the mercy he almost shows for Jackson and Lee. He talks of "dethroning a Presbyterian minister" in June 1863, a man trying to work with wounded soldiers in Lynchburg hospitals.  (190) In December 1864 he makes mention of the two Catholic and four Protestant chaplains at work in the Lynchburg hospitals. The Protestant chaplains "have filled the hospital with an assortment of sectarian books and newspapers which are used by the sisters and myself for lighting our fires..." (210) In this same December 1864 letter, he speaks of a Protestant minister who invited himself to preach to the wounded and sick men. It was apparently against post regulations to preach in the wards. The post commander, a man Gache believed was "far from being a Catholic, but who is nevertheless a man who despises all Protestant ministers," agreed to allow the Protestant chaplain the use of the courtyard at 4:40 pm on Wednesday. After starting the service at 4:45, he was interrupted by the dinner bell at 5:00 pm. All "of the congregation was at the table and the preacher was left alone, his arms outstretched and his mouth gaping, still standing on the grassy mound. You ought to have seen the dismay and astonishment of that disciple of Calvin as he picked up his books, put on his hat and walked away." (211-212)

   It is not my purpose to reignite in this post the great schisms that have taken place over the centuries between the Catholics and Protestants. For generations, Catholics were treated with a great degree of skepticism in this country, and it was not really until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1961 that some of that skepticism began to fade. To be honest, save for the work of the Sisters of Charity, I'm really not very familiar with much of the role of the Catholic church in the South during the war. This is the first set of war-time letters that I have read from a Catholic priest. Are there others? (Yes, there are a few.) I am much more familiar with the works of Protestant chaplains such as Alexander Betts, Basil Manly, J. William Jones, and W. W. Bennett. It is interesting to note that Gache never makes mention the great revivals that swept through the Army of Northern Virginia in the winter encampments of 1862-1863 and 1863-1864. But then again, Jones, in Christ in the Camp, never makes mention of Gache or Catholic chaplains.

   Gache survived the war. He served in a number Jesuit colleges and parishes until 1904, but he never returned to the South. He died in 1907, at the age of 91, in the hospital of Saint Jean-de-Dieu, Montreal, and is buried at St. Andrew-on-Hudson near Hyde Park, New York.

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