Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review--Notre Dame and the Civil War

Schmidt, James M. Notre Dame and the Civil War: Marching Onward to Victory. The History Press, Charleston, SC. 2010. 142 pages, notes, b/w photos. ISBN 9781596298798. $19.99.

Notre Dame and the Civil War (IN): Marching Onward to VictoryWhen it comes to big name schools there are a few that will get mentioned by almost everybody. At the top of many lists will be Notre Dame. While much of this is due to the legacy created by Knute Rockne and the football program he and others were instrumental in creating, the university is of course MUCH more than that.

Author Jim Schmidt has written an enjoyable, fascinating, and needed book dealing with Notre Dame and the contribution it's students and administrators made during the Civil War. The culmination of more than a decades research Schmidt has proven that the young college did more than just contribute Father Corby to the war effort.

We begin with a short history of Notre Dame beginning with it's founding in 1844 by Father Edward Sorin. Also critical during the early years was Mother Angela Gillespie and the Holy Cross sisters. The first bachelor's degree was granted in 1849.

The book is broken into logical chapters each of which deal with a different aspect of Notre Dame's contribution to the war. In one chapter we learn the origin of the word chaplain and that there were only approximately 30 Catholic chaplains out of more than 300 in the Union army. Notre Dame contributed seven of which three perished either directly or indirectly due to the war. While Father Corby, of the famed general absolution speech, is probably the most widely known the others including Father Gillen and his portable "cathedral" and Father Dillon and his temperance campaign made a strong showing and earned the respect of those around them. Schmidt points out the anti-Catholic bias of the time and how the bravery of these men helped lessen this.

Notre Dame contributed more than 60 nuns who served as nurses during the war. The conditions these women endured were horrible but Schmidt ably points out how the religious vows taken by these women served them well under trying conditions. In fact the experiences they gained allowed the The Sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame to expand their mission to health care which is still carried on today.

Perhaps the most famous association between Notre Dame and the Civil War comes from somebody who was neither a student nor a Father there. William T. Sherman and his wife Ellen sent their older children to Notre Dame prep schools as Ellen was impressed with "the campus, academics, and, of course, the religious training." (p. 62). Just after the completion of the war Sherman was visiting when he was asked to deliver remarks at the commencement. He gave some unprepared remarks in which he reminded the students of self reliance and a belief in Union and God. Sherman held the institution in such high regard that he eventually donated his family papers which now reside in the University of Notre Dame Archives.

As the war dragged on longer than any originally thought possible problems began popping up for colleges across the country. Fiscal problems were first and foremost in most minds. With declining enrollments and rampant inflation many schools were in dire straits with many closing their doors. While there may have been concerns Notre Dame actually fared well in this regard. With its distance from the main areas of fighting Notre Dame was actually able to increase its overall number of students when looked at across all programs. Not surprisingly much of this increase came from students living in border or Confederate states where much of the fighting took place. An interesting statistical analysis is provided.

The book is nicely wrapped up with a chapter dealing with monuments relating to Notre Dame and the Civil War. From the Notre Dame campus to Gettysburg to Washington D.C. and other places, statues and memorials to the brave men and women from Notre Dame can be visited.

This is an interesting book and a must read for anybody interested in the history of the University of Notre Dame and also anybody with an interest in the Civil War. The chapters are easy to read and the book can be read as a whole or the chapters as stand alones. The book is well illustrated with b/w photos both vintage and modern. End notes wrap up the work nicely. There is no bibliography included but Mr. Schmidt has provided a full accounting on his blog which I recommend you visit.

Please also be sure to check back as I will be conducting an interview with Mr. Schmidt in the very near future.

Thanks go to Katie Parry at The History Press for providing a complimentary review copy!

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