Patrick J. HAYES, editor. The Civil War Diary of Father James Sheeran, Confederate Chaplain and Redemptorist. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2016. pp. 596. $29.95 pb. ISBN 978-0813228822. Reviewed by Karen TEEL, University of San Diego, San Diego, CA 92110.


Patrick J. Hayes has produced a complete edition of Redemptorist Father James Sheeran’s Civil War diary, which was penned between August 1, 1862, and April 24, 1865. Since few such documents survive, this diary has long been of interest to historians and religion scholars, and its publication means that they need no longer visit archives in order to access it. The informative editorial introduction discusses Hayes’s unsuccessful attempt to identify which—if any—surviving manuscript of the diary is the original, as well as the possibility that someone other than Sheeran actually wrote the diary. The volume concludes with the brief autobiography that Sheeran wrote upon entering the Redemptorist order in 1856.

While few factual details are confirmable by civil and religious records, the introduction and autobiography provide a clear outline of Sheeran’s life. James Sheeran was born in Ireland before 1820 and immigrated to the United States as a young man. He married a woman named Margaret, and they had three children, Isabella, Sylvester, and John. Seeking access to Catholic religious instruction and sacraments, Sheeran moved his family from Pennsylvania to Michigan, which had an established Redemptorist presence. By the 1850s, both Margaret and Sylvester had died. Not feeling able to raise the remaining children without female help, Sheeran committed Isabella and John to the care of Catholic schools and became a Redemptorist priest. He served as a chaplain in the Confederate army, left the Redemptorists in 1871, and died in 1881 as pastor of the Church of the Assumption in Morristown, New Jersey.

Father Sheeran joined the 14th Louisiana Volunteers in August 1861, a year before the diary begins. During that first year, he recorded his observations in letters that are no longer extant. Chaplain Sheeran clearly worked hard to provide the sacraments for the soldiers in trying battlefield conditions. He seems to have thrived on this challenge. Indeed, he was intensely interested in the maneuvers and battle engagements of the Confederate regiment in which he was embedded. The diary largely consists of detailed descriptions of these events, and the editor provides annotations with additional information, especially in the rare case when Father Sheeran’s facts do not quite match other historical accounts.

From time to time, Father Sheeran also records his reflections on the social and political circumstances of his day. This commentary can be very revealing. For example, when alluding to the reality of white enslavement and denigration of people of African descent, Father Sheeran consistently displays the white attitude typical of the time: he is dismissive and sometimes openly contemptuous of people deemed black. (We can assume that Sheeran frames his thoughts with some candidness, as he opens the journal with the request that it never be shared outside his own religious community.) Today, measurable racial inequities continue to shape US society, yet many would view Sheeran’s racist attitude as un-American, un-Christian, and altogether unbefitting a Catholic army chaplain. Unfortunately, no contextualizing information is provided for these themes.

This hefty volume—Hayes reports that the original journal totaled 1,656 pages—will prove invaluable for historians and anyone wanting a glimpse into the everyday workings of the mind of a white Catholic Confederate Army chaplain. In addition to the explanatory notes on military matters, the volume features an extensive general index and an index of places. A handful of area maps, scattered throughout the volume, illustrate individual battles, such as Harpers Ferry and Gettysburg. For readers not intimately familiar with Civil War geography, the narrative would be easier to follow if the volume also included a map showing the 14th Louisiana Volunteers’ overall route. Perhaps this element will be added in a future edition.