(This is a edited version of my presentation made to the Ottawa Civil War Round Table in Oct 2017.)
Born in Marigny, in the Normandy region of France on April 12, 1813, Isidore Francois Turgis (pronounced ‘turzjee’) loved the classics and the Church. He was ordained on May 31, 1846. During the Crimean War he attempted to served as a chaplain, but was rejected for physical reasons. However, while his flesh was frail, Father Turgis had a spirit of pure steel and his persistence was rewarded in 1857 with an appointment to the Corps of Chaplains. During the Second Italian War of Independence he served with the French army at the battles of Montebello, Palestro, Magenta, Crossing of the Tessin, Marignan, and Solferino. He also served with the French army in Cochin China (Vietnam).
Throughout the 1850s and 60s in France, the french translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a very popular read. The book brought about a moral revolution in people’s souls that swept across France and inculcated a strong anti-American South sentiment among liberals. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings. Everyone literally wept as they read it. One, who was so deeply moved after reading the book, was Fr. Turgis. The 47 year old war chaplain veteran and anti-slavery advocate was so affected, that he left immediately for America to live among and minister to the black slaves of Louisiana.
After the American and French revolutions, some European countries had made slavery illegal. Rome responded with an ambiguous pronouncement against the slave trade. American bishops construed the papal decree to mean a ban on the Atlantic slave trade only. Some American bishops even defended the institution of slavery on moral, theological and practical grounds. Hence the Catholic laity of the South based their white supremacist views on both ecclesiastical and regional norms.
Fr. Turgis, arriving in New Orleans in 1860 had little notion of the conflict that was about to engulf them all. Somewhat unexpectedly he found himself appointed to the staff of the St Louis (New Orleans) Cathedral. He still intended to minister to slaves, as there were many free blacks among the cathedral’s congregation.
The sub region of New Orleans and South Louisiana is the one place in the south where the Catholic influence prevailed. New Orleans, the capital city of the slave south, cultivated an attitude of white supremacy of heightened magnitude. The Catholic population joined the Confederate Army for the same reasons their fellow Protestant southerners did – honour, states’ rights, loyalty to home, property rights, perpetuation of slavery and the preservation of white liberties and supremacy.
Amidst the many colourful and unruly regiments formed in New Orleans in the lead up to the American Civil War was the Orleans Guard, a unit of elite white Creoles. After Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26, 1861, the colourful Louisiana creole native Gen P. G. T. Beauregard left his post as superintendent of the United States Military Academy and enlisted as a private in this battalion of Creole aristocrats.
In March 1862, a flurry of military preparations displaced the monotony of guard duty. U. S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee was threatening the transportation infrastructure of the Confederacy’s western operations. Generals Albert Sydney Johnston and P. G. T. Beauregard, commanders of the Confederate Army of the Mississippi, summoned reinforcements to meet the Federal encroachment in Tennessee. Creoles of Louisiana, the New Orleans Daily Picayune announced, “Arise! Our Beauregard awaits you; he calls for men in this hour of peril. Haste to his side ere the enemy surround him.” The Orleans Guards answered the call, mustering 411 soldiers into the Confederate Army for a ninety day service period. Major Leon Queyrouze, a prominent businessman and Catholic Mason, was commissioned to lead the battalion. Archbishop Odin designated Fr. Turgis, the anti-slavery, war veteran as its chaplain. A feat in itself as the bulk of Confederate officers were Protestant and refused to accept priests as chaplains, even for Catholic men. Turgis hoped that he would not have to preach often as a chaplain in the Confederate Army: “God give me strength for I am not a good preacher.”
The organization of the chaplaincy in the Confederate Army was poor. President Davis did not have a high opinion of clergy in general and there was a strong feeling of the need to keep religion and state separate. Consequently, the appointment or election of chaplains was haphazard, their pay poor, their status low and their duties not clear in comparison with the Union, who considered chaplains essential to the men’s spiritual needs. Chaplains were responsible for religious ceremonies which generally meant for Protestants, preaching and for Catholics, dispensing the sacraments. In time’s of battle, the chaplain was also expected to assist wounded soldiers and was usually stationed near the field hospital. By seeking to aid the wounded of both sides, chaplains believed they provided an important contribution as Christians in overcoming the horrors of war.
Le corps des Créoles d’élite left New Orleans on March 18, 1862 bound for Grand Junction, Tennessee with their Chaplain, Fr. Turgis. The veteran of the Italian War steadied his resolve to administer the sacraments to traditionally uninterested Catholics. As the soldiers experienced their first casualties the Orleans Guard turned to their chaplain for spiritual reinforcement. Everyone began attending Mass on Sunday. Turgis talked about the common circumstances of each soldier in a way that drove many to tears.
As the Orleans Guards paused under a line of trees prior to engagement in the Battle of Shiloh, you could hear a pin drop – the gravity of their situation struck the absolved Catholics. After an exchange of friendly fire with the 6th Kentucky, 2 men died. “Oh, what horror is war” proclaimed one soldier. They had been mistaken for Union forces because of their blue uniforms.
As they prepared for an assault on Day 2 on the Union defences that would later be referred to “the hornet’s nest” there was much fear and tension. Then “It was truly horrendous as we ascended the hill to see men coming down bathed in their own blood. The sight of the dead and the rush of the fight made each soldier vie with the other to thrust forward to kill a Yankee. Each focussed on the death around them and the potential for personal death increasing with every step forward.”
When a soldier fell, Turgis would run to him. He would apply first aid or administer the last sacraments to comfort his dying moments. In a final gesture, the anointed with Holy Oil, forgave the soldier’s sins for the last time and scanned the field for more injured Catholics, all within direct line of fire. “Our chaplain Fr Turgis was all the time at our side, with unceasing encouragement always maintaining remarkable self-control” observed one witness.
Here is the content of a letter written after Shiloh that Fr. Turgis wrote to Archbishop Jean-Marie Odin in which he modestly told him not to believe what the newspapers were saying about his valour at Shiloh:
Turgis begs pardon for not having given (Odin) any sign of life since the terrible days of (April) 6 and 7. He has been trying ever since, as much as his energy permits, to make himself useful visiting the 18th, 24th, 17th, 13th and 4th regiments at Corinth, in all 296 sick, of whom 207 have confessed and 121 have received Communion. He begs (Odin) to believe nothing which newspapers say in his regard, the Orleans Guards are so favourable to him that they exaggerate everything, regarding as self-sacrifice that which is only the accomplishment of a duty. About the Battle (of Shiloh): There were about 18 to 20 thousand Catholics, all speaking or understanding French, and he was the only priest. He gave absolution for 18 hours without stopping, but he cannot prevent himself from weeping continually in thinking about those thousands of Catholics who asked for him and whom it was impossible to see. The pastor of the cathedral had told him there would be 6 or 7 priests and that he would be unneeded, but without him the elite of their Creole population would have been exposed to being lost for eternity.
After the war, the surviving members of the Guards petitioned Archbishop Odin to establish a parish church in New Orleans exclusively for the Catholic veterans and their chère Père Turgis. Partly due to Fr Turgis poor health, the Archbishop gave them the old Mortuary Chapel on Rampart Street which would also serve as a Fr. Turgis place of retirement. Turgis faced a dilemma of conscience. Should he now seek to fulfill his original intention of serving the black population of Louisiana counter to the Archbishop’s mandate to not empower blacks? He chose to continue in his sense of duty to his white Creole flock.
Refusing to retire, Fr. Turgis fulfilled promises he had made to dying soldiers on the field that we would take care of their families. He became the director of the Southern Hospital for invalid soldiers and founding administrator of the Marigny Asylum for widows and orphans of deceased confederates.
The boys from the battlefield had developed a craving for the sacraments during the fear and urgency of battle now came for sacraments because it was Fr. Turgis who was dispensing them. It was he they came to see and be with in quiet reflection in his room behind the altar. Here they remembered themselves before defeat. It was a private venue where veterans went to be with other veterans, away from public opinion.
The veterans represented there were of every creed – Catholic, Protestant, Hebrew and Atheist. Brotherly love of the battlefield was the focus more than sacramentality. Turgis catered to the religious diversity by focusing on their common experience of war. “They loved to come to him to talk over the days that had so bitterly tried their souls.”
On March 3, 1868, Fr. Turgis died from stomach cancer and fatigue. A loose group of veterans took responsibility to plan and fund his funeral. Initially a monument was proposed but the idea was discarded because Turgis had been too humble and modest to want such a grand tomb. Confederates from as far away as Baton Rouge came to his funeral which was one of the largest the city had ever seen. Pallbearers included Gen PGT Beauregard, Gen Randall Gibson and Maj Leon Queyrouze. Thousands of veterans wore their Confederate uniforms. It was an opportunity to remember the virtue of the South through the person of Turgis.
While Fr. Turgis never did get to minister to black African slaves, he was there for his boys and their families:
“He was essentially a man of duty, a rebel soldier remembered, it ruled his brain, fired his heart. Duty, according to Turgis, constituted a total devotion to whomever or whatever one was ordered to attend. He obeyed the archdiocesan directive to lead the veterans’ chapel. He also obeyed his heart, which had grown to love his boys from the battlefield.”
Turgis treated the veterans as fellow brothers-in-arms even though he did not support the Lost Cause of the war or slavery. He did not mourn with them but supported those who were mourning. He remained indifferent to the loss but sympathetic to those who lost. The chaplain and the veterans made a tacit agreement to forget temporarily each other’s disagreements over the rightness or wrongness of the war. By means of his personal bravery and accompaniment of Confederate soldiers, Fr. Turgis’ spirit transcended the war and lifted many up. He deserves to be called an American Hero.
I am indebted to Prof. Michael Pasquier who put his MA Thesis on this subject on line. He now teaches religious history at Louisiana State University. I also consulted Gardiner Shattuck’s 1985 book A Shield and Hiding Place which provided useful information on the role of chaplains and the Church during the ACW. I also consulted T. Harry Williams 1995 book P.G.T. Beauregard – Napoleon in Gray for his write up of the Battle of Shiloh. The following blog provided some background information on Fr. Turgis: https://almostchosenpeople.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/father-turgis-preacher-by-deeds-not-words/#more-9891