Class of 1865, Fordham University (Image credit: Fordham University Archives and Special Collections)

Institutions are always interested in telling stories that demonstrate their successes. If you look in an alumni magazine, for example, you’re never going to hear stories about the guy who went to jail, or the person who had a big dream and didn’t make it. No, you’re going to see articles about the graduate who discovered a cure for some rare disease, or read an incredibly thought-provoking piece by the professor awarded a Nobel Prize.   

And what’s an alumni magazine for, really, if not to demonstrate all the great things that faculty, staff, and alumni are doing, and maybe share some ideas that they’re exploring? 

But recently I had the chance to begin Thomas J. Shelley’s great book-length history of Fordham University, and an early chapter challenged me to reconsider the idea that only the good news is fit to print. The chapter (“Uneasy Neighbors: Jesuit College and Diocesan Seminary”) was on the role that Fordham played during the Civil War, which is not a topic that immediately leaps to mind as significant. Fordham at the time was a little school called St. John’s College with just twenty years of history as a combined secondary school and college. How many war stories could there really be? In fact, Shelley notes that the Civil War almost never got mentioned by the Jesuits who formed the board of consultors to the university’s Jesuit president at the time. They considered starting a corps of cadets to prepare their students, but the idea was quickly thrown out, “for fear that it would interfere with student discipline.”

But it turns out there’s more to Fordham’s history with the war than that. The school had students and alums that fought on both sides as infantry and officers. One such former student, Robert Gould Shaw, a child of abolitionists who ended up leaving St. John’s before finishing high school, died leading an all-Black Massachusetts regiment in an attack on Confederate defenses in Charleston harbor. Another alum, James Rowan O’Beirne, ’54, would serve in three different regiments, get wounded four times in one battle, and immediately after President Lincoln’s assassination organized the search that led to the capture of John Wilkes Booth. 

In June of 1862, O’Beirne was present at the battle of Malvern Hill in Virginia. Shelley retells the tale of O’Beirne learning that amongst a number of captured Confederate soldiers were two other Fordham grads. Setting out to find them, he came across one, a man named Dillon, shivering cold and wet under a tree with some other prisoners. O’Beirne got a pot of Irish stew and coffee and offered it to them, but Dillon rejected the gesture. “Dillon stared at me without a word of reply and looked as haughty and unconscious to my presence as he could,” O’Beirne would later recall. “He turned his fine and fiery red head aside to contemplate the cheerless scene from some other angle and dismissed me from his thoughts.” 

General James Rowan O’Beirne (center) with officers of 37th Regiment Irish Rifles (Image credit: Fordham University Archives and Special Collections)

One alumnus later recalled that when the war ended, the Northern students on campus made a point of not publicly celebrating, so as not to make their Southern classmates feel humiliated. It’s a gracious act, and one the Southern students “repaid” a week later when Lincoln was assassinated. But from the point of view of today, both gestures seem to either ignore or erase the Black community that the war’s ending had freed from centuries of violence, degradation, and humiliation. 

It may seem surprising to us now, but ambivalence about the war because of its impact on chattel slavery could be found throughout New York at the time. 

Many of the city’s businessmen relied on the success of Southern businesses (and by extension the system of slavery that undergirded the South’s economy). New York’s mayor even suggested that the city secede from the state to protect the city’s financial interests. Shelley notes that Archbishop John Hughes, the founder of Fordham University, warned Secretary of War Simon Cameron in late 1861 that his people, that is, Irish Catholics, would not support the war if the rationale provided for it was the abolition of slavery. Born in Ireland, Hughes found the abolitionist movement overly provocative and feared that abolition would end up putting the city’s many poor Irish out of work, as freed Black people migrated north.

Archbishop John Hughes (Image credit: Fordham University Archives and Special Collections)

At the same time, Hughes would travel to Europe at the request of Secretary of State William Seward to strengthen support for the union. He promised a dozen chaplains and between fifty and one hundred Sisters of Charity and Sisters of Mercy to help the war effort. And when the New York Irish rioted in 1863 protesting the draft and killing Black Americans, including even children, a then-sickly Hughes helped quell the violence. 

It would be easy to just tell the stories of the heroic alums who fought for the North, or the Jesuits who worked as chaplains. Shelley has some great stories about them. But the story of the Confederate soldier Dillon has so much to teach about not just pride, but shame and pain, the way that war can so deeply separate us. Particularly now, boy, do we need that lesson. 

I can criticize the way that Hughes viewed abolition or wonder to what degree students considered the Black people around them. But if they did have blinders on, what about us? What group of people am I ignoring or speaking on behalf of without actually considering or consulting? How am I not only the hero of my own story, but potentially a villain in someone else’s? 

When you come right down to it, what is a college, particularly a Jesuit one? It’s a space in which we are given the opportunity to consider the entirety of the human scene—to explore the landscape of human events, ideas, and choices and to let those explorations teach us important things about ourselves, things we can take beyond commencement into the next stage of our lives.  

It’s a very hard sell to ask any alumni magazine to tell stories of failures as well as successes, our sinners as well as our saints. That’s not really what they’re for. But I rejoice in a history of the university like Shelley’s, because there’s so much to learn.

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.