Recently Processed Collection: John Gilmary Shea Correspondence

As an intern for PAHRC, I was tasked with processing the collection titled, John Gilmary Shea Correspondence, 1836-1891 (MC 51). John Gilmary Shea was not only a writer, editor, and lawyer, Shea was considered the leading American Catholic historian of his time.

Shea was only 14 years old when he published his first article, a short essay on Cardinal Albornoz in the Children’s Catholic Magazine. It wasn’t until the 1850s when Shea really began his work in American Catholic history. Between 1852 and 1855, Shea published several scholarly works that were critically acclaimed: Discovery and Exploration of Mississippi Valley (1852), History of the Catholic Missions Among the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1529-1854 (1854), An Elementary History of the United States (1855), and A School History of the United States (1855).

Shea was very passionate about his life as a scholar; so much so that over the next four decades, he published two hundred and fifty articles and books. His magnum opus was a four volume series titled, The History of the Catholic Church in the United States, published between 1886 and 1892. With all of Shea’s publications over the decades, it is reasonable to assume he relied on his expansive network of personal and professional relationships to obtain the pertinent information required for his extensive scholarly works. The Shea correspondence collection I processed in late fall 2012 provides a unique perspective and reveals Shea’s activities as a writer, researching scholar, historian, and friend.

During my initial review of the collection, I found that most of the correspondence was overstuffed in worn out archival folders and boxes—a preservation nightmare. I was fortunate enough to find one positive quality about the collection; it was previously processed at the item-level which may prove useful to researchers.

After discussing an appropriate processing plan with Faith Charlton, PAHRC’s then Reference and Technical Services Archivist, we devised a plan that included: keeping the item-level correspondence intact while updating correspondents’ names to Library of Congress Name Authority File (NAF) as well as their religious order (where applicable); performing basic preservation such as re-housing and removing rubber bands/staples/paperclips; and creating a finding aid in Archivists’ Toolkit. The most challenging aspect of processing the collection came from the fact that Shea had a substantial amount of personal correspondence; the collection is housed in approximately seven boxes.

The bulk of the collection is comprised of incoming correspondence. Some of the larger files with twenty or more letters are from notable figures who helped Shea during his scholarly years.

For instance, the collection contains a large file of correspondence between Oscar Wilkes Collet, a writer, scholar, and member of the Missouri Historical Society. Here is a postcard received by Shea requesting help locating research materials. 

February 2, 1885 postcard sent by Oscar W. Collet
regarding unpublished research materials.

Another notable correspondent was John Wesley Powell. Powell was a U.S. soldier, geologist, explorer of the American West, and director of the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology.

Letter written by John Wesley Powell, Geologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior, on October 27, 1876 requesting Shea’s scholarly assistance.

Another large correspondence file comes from Michael Augustine Corrigan, Archbishop of New York.

Typed letter composed in 1891 by Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan asking Shea for clarification of sources to the assertion that there were large defections in the Catholic Church in America.

Other large correspondence files contain letters from Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley, James Cardinal Gibbons, Peter DeSmet, John Ward Dean, Edmond Mallet, and Eugene Vetromile. 

The collection is open to researchers. The PDF finding aid can be found here. PAHRC also has the original finding aid with item-level information which includes specific dates. If you would like to take a look at the original finding aid or any of our other collections, you can schedule an appointment to visit PAHRC or email us at



The American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia. (1897). Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia Vol. VIII No. 1. Philadelphia: The Society.

The Battle of Antietam: a Philadelphia soldier’s experience

This past Monday, September 17, marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. The 69th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, with which Philadelphia native William C. White served, participated in this harrowing conflict. Several letters that White wrote to his parents shortly after the battle describe some his experiences.

In a letter dated September 19, 1862, White writes:

we had a terrible battle in which Sargent Neal Gillen a great friend of Jimmy Hughes had his leg nearly torn off from a solid shot and i am almost certain he is dead his brother our captain stayed with him and was taken prisoner our brigade was on the right and the left broke and [??] then the rebels got on our left and rear and we got out as quick as we could the rebels were behind us we had to get out the best way we could our company lost from eight to ten killed and wounded and prisoners…we expected another battle to day but they have skedadled…

September 19, 1862, page 1

September 19, 1862, page 2

One week later, White continues to discuss the horror he had experienced:

after i wrote the last letter i took a walk over to the battlefield it was an awful sight if it had been the first battlefield i saw it would make me sick it was worse than Fair Oak [Battle of Fair Oaks, also known as the Battle of Seven Pines, which took place in Virginia on May 31 and June 1, 1862]. it was four miles long and the dead lie all along in lines in one place there was a regular line of battle for about one hundred yards they lay in twos where Ricketts [Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts] battery opened grape and canister it mowed the rebels down like grass i saw a great many of our dead, but twice as many rebels…

September 26, 1862, page 1

September 26, 1862, page 2

White began his service during the Civil War on August 19, 1861. His collection of letters to his parents recount his experiences in some of the most important battles of the war– Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. The letters provide a glimpse of Union camp life during the Civil War and insight into the psyche of a Union soldier. They also document the experience of Irish Americans, specifically in White’s case Irish Catholics,  as the men who made up the 69th regiment were mostly of Irish origin from Philadelphia.

“An Appeal to Truth”

As a volunteer here at PAHRC for the summer, I’ve been cataloging the pamphlet collection. One of the first pamphlets I dealt with immediately caught my attention. Entitled “An Appeal to Truth”, it was written in 1915 by Cardinal Mercier, who was then serving as the Archbishop of Malines (Mechelen) in Belgium. Directed towards the archbishops of Germany, Bavaria, and Austria-Hungary, Mercier wrote about supposed war-time offenses committed during Germany’s occupation of Belgium during World War I.

1915 publication of “An Appeal to Truth”

Cardinal Mercier attempted to dispel various nasty rumors that Germans were directing at Belgian citizens as well as make public Belgium’s victims of abuse.

Cardinal Mercier was particularly agitated over the German government’s accusations that Belgians were committing crimes against occupying German soldiers. Mercier claimed that these accusations, which were addressed in the German government’s 1915 publication, entitled The White Book, were completely untrue and fabricated.

The German government claimed that Belgians, including young girls, were murdering and torturing wounded German soldiers, The Cardinal stated, “Hardly had the German armies trodden the soil of our country, when the rumour spread among you that our civilians were taking part in military operations; that the women of Vise and of Liege were gouging out the eyes of your soldiers…” (2)

The Cardinal denied these allegations and instead offered his own; he argued that Germans soldiers had committed unspeakable acts against entire villages in Belgium, and that not even priests or nuns were safe from them:

“Fifty innocent priests and thousands of innocent Catholics were put to death; hundreds of others, whose lives have been saved by circumstances independent of the will of their persecutors, were in danger of death; thousands of innocent persons, with no previous trial, were imprisoned; many of them underwent months of detention, and, when they were released, the most minute questioning, to which they were submitted, revealed no guilt in any of them.” (9)

At the pamphlet’s core was Cardinal Mercier’s attempt to convince German bishops to agree to a fair tribunal. He sought a public forum in which the Archbishops of Belgium would be given a chance to refute the German charges and present evidence accordingly. Additionally, he sought revenge for the murdered and harassed Belgian citizens.

It seems to me that, in an effort to appear even-handed, Cardinal Mercier added “If, in formulating these denunciations, we are calumniating the German army, or, if the military authority had just reasons for commanding or permitting those acts which we call criminal, it is to the honour and the national interest of Germany to confute us.” (9)  Additionally, this statement places the German Bishops in a precarious position because if they do not accept the public trial then it could be argued that they did not rise to defend the honor of Germany and its soldiers. The Cardinal maintained that on several occasions Germans ignored their cries for justice. He stated:

“On August 18th, 1914, the Bishop of Liege wrote to Commandant Bayer, Governor of the town of Liege: – ‘Several villages have been destroyed one after the other; important people, among them some priests, have been shot; others have been arrested, and all have protested their innocence…’ No reply was received to this letter.” (4)

Cardinal Mercier argued that the Germans had conducted their own investigation into the matters without including any cross-examination. He cited a German inspection of Louvain from 1914 as an example of the one-sided nature of these inquiries. Cardinal Mercier stated that when German authorities spoke to witnesses, “Sometimes it was in the presence of a representative of local authority, who was ignorant of the German language, and so was obliged to accept and to sign on trust the official reports.” He claimed that this evidence was unacceptable, the argument one-sided, and that it was unfair for them to take the argument to the Pope without giving the Belgian’s a chance to voice their issues. (6-7)

Mercier entreated German bishops to agree to a fair tribunal in which both sides would be given equitable opportunity to present their case. He used priestly solidarity to back his request, “Is it not upon us, the pastors of our people, that the duty lies of helping to get rid of these bad feelings, and of reestablishing on its foundations of justice, to-day so shaken, the union in love of all the children of the great Catholic family?” (12)

Unfortunately, I have been unable to ascertain if the German bishops agreed to a tribunal or even responded to this public letter. However, while looking for other materials in PAHRC’s pamphlet collection relating to German atrocities committed in Belgium during the Great War, I found a pamphlet written by J. Esslemont Adams and Leon Mirman entitled “Their Crimes.” The pamphlet, published in 1917, discussed crimes against Belgian and French citizens during the German occupation. They state “Germany has been martyrizing Belgium. She has from that moment onwards turned the land into a prison: the frontiers are armed against Belgians like a battle front…” (60)

1917 publication of “Their Crimes”

Adams and Mirman’s arguments seem to back Cardinal Mercier’s allegations, even going so far as to cite the Cardinal’s letter to Governor General von Bissing (the German Governor General of Belgium during the occupation). The passage stated the crimes against both French and Belgian women and children, “Sometimes the attacks were individual and sometimes committed by bodies of men, e.g., at Melen-Labouxhe, Margaret W. was violated by twenty German soldiers, and then shot by the side of her father and mother. They did not even respect nuns.” (32)

What I took away from reading these pamphlets is the suffering occupied territories encounter during times of war. The authors of these publications wanted to increase public awareness in an effort to demand retribution for victims and to form a sense of national solidarity for the war effort. I will endeavor to search for some of the answers that these two sources leave me with. For now, they have imparted a vivid picture of the intensity and insanity that accompanies war.

A “petulant girl”?: Josephine Walsh’s diaries

I’ve been volunteering at PAHRC this summer, and am currently creating an inventory for two artificial collections: “handwritten manuscripts” and “manuscripts books.” It appears that many of the items in these collections were removed from manuscript collections.

For instance, many of the items that I’ve come across were created by Josephine M. Walsh. These materials, mostly diaries, were likely pulled from the Walsh family papers, a collection that documents the Martin J. Walsh (1840-1910) family, in particular Martin’s sons James J. Walsh and Joseph Walsh, both of whom were doctors.

Josephine Walsh (center) on her way to Europe, July 1900

Josephine Walsh (center) on her way to Europe, July 1900

Josephine Walsh was the youngest child of Martin Walsh, a prominent general goods businessman who lived in Parsons, PA, and Bridget Golden Walsh, the niece of Martin’s business partner. As one of six children, she was more than twenty years younger than her distinguished older brothers, James and Joseph. Joseph Walsh, based in Philadelphia, became a physician and studied tuberculosis. James Walsh cut short his Jesuit education due to his interest in medicine. Based in New York, he went on to become a doctor, a well-known lecturer, and author of several books on religion and healing.

Dr. James J Walsh

Dr. James J Walsh

Josephine’s mother died in 1895, when she was 12. Her father died fifteen years later. Josephine cared for him during the last two years of his life, after a stroke left him weakened.

Josephine’s diaries span her young adulthood, from her time at Mount St. Joseph’s Academy until her twenties. They are full of travel notes, commentary on social events, and writings on her family and even their shop business. Story drafts and inspirational ideas are scattered throughout her notebooks. She also wrote plays, which she and her friends performed for their families.

Though her family was quite wealthy, she apparently sought financial independence through her stories. A diary entry from 1906 laments her rejections from publishing houses.

“So far the income from my writings has amounted to nothing. In fact less than nothing – because I have had the expense of paper, ink and time!”

Walsh on the business of writing. 1906 diary, page 1.

Walsh on the business of writing. 1906 diary, page 1.

Walsh on the business of writing. 1906 diary, page 2.

Walsh on the business of writing. 1906 diary, page 2.

Josie wanted to be a writer, but this was a tough dream for a woman in the early twentieth century. It appears that her family did not support her ambition. Her brother James in particular had a very strict idea of a woman’s domestic responsibilities, and did not allow her to pursue anything else.

“When I had kept house for about a year, I begged Jim to let me go to school some place to learn higher education and real culture, but he wouldn’t hear of it. When I insisted and said I would bolt anyhow whether he approved or not, he wrote me a letter that will live in my memory forever. He told me that if I left home – I would be like the woman who tired of one husband and sought another. He told me to be a real – a real woman, and not a petulant girl. I pestered him with letters full of my dissatisfactions for fully three years…he begged me to appreciate my happy lot in life and my fortunate position, even though I couldn’t see it that way.”

Her brother's refusal to allow her to attend school.

Her brother’s refusal to allow her to attend school.

Her brother's refusal to allow her to attend school (cont.)

Her brother’s refusal to allow her to attend school (cont.)

Dr. James Walsh lecture on the proper duty of women - "to bear many children, that men may abound."

Dr. James Walsh lecture on the proper duty of women – “to bear many children, that men may abound.”


The Josephine Walsh papers as well as the Walsh family papers would be very useful for researchers interested in the lives of wealthy women, or more specifically Catholic women, around the turn of the 20th century. These papers also document certain views that were held during this time period about women and a woman’s “proper place.”