The Order's First Veteran

This Veterans Day and Remembrance Day, the Knights of Columbus is proud to remember Supreme Knight James T. Mullen, who stepped forward to serve his country 150 years ago.

by Patrick Scalisi

The Order's First Veteran

James T. Mullen, the Order's first supreme knight.

 Photos

Earlier this year, the United States marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War. A gruesome conflict that lasted from 1861-65 and claimed the lives of approximately 620,000 Americans, the Civil War saw by its conclusion both the abolition of slavery and the untimely death of President Abraham Lincoln.

While many people can recount the key players and battles of the Civil War, it is less well known that the early history of the Knights of Columbus is tied closely to this particular conflict. Founded less than 20 years after the close of the war, the Order counted many Civil War veterans among its initial members.

Perhaps the most notable of these early Knights was the Order's first supreme knight, James T. Mullen. Mullen is credited with suggesting the name "Knights of Columbus" for the organization founded by Father Michael J. McGivney in 1882 and with designing the emblem of the Order about one year later. Before undertaking both of these historic acts, though, Mullen had fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War.

Having enlisted on Sept. 11, 1861, Mullen served in the Ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, which deployed from New Haven 150 years ago this month with 845 men. Known as the "Irish Regiment" because it was made up mostly of Irish-American soldiers, the Ninth Regiment traveled to Mississippi to begin work on what eventually became known as "Williams'/Grant's Canal" — an effort to redirect the Mississippi River and cut off the Confederate forces at Vicksburg.

Though some historians suggest that the successful completion of Grant's Canal might have prevented the eventual Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, the undertaking proved more costly than any of its perceived benefits. As work on the canal progressed in 1862 with soldiers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Wisconsin and Michigan, disease began to spread through the ranks like wildfire. Many soldiers took ill with dysentery, diarrhea, heatstroke and malaria — including Mullen.

Hundreds of soldiers died in the attempt to build Grant's Canal. Luckily for the Knights of Columbus, Mullen was not among the casualties. His sickness prompted an honorable discharge on Dec. 27, 1862, and the future supreme knight returned home to Connecticut.

Today, Grant's Canal — located in the Vicksburg National Military Park — is home to the Connecticut State Memorial, which honors Mullen and other members of the Ninth Regiment. A memorial to the Connecticut soldiers, which had long been absent from Vicksburg, was spearheaded by Robert Larkin, a member of Santa Fe Council 2978 in Cheshire, Conn. In 2007, the Supreme Council and other K of C units throughout the state donated more than $10,000 toward the monument's construction. The Connecticut State Memorial was dedicated Oct. 14, 2008.

This Veterans Day and Remembrance Day, the Knights of Columbus is proud to count among its membership James T. Mullen, who recognized the need to serve his country 150 years ago and nearly gave the ultimate sacrifice in the name of protecting the liberty of all people, regardless of the color of their skin.

For more information on the Connecticut State Memorial,
visit: http://www.nps.gov/vick/historyculture/connecticut-state-memorial.htm

Patrick Scalisi is the associate editor of Columbia magazine.