The Fighting Irish Battalion

Military training has been a part of the University of Notre Dame’s curriculum since its foundation.  In 1858, just sixteen years after Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C. established the university, he also established the Notre Dame Continental Cadets, a military company composed of students. “Our town was enlivened on Wednesday morning by a parade through the streets of the Notre Dame Continental Cadets...,” declared the South Bend Forum, “Their drilling, maneuvers, and marching made a fine impression. Their patriotism is highly commendable.”

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Congregation of Holy Cross sent eight priests to serve as chaplains to the Irish-American regiments of the Irish Brigade.  89 Holy Cross sisters from both Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College served as nurses during the war.  Perhaps the most well-known of these Holy Cross priests is Rev. William Corby, C.S.C., who famously granted a general absolution to the members of the Irish Brigade before they took to the battlefield at Gettysburg in 1863.

In 1880, Father Corby, then the university president, revived military training for academic credit at Notre Dame as a source of “recreation, exercise, and discipline.”  This new military company took on the title of the Hoynes Light Guards, after their commander William J. “Colonel” Hoynes, another Civil War veteran and influential figure in the foundation of Notre Dame’s law school.

With American involvement in World War I, the national draft of young men threatened to decrease Notre Dame’s enrollment and funding to levels it had not yet experienced.  In 1918, the university received approval to establish a Students’ Army Training Corps (SATC), the precursor to ROTC.  This program enrolled some 700 students but was disbanded following the end of the war.  More than 2,200 ND students and alumni served during WWI.

Dedicated on Memorial Day in 1924, the eastern door of Sacred Heart Basilica was erected to commemorate the Notre Dame alumni who served in the war to end all wars. Originally intended to have all 2500 names inscribed, the final installation only lists the 56 who made the final sacrifice.

To the left of the door is St. Joan of Arc, the French heroine of the Hundred Year’s war. The selection of Joan may be a reference to the French origins of Fr. Sorin, the founder of Notre Dame. Known for her divinely inspired tactical success, Joan was key to turning the tide in the war against English invaders.

To the right of the door is St. Michael the Archangel, commander of the heavenly hosts. Most famous for his defeat of Lucifer soon after the fall of the Angels, Michael defeated Satan in battle and cast him down from the heavens. He is also the patron saint of Soldiers, paratroopers and first responders in general.

The stone lintel above the doors bears the inscription:

  “In Glory Everlasting.”

Over the lintel, a carved panel with a pair of eagles flanking a shield   emblazoned with the university seal, over which is the Chi and Rho of Christ’s monogram.

Father Charles O’Donnell, who later served as university president, donated his doughboy helmet as part of a memorial to the 56 Notre Dame graduates who lost their lives in the Great War.  The helmet hangs as a light fixture inside the eastern door of Sa-cred Heart Basilica, above which read the words, God, Country, Notre Dame, the battalion’s official motto.

Following WWI, Notre Dame’s involvement with the armed forces waned until the beginning of World War. In 1941, university president Hugh O’Donnell welcomed the military back to Notre Dame, establishing the university’s affiliation with ROTC.  Similar to the First World War, the military presence on campus kept Notre Dame afloat at a time when thousands of young men were being sent to war.

The end of the war saw the return of many veterans to Notre Dame, and in 1946 Vetville was established on the east side of campus to house these students and their families.  Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. created the Notre Dame Veterans Club to further assist veterans with integrating into Notre Dame’s student life.  Father Hesburgh also served as the chaplain of Vetville from 1945 to 1948. In 1951, the Army ROTC program arrived at Notre Dame, making it one of the first universities to host all three branches of the military.  Since then, the Reserve Officer Training Corps has been an integral part of student life at the University of Notre Dame.  Army ROTC alumni have served in every conflict since 1955 in which American forces have deployed.

At Notre Dame and across the nation, the decades following the Second World War witnessed both ups and downs in terms of student involvement in the military.  In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, students staged a protest at the annual ROTC Pass in Review.  In 1986, however, students came together as Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. dedicated the Clarke Memorial Fountain to the nearly 500 Notre Dame students killed in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.  ROTC’s presence has  continued to make a positive impact at the University of Notre Dame, and in 1990 the program moved into its own building – Pasquerilla Center.  From here, students have continued to develop as leaders and as stewards of Our Lady’s University.