Fr. Peter Whelan: Serving Gray and Blue
Matthew 25:40, “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
1 Corinthians 9:22, “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
“My motive was not money; it was to allay misery and gain souls for God." Father Peter Whelan – Servant of the Most High God
Wexford native Peter Whelan saw some of the worst of human nature during America's Civil War. But despite many opportunities for easier service, this Confederate chaplain served Southern soldiers and Northern prisoners with equal devotion, sharing their hardships and dangers. "All creeds, colors, nations and cities were alike to him," one POW noted. "He was indeed the Good Samaritan."
Beside the graves where thousands lowly lie
I kneel, and, weeping for each slaughtered son,
I turn my gaze to my own sunny sky,
And pray, O Father, may thy will be done.
-- "The Prayer of the South" by Father Abram J. Ryan
We all know that there were Yankee chaplains and Confederate chaplains, but who ever heard of a chaplain who ministered to both "Billy Yank" and "Johnny Reb"?
"The world should know more about a man whose services were so creditable to humanity and his church", a Yankee soldier who survived Andersonville wrote after the war. And an even more glowing tribute was provided by a Confederate Colonel named Charles H. Olmstead, who said he "followed this good man to his grave with a sense of exultation as I thought of the welcome that awaited him from the Master whose spirit he had caught and made the role of his life."
The Reverend Peter Whelan was an unlikely candidate for chaplain in either man's army. Born in County Wexford, Ireland about 1802, he was pushing sixty and in charge of Savannah's Catholic Boys Orphan Asylum when the "War of Northern Aggression" broke out. Being both a Democrat and a secessionist, his sympathies were with the South.
Stockily built and over six-feet tall, he trod Savannah's sandy streets in a shabby, thread-bare black cassock, his "more than ordinary size feet" clad in a pair of battered old leather sandals. Meeting people on the street, he greeted them with a friendly smile, a firm handshake and a robust "God bless ye."
Savannah had a proud military tradition dating back to the first "War for Independence." Its militia companies -- which included the Savannah Volunteer Guards, the Oglethorpe Light Infantry, Chatham Artillery, German Volunteers, Montgomery Guards and Irish Jasper Greens -- were composed of young men from the finest families in town. Recalling that fateful day when Governor Joe Brown ordered them to seize Fort Pulaski at the mouth of the Savannah River (January 2, 1861 -- a full three months before Fort Sumter) ex-Colonel Olmstead would later write: "We reached Cockspur Island in due time; the little battalion was formed [up] upon the north wharf and then, with drums beating, colors flying and hearts swelling, we marched over the drawbridge, under the portcullis and into the fort. I can shut my eyes and see it all now; the proud step of officers and men.; the colors snapping in the strong breeze from the ocean; the bright sunlight of the parade (grounds), as we emerged from the shadow of the archway."
Serving initially as chaplain to the Irish Jasper Greens, Father Whelan soon assumed a similar role with the Montgomery Guards, one of the five companies manning the fort. These added duties required that he shuffle back and forth between Savannah and Cockspur Island, which was about fifteen miles below the city.
Things remained relatively quiet at the fort until November 1861, when the U.S. Navy landed troops on Hilton Head Island- only fifteen miles from Pulaski; at which point the garrison was put on full alert and preparations were made to obstruct the river channel, as had been done some 83 years earlier, when the British fleet threatened Savannah.
Robert E. Lee, at that time Jefferson Davis' personal military advisor, was hurried down from Richmond to supervise the strengthening of the coastal fortifications. But he encountered a great deal of inertia. "I hope our enemy will be polite enough to wait for us," he wrote his daughters. "It is difficult to get our people to realize their position."
The Federals, however, didn't accommodate him by waiting. They landed troops on Tybee Island, directly opposite Pulaski, and began erecting hidden batteries there. Early in the New Year their gunboats worked their way into the Savannah River above the fort (utilizing several shallow back channels) and cut the telegraph line to the city; at which point the garrison and Father Whelan became completely isolated (except for one delivery of supplies which made it successfully downriver about January 28).
Before Lee was recalled to Richmond (at the end of March, in response to McClellan's threatened invasion of the Peninsula), he'd assured Col. Olmstead that although "they will make it pretty hot for you", the enemy would not be able to breech the 7 1/2 foot thick brick walls of the fort.
Unfortunately for Father Whelan and the garrison, Lee was wrong. When the Federals opened fire (with their huge 84 and 64 pounders) early on the morning of April 10, 1862, all the windowpanes in Savannah began rattling and the sleepy townsfolk came streaming from their homes in terror. As the garrison rushed to their battle stations, Father Whelan donned his stole, grabbed his bible and crucifix, and hurried to join the men on the walls. It would be the first experience under fire for all of them.
Twenty-five-year-old Olmstead had only 20 guns to respond to the Yankees 11 hidden batteries, whose awesome power was made immediately evident. Lethal brickbats came flying through the dust and smoke. The flag pole was shot away, but soon replaced by a makeshift shaft fashioned by Lt. Christopher Hussey of the Guards and Pvt. John Latham of the Washington Volunteers.
Concentrating their deadly and extremely accurate 6-inch rifled cannon on the southeast corner of the fort, the deadly James projectiles began blasting a gaping hole through the outer casemate. By nightfall the wall at that point had been breached and "nearly all the barbette guns and mortars bearing upon the position of the [Federals] had been dismounted."
Inspecting the damage after dark, Olmstead was shocked to find that "the casemate on either side of the one at the southeast corner had also been heavily damaged; the parapet above the breech had collapsed and one of the eight-inch Columbiads was tottering precariously close to the moat; which was so full of debris that the enemy could have walked across without getting their feet wet."
The Yankee gunners kept up a sporadic fire throughout the night, to deprive the defenders of their sleep, then resumed their full barrage at dawn. In his memoirs Olmstead noted that "by his calmness and cheering words, (Whelan) did much to encourage the members of the garrison during their severe ordeal."
Young Olmstead was keeping a wary eye on the powder magazine at the northwest angle, because the traverse leading to it lay in a more or less direct line from the breech in the southeast outer wall. He knew that if that magazine exploded the loss of life and limb would be grievous.
Attempting to concentrate his own fire on the most lethal Federal guns, he found that only one 24-pound Blakey gun could even reach that far. Thus, the outcome was not at all surprising. "About two o'clock in the afternoon of the second day," Olmstead wrote, "I heard a commotion in the casemates at some distance from me and sent Capt. Guilmartin to ascertain the cause. He returned with the report that a shell had exploded in the passageway to the northwest magazine, filling the magazine with smoke and lighting it from the flame of the explosion. The ordinance squad who was serving there had fled in a panic to the adjoining casemates. Then there came to me the conviction that we had reached the end and, with [an] anguish of soul which returns to me even now in my dreams, I ordered the display of the signal of surrender."
The first Federals to enter the fort were men of the 7th Connecticut Infantry, led by Col. Alfred Terry -- the same officer who, 14 years later, would command an ill-fated expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn. Terry and his men were kind and courteous to Olmstead's troops. Gathering in his quarters, the Confederate officers stepped forward one by one, unbuckled their side arms and laid them quietly on the table -- all but feisty Captain John McMahon, who barked, "Here it is. I wore it in Mexico," as he slammed his sword onto the table. Father Whelan, who was standing nearby watching the ceremony, had trouble surpressing a grin at his fellow Irishman's boldness.
Two days later the entire 389 man garrison except for three men too badly wounded to be moved, were taken by steamer to the Federal base at Hilton Head Island, where Whelan politely declined an offer of freedom, insisting he preferred sharing the fate of his comrades.
After being fed and allowed to wash up, they were all loaded aboard an ocean-going steamer and transported to Governors Island in New York Harbor. Whelan was billeted with the officers in a barracks building at Fort Columbus, while the enlisted men were sent off to old Castle William, a dank, poorly ventilated, rat-infested masonry structure ill-suited to accommodate prisoners.
Rising early each morning, Whelan would take a brisk walk around the ramparts, say Mass then spent the rest of the day visiting with the enlisted men. One day Olmstead and his fellow officers noticed that his clothing had become even more threadbare than usual. Without asking him, they sent word to some of his Catholic friends in Manhattan that the old priest could use some new duds. A new outfit was promptly sent over to the island and, while Whelan slept, placed in a neat pile at the foot of his bunk. When he awakened the next morning, he was delighted to find the new clothes.
Later that same day, Olmstead spotted him wearing his ragged old outfit again. "Where are your new clothes, Father?" he inquired. Whelan explained that he'd given them to an enlisted man captured in his underclothing, while trying to swim a river. "But why didn't you give him your old things?", Olmstead wanted to know. "When I give for Christ's sake", the old Irishman answered with a shrug, "I give my best."
Whelan wrote to the pastor of St. Peter's Church in the city, requesting food and clothing for the men at Castle William, and Rev. William Quinn readily responded. Quinn also wrote to the federal authorities in Washington, requesting that Whelan be paroled and allowed to live at St. Peter's. But although the parole was approved, Whelan insisted on remaining with the prisoners.
On June 20 Olmstead and his officers were taken to Cincinnati to be exchanged, but again Whelan chose to stay with the enlisted men, who were soon sent first to Fort Delaware, then on to Fort Monroe (on July 31) for exchange. Three days later, when they were taken up the James River on a flag of truce boat, Whelan received permission to travel to Baltimore before returning to Savannah, to personally thank the Sisters of Charity there for their kindness to his fellow POW's. Given a room next to the ward for "the hopelessly insane" (in the hospital run by the nuns), he teased the Mother Superior the next morning, when she asked how he'd slept. "Well enough", he answered with a grin, "but why did you put me up in the crazy house?"
Resuming his duties at the Cathedral and Orphanage in Savanah, Whelan was soon named chaplain for all Confederate forces in Georgia. In May of 1864, Father William J. Hamilton, a priest whose mission included all of southwest Georgia, happened to be passing through Americus, when he was told that there were a large number of Catholic prisoners at nearby "Camp Sumter" (at Anderson's Station on the Southwestern RR). Visiting the prison, he found the place so appalling that he appealed to his Bishop, Augustin Verot, to assign a priest to work there on a full-time basis.
The Bishop tapped the ever-ready Father Whelan for that assignment also. Arriving at Andersonville on June 16, 1864, he was shocked to find about 25,000 men penned up in a stockade designed for 10,000. As Father Hamilton would later testify, the place was extremely filthy and "the men all huddled together and covered with vermin. ... There was no shelter at all, so far as [he] could see, except ... that some of the men who had their blankets there had put them up on little bits of roots that they had abstracted from the ground." Hamilton noted that "the heat was intolerable; there was no air at all in the stockade"; and that he saw "a great many men perfectly naked, walking about through the stockade ... [seemingly having] lost all regard for delicacy, shame, morality or anything else." In order to minister to them a priest would have to "creep on [his] hands and knees into the holes that the men had burrowed into the ground and stretch [himself] out alongside of them to hear their confessions."
Hamilton was perhaps too refined to mention that many of the sick and dying lay sprawled out in their own vomit and excrement- a thick layer of which oozed out a great distance beyond the putrid stream which ran through the middle of the camp. The sickening stench of the place, coupled with the flies, mosquitoes and body lice, created an environment so appalling that, while other priests came for short periods of time to assist Father Whelan, he was the only one who was able to remain there for any length of time.
One of the priests who was forced to leave on account of illness summed up his experience thusly: "I shall not attempt a description of the sufferings which we witnessed; whatever may be said or written about it will remain always below the stern reality."
Yet the saintly Whelan remained at Andersonville from June 16 to October 1, spending the entire day (from 5 AM till dusk) in the stockade; hearing confessions, comforting the sick, and administering the last rites of the Church. Given the rate at which the POW's were dying, he said later that he had to "shorten what is called the sacramentalia, and also the ceremonies of Baptism and Extreme Unction".
Sharing the same coarse corn bread, cow peas and parched corn coffee as the prisoners and guards, he slept in a broken-down, leaky 12 x 8 foot cattle shed about a mile from the stockade.
Such exemplary conduct won him many converts and many of the prisoners who survived paid tribute to him. "All creeds, colors, nations and cities were alike to him", one POW noted. "He was indeed the Good Sumaritan."
On July 11 Captain Henry Wirz allowed the prisoners to hang six "raiders," the ring-leaders of a gang of thugs and cut-throats who'd been preying on their fellow inmates. "The men were placed on a platform of gallows". Whelan would later tell the judges at Wirz's trial, "They begged me to make an appeal to their comrades- an appeal to spare them from execution. I made it ... but they were hanged anyway."
When Sherman captured Atlanta, September 1, the Confederate authorities thought it best to remove as many POW's as possible from "Camp Sumter", fearing that Sherman's cavalry would overrun it, free and arm the prisoners, then turn them loose on the countryside. Close to 30,000 were transferred to Savannah, Charleston or Florence, South Carolina the first half of September. Those who stayed were too sick or too far gone to be moved.
Whelan was finally forced to leave October 1, suffering from "a lung ailment" which was probably tuberculosis contracted from the inmates. But before leaving he emptied his pockets, giving the POW's all the money he had in the world. And then, instead of going straight back to Savannah, he went to Macon and borrowed $16,000 (Confederate) from Henry Horne to buy bread for the remaining Andersonville unfortunates. "Mr. Wynne", a Macon baker, arranged to have it delivered to Anderson Station.
Back in Savannah, the old priest undoubtedly visited the 7,000 "Andersonville wrecks" incarcerated there also. Early in November, when about 3,000 Confederate POW's were exchanged at Fort Pulaski and brought into Savannah, he ministered to them as well.
When Sherman's army marched into Savannah on December 21, one of the first things his men did was begin work strengthening the fortifications previously constructed there by the Confederates.
One of the Confederate forts was located in close proximity to the Catholic Cemetery, on the road to Bonaventure. In extending their trenches, the Yankees dug up the graves of two bishops and several other priests and nuns. Incensed by such apparently deliberate desecration, Whelan fired off a blistering letter to Union General Quincy Gilmore: "It must be an extreme military necessity", he wrote, "when the ashes of the dead are disturbed and breastworks erected on their place of repose. Might can effect it, but does right sanction it?"
On the 10th of March 1865, stricken with severe lung congestion, he was advised to seek a change of climate to regain his health and strength. Having no money to go anywhere, his by then equally destitute friends in Savannah passed the hat to cover his travel expenses. But instead of using the money to travel, he "bought gold and thus was enabled ... to repay Mr. Horne."
He'd been seeking reimbursement from the Federal government for the money he'd borrowed from Horne for some time, but when Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton informed him that no payment would be forthcoming without "proper receipts for his expenditures", he exploded: "I seek no remuneration", he wrote. "Let Mr. Stanton keep it. I have not the health, nor strength, nor money to run all over Georgia hunting up vouchers and bills of purchase. ... I am but the Catholic priest who gave his time, labor, money and health for the good of the Federal prisoners at Andersonville -- without hope of earthly remuneration. ... Did I solicit the President, or General Grant, I have no doubt but that either of them would have refunded me. Fool-like, I knocked on the wrong door."
Continuing his remarkable ministry, Whelan visited Varina Howell Davis while she was staying at the Pulaski House in Savannah during the late Spring and early Summer of 1865 (following her capture with her husband and his party at Irwinsville, Georgia, on May 10). Since "Winnie" Davis was forbidden to communicate with her husband (who was being held in chains in the dungeon at Fortress Monroe), Whelan went to see him on her behalf, to assure him that his family was alright, and also to appeal for his release.
Called also to testify at Henry Wirz's trial, Whelan assured the court: "My duties [at Andersonville] were those of a Catholic priest- nothing more. I had no commission from the [Confederate] government. I went there voluntarily, without pay or remuneration further than to receive rations."
Money was obviously unimportant to him. "No amount of salary could induce me to stay at Andersonville for [even] one week", he would write. "No Sir, not all the gold and paper money in the treasury of Washington. My motive was not money; it was to allay misery and gain souls for God."
Attempting to gain every possible soul he could, he visited the condemned Wirz in his cell, counseled him and accompanied him to the scaffold, just as he had "the raiders."
Two weeks after presiding over a baptism in January of 1871, Whelan -- whose health had been gradually deteriorating -- became gravely ill. "The good old man is passing from earth to that heaven reserved for such as he," the Savannah Morning News wrote January 28th, "where he will receive the reward due to his Godly life. The good and true, especially those who have known him at the bivouac, in the battle's front, at the couch of the sick, wounded and dying, and at the altar, will mourn his loss."
Though he could hardly have wished for anything so elaborate, his remains were clad in purple vestments- the color usually reserved for prelates- and laid in state in an expensive casket decorated with silver roses. A laurel wreath- the emblem of the south- was placed at his head. Thousands of Savannahians, including many war veterans, filed past the bier to pay their respects. The funeral procession included eight-six carriages carrying the Bishop of Georgia, the Sisters of Mercy and St. Joseph- together with the orphans they had charge of- the children of both Catholic parishes, members of the Hibernian Society, the Irish Union Society, the Workman's Benevolent Society, and even the Central Railroad Benevolent Society. The funeral was said to have been the largest Savannah had ever seen.
Father Whelan reportedly "never wore on his person an ornament or a superfluous article of clothing." He never drank, nor "partook of a second dish at a meal." And though he reportedly "never uttered an untruth or did a foolish act", he was an extremely human person, as evidenced by his anger over the desecration of the cemetery, and his righteous indignation over Secretary Stanton's refusal to reimburse him for the money spent feeding the Union soldiers- whose sorry lot he attributed to the Federals refusal to exchange them. "Many thousands who fell victims of the prison life would be living and enjoying their family and friends" if they'd been paroled or exchanged, he wrote Stanton. And his final question: "Upon whom is their blood?", echoes down through the ages- even to this day.