Fr. Peter Whelan: Serving the Blue and the Gray

Part 1 of 2: Serving Dixie

By Ed Churchill

Father Peter Whelan

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

Historical Art Prints
Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade, the most famous chaplain of the Civil War, on horseback at Antietam in "Sons of Erin, by Don Troiani.

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 friendy smile, a firm handshake and a robust "God bless yee."

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

Historical Art Prints
A corporal in the "Jasper Greens" by Don Troiani.

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 fifteeen 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 accomodate 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.

"By his calmness and cheering words, (Whelan) did much to encourage the members of the garrison during their severe ordeal."

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."

Fort Pulaski National Monument
Fort Pulaski today.

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 grevious.

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."

Some of the battle damage in Fort Pulaski.

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 sidearms 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 accomodate prisoners.

"Faith in the Fight": For both the Union and Confederate soldiers, religion was the greatest sustainer of morale in the Civil War, and faith was a refuge in times of need. The clerics' duties did not end after Sunday prayers; rather, many ministers could be found performing daily regimental duties, and some even found their way onto fields of battle. Identifies for the first time 3,694 ministers who were commissioned as chaplains in the Union and Confederate armies and serves as a starting point for any research into the neglected area of Civil War chaplains.

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. Next week WGT will present "Andersonville," the second and final part of WGT's feature on Father Peter Whelan.

Civil War tour guide Ed Churchill's interest in Father Peter Whelan was undoubtedly whetted when as a child he heard his mother discuss Sgt. Henry Murray, her grandfather, who was wounded in battle fighting with the Union Army, then imprisoned at Andersonville until nearly the end of America's Civil War.




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