Part 2: Fr. Peter Whelan: Serving the Blue and the Gray

Part 2: Andersonville

By Ed Churchill

A turn of the century postcard view of Fort Monroe, where Whelan and his comrades were exchanged.

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 appauling that he appealed to his Bishop, Augustin Verot, to assign a priest to work there on a full-time basis.

Library of Congress
The living hell known as Andersonville Prison.

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 (including my great-grandfather, Sgt. Henry Murray) 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."

"I shall not attempt a description of the sufferings which we witnessed ..."

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 appauling 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.

Library of Congress
A huddled mass of Andersonville prisoners waiting for their daily rations.

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 Samaritan."

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.

Library of Congress
One of the "Andersonville wrecks"

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 rebel 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."

"My motive was not money; it was to allay misery and gain souls for God."

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."

"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 daly 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.

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 rightious 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.


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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