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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.