May 27, 2013

No Lack of Heroes Causing Lack of Posts

May is a crazy month at our house, hence the lack of posts in May.  Every May our family struggles to stay ahead of end-of-year activities at the three schools that the kids attend.  Last year I got ahead by writing several posts early and posting them weekly.  Not this year...

So I forgive myself and enjoy the week anyway.  I'll be back on track in June.  There is no lack of heroes, it's just a full life with the attendant responsibilities that come to a Mom with a large family. 

I find myself in the enviable position of being surrounded by my kids and grand-kids, with my parents along, on our family vacation to the beach.  The ocean waves rhythmically wash ashore outside my window just 40 feet away as I type this.  A day of body-surfing or boogie-boarding and sea shell collecting is unfolding as the kids awake and prepare for fun.  Observing the Sabbath yesterday at Church just heightened our anticipation to hit the surf today.  It will be our first time in the water since arriving on the South Carolina coast on Saturday afternoon. 

Arranging this weeks' vacation took stressful effort which, combined with the typical over-scheduled month, took all of my energy.  Was it worth it?  Oh yes.  No doubt!  The downer is that the hero blog is neglected.  Heroes go unnoticed.  But they will wait.  There are so many great lives to honor, I will forgive myself and enjoy the week.  Kids are slathering on sunscreen and gathering their swim gear.  Time to get back to the present and bask in this loving family.  It is my greatest blessing.

Photo is a view from our rental home courtesy of 

May 6, 2013

Priest Peter Whalen Ministers to Civil War Friend and Foe POWs

This weekend we visited Savannah with our kids.  We pulled them out of school for a family field trip to some excellent historical sites in Savannah and Tybee Island.  Among them, we visited Fort Pulaski, scene of a famous battle in the Civil War.  There I learned about a wonderful man named Peter Whalen who may have ministered to my ancestor David Earley languishing there.  (To read about David Earley's experience there, click here:  David Earley POW at Andersonville)

Peter Whalen was born in Ireland, but moved to Charleston, South Carolina where he was ordained a Priest in the Catholic faith in 1830.  Having moved to Savannah, Georgia, he was sixty years old when he volunteered to minister to the Confederate troops holding Fort Pulaski during the Civil War.  He arrived around September 1961.  As their Chaplain, he administered the Catholic rites and comforted the soldiers.  Slowly, Union forces cut off contact with outlying troops, causing more stress and discomfort among the soldiers.  It also severed his ability to return to Savannah, where he had been serving in the Catholic diocese.  For six months, Father Whalen lived the life of a soldier within the walls of Fort Pulaski.  Father Whalen also suffered the stresses of bombardment as the Union, using new rifled cannons, blasted a hole in Fort Pulaski over 30 hours of gunfire in April 1862.

Once Colonel Olmstead surrended the fort on April 11, 1862, the Confederate soldiers were divided up to be sent to POW camps.  Father Whalen was offered his freedom at this point, but refused, saying that 'his boys needed him.'  He went with one group to Governor's Island in New York to stay at Castle William POW camp.  Here, he found the soldiers barefoot and cold.  He quickly got food and clothing sent from Baltimore, Maryland, then from his friends in New York.  These friends petitioned that Father Whalen be released, as he was not a soldier but a clergy caught in the battle, and they agreed.  But when Father Whalen was offered his freedom again, he said no.  He wanted to stay with the boys who needed him more than ever now.   Instead he stayed with them until all of them were paroled or sent home in August 1863.

Returning home to Savannah, he assumed responsibility for the religious needs of all the Confederate forces serving throughout Georgia.  That commitment would be tested with his next assignment:  Andersonville Prison Camp.  

In May 1864, After Reverend William Hamilton happened upon Andersonville, requested entrance to see if any Catholics resided there, he was shocked at what he saw.  Seeing droves of filthy, starving men prompted him to write to the local Bishop Verot for someone to serve them.  In part, he wrote this in his letter,"…I found the stockade extremely filthy; the men all huddled together and covered with vermin (lice).… I found [the hospital] almost as crowded as the stockade. The men were dying there very rapidly from scurvy…diarrhea and dysentery…They were not only covered with the ordinary vermin but also maggots…they had nothing under them at all except the ground."  Bishop Verot asked Father Whelan to go to Andersonville, this time to minister to enemy POWs. 

Father Whelan arrived on 16 June 1964 and was equally horrified by conditions at Andersonville.  Writer Donald McClary wrote, "From dawn to dusk he heard confessions, ministered to the sick, and gave comfort and the Final Sacrament to the many dying.  Father Whelan was helped in his labors by other volunteer priests and Bishop Verot who visited Andersonville twice.  Protestant Union soldiers noted wryly in their diaries that the ministers of their own denominations were put to shame by the Christian love and charity shown by Father Whelan and the other priests.  Hearing of the work of Father Whelan Protestant ministers did eventually begin to come to Andersonville to assist the prisoners."

Although Father Whelan was able to bring in other ministers to help periodically, none of them stayed for the duration of the war.  Father Hamilton himself came for a time but quickly contracted illness and left at Father Whelan’s urging. 

Father Whelan was not interred at the POW camp, but slept a mile away in a small hut.  Every day, he walked willingly into the camp and ministered to the haggard and sickly inhabitants.  And as he had done in Castle William, he contacted his friends to gather food, clothing and supplies to distribute to the masses who needed them, a small drop in the bucket of an immense need. Many called him the 'Angel of Andersonville' because of his benevolence to all prisoners.  Others called him the 'Good Samaritan.'

Hearing that General Sherman was close to invading and liberating Andersonville, in August 1864, Father Whelan prepared to leave.  He borrowed $16,000 Confederate money (or $400 in gold) to buy enough flour to feed thousands.  With it, he bought 10,000 pounds of flour, which he had made into bread.  This came to be known as ‘Whalen’s bread’, which he had distributed to the prisoners in Andersonville.  For some, it was enough to hold them until the end of the war.  It was his last offering of help to those too destitute to care for themselves. 

October 1st brought Sherman and the anticipated liberation of those left at Andersonville.  Father Whelan explained his leaving by saying, “I stayed until the vast portion of the prisoners were removed to other points.  I would have stayed longer if the prisoners had been retained.  My duties were those of a Catholic priest; nothing more.  I had no commission from the government; I went there voluntarily without pay or remuneration, further than merely to receive rations.”

With the movement of the prisoners, Father Whelan returned to Savannah once more to resume his duties there.  But with him, Father Whelan carried a cough from germs unavoidably caught while serving amongst the prisoners.  Private Henry M. Davidson of 1st Ohio Light Artillery wrote of Father Whelan, “By coming here he exposed himself to great danger of infection… His services were sought by all, for, in his kind and sympathizing looks, his meek but earnest appearance, the despairing prisoners read that all humanity had not forsaken mankind.”

Although Father Whelan suffered from Tuberculosis (most likely) he continued to minister to his congregants until his death in 1871.  He even testified in defense of Captain Henry Wirz, the keeper of Andersonville prison camp, at his trial in 1865.    

McCreary summed it up nicely when he said, “In a time of bitter civil war Father Whelan ministered to both imprisoned friend and foe as his brothers in Christ.”  Father Peter Whelan ministered in the truest Christian manner, freely to all.  At a time in his life when most are easing into retirement, Whelan voluntarily lived and served among the lowliest of mankind in the worst prison camp in America's history. 

Works Cited

Chipman, Norton Parker. The Tragedy of Andersonville: The Trial of Captain Henry Wirz. Sacramento: Self Published, 1911. Print.
McClarey, Donald. The American Catholic: Priest of Andersonville. 21 April 2009. web. 6 May 2013.
Various. Wikipedia: Peter Whelan (priest). 9 April 2013. web. 6 May 2013.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons