Inspirational stories of exemplary people.
"Since it is so likely that (children) will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” --- C. S. Lewis
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
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."
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.
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.'
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.
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.”
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
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.
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. http://the-american-catholic.com/2009/04/21/priest-of-andersonville/
Various. Wikipedia: Peter Whelan (priest). 9
April 2013. web. 6 May 2013.