There are many heroes associated with the Confederate States of America (CSA) whose stories have been forgotten or swept under the rug; after all, the winners write the history. Among those forgotten in our northern history books are Irish Catholic priests like Rev. Tom O’Reilly of Cavan, Rev. Abram Ryan of Tipperary parents and Rev. Peter Whelan of Wexford. Rev. O’Reilly earned fame as the man who threatened General Sherman with a mutiny by the Irish Catholics in his army if he torched the church district of Atlanta at the start of his infamous march to the sea; Sherman acquiesced and the entire church district was saved, including the City Hall which stood therein. Rev. Ryan was famed as the poet laureate of the south and inspiration of The Lost Cause – a literary and intellectual movement that sought to reconcile southern society to the defeat of the south by portraying their cause as noble and most of its leaders as exemplars of old-fashioned chivalry, defeated by overwhelming force rather than martial skill. However, Rev. Peter Whelan was perhaps the most courageous of them all.
Rev. Whelan distinguished himself as a chaplain for the Montgomery Guards, an Irish company established in Savannah for the First Georgia Volunteer Regiment. Previously he had been a missionary in North Carolina, pastor of Georgia’s first Catholic parish, and administrator of the entire diocese of Savannah where his main concern was poor Irish immigrants. In 1861 he volunteered as chaplain to the Montgomery Guard at Fort Pulaski.
In 1862, the fort was bombarded into surrender by Union forces. Although he was offered freedom, Father Whelan chose to remain with the prisoners. They were transported to Castle William on Governor’s Island, NY where meager rations, few toilet facilities and inadequate heating and ventilation soon had the prisoner suffering from pneumonia and typhus. The first step to alleviate this situation was to procure food and clothing and Rev. Whelan wrote to Rev. William Quinn of St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, NY. Rev. Quinn, fearing that confinement in the damp, cold prison would seriously injure the 60-year-old Rev. Whelan’s health, secured a parole for him. However, except for an occasional trip to the city to procure necessities for the men, Whelan remained at the prison, saying Mass each morning, visiting the sick, giving encouragement and spiritual guidance to those in need.
On June 20, 1862, a prisoner exchange was arranged and on July 10 the men left for Fort Delaware which they soon named Starvation Island. After a month, the Confederate prisoners were sent Aiken’s Landing, VA for exchange. They could walk the last 13 miles to Richmond. The ill were taken to City Point and then by rail to the capital. Rev. Whelan arrived with the sick at City Point and on August 8 was unconditionally released.
Upon his return to Savannah, Rev. Whelan resumed his post as Vicar General supervising the religious needs of the diocese. In May 1864, Rev. William Hamilton, the man responsible for the Catholic missions in southwestern Georgia, stopped in to Andersonville, where Union prisoners were held, to see how many Catholics were there. What he saw staggered him and he asked that a priest be provided immediately. The Bishop of Georgia asked Rev. Whelan to go and the 62-year-old priest agreed. He arrived at Andersonville in June – the hottest time of the year and the period of the highest mortality.
The camp was like nothing he had ever seen. The stockade sloped down on both sides to a small stream about a yard wide and foot deep. Since no arrangement had been made for sewage disposal, this creek provided water for drinking, cooking, and bathing! Into the creek was also thrown the waste of two nearby Confederate camps as well as the grease and garbage from the cookhouse. The slow-flowing stream soon became a mass of thick, liquid pollution. In the center of the camp was a swamp, part of which had been used by the prisoners as a toilet and excrement covered the ground; the smell was suffocating! Some of the very sick who were unable to extricate themselves from the muck along the creek had to relieve themselves there making the creek a further source of disease for the entire stockade. Rev. Whelan had to exert an enourmous effort to cross this creek to get from one side of the camp to the other. At the time, the number of prisoners was about 33,000 when it should have held no more than 10,000. Whelan requested help and each priest who came only lasted about two weeks before leaving.
In late August, as Union General Sherman was about to enter Atlanta, some Union prisoners were being transferred to Savannah and Charleston. By late September, Rev. Whelan decided that he too could leave, but before he left, he contacted a Catholic restaurant owner in Macon and borrowed $16,000. With this, he purchased 10,000 pounds of wheat flour, had it baked into bread and distributed it at the prison. The prisoners called it Whelan’s bread and it provided the men with rations for several months. One former prisoner later wrote, without a doubt he was the means of saving hundreds of lives.
When the elderly priest returned to Savannah he was suffering from a lung ailment contracted at Andersonville. In March 1866, he became ill with severe congestion. Before this outbreak he had written to Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, asking for money to pay back the loan he received to procure bread for the Union prisoners as the man from whom he’d borrowed was very sick himself and needed the money. Stanton replied that he needed sworn vouchers and bills of purchase for the flour. Whelan told Stanton to keep the money because he had, neither the health nor the strength to run over Georgia to hunt up vouchers and bills of purchase. He informed Stanton that God would provide the answer – and He did. Because of his worsening health, doctors had advised Whelan to go north to a drier climate. His friends in Savannah provided him with the necessary funds to make a trip to New York, but instead, preferring justice to health, Rev. Whelan used the money to repay his debt.
Rev. Whelan’s last days were as pastor of St. Patrick’s in Savannah where he died on February 6, 1871 at the age of 69. The Savannah Evening News described his funeral procession as the longest ever seen in the city. His body rested in a splendid iron casket, ornamented with full-size silver roses. A wreath of laurel, emblematic of his devotion to the South, was placed at the head of the coffin. 86 carriages and buggies escorted the body through the crowded streets to the cemetery. People from all over the city turned out to bid farewell to this beloved priest – Catholic and non-Catholic alike, including the Ancient Order of Hibernians, various religious societies, and other Irish organizations of Savannah.
According to a 1959 assessment of the man and his career, the fact that he ministered to Union prisoners-of-war at Andersonville may be one reason that he never received a lasting place in the history of the South he loved so much, but he was a true Christian hero nevertheless and his lasting place in heaven is assured.