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Brother Serving Brother


John Burger

A photo depicting the Civil War

In this 1891 painting by University of Notre Dame student Paul Wood, Father William E. Corby offers a general absolution to the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg on the morning of July 2, 1863. (Courtesy of the Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame)

Few men who served in the Civil War had experiences quite like those of Father Peter Whelan.

Born in Ireland, Whelan came to America and studied for the priesthood in Charleston, S.C. Ordained in 1830, he ministered throughout the South, eventually settling in Savannah, Ga.

At the outbreak of the “War Between the States” in 1861, Father Whelan volunteered to become chaplain for an Irish-American unit at Fort Pulaski, which guarded the port of Savannah. And at the end of the war four years later, he was able to claim the unique status of having ministered to prisoners from both the Union and Confederate armies.

As the United States commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War this spring, the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., is featuring stories like Father Whelan’s in a new exhibit titled “Answering the Call: Service & Charity in the Civil War.” The exhibit, which runs through Sept. 20, centers on wartime struggles and hardships, as well as acts of bravery and compassion.

On both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, priests, commissioned as chaplains, offered Mass in the field, heard the confessions of men about to do battle, and administered last rites to the fallen, even under fire. Meanwhile, hundreds of religious sisters used their training as nurses to ease the pain and suffering of the wounded in battlefield hospitals and prisons, while sharing in the adversities of those in uniform.


More than 70 Catholic priests officially served as chaplains for the North and South during the war, while some others served unofficially as part-time chaplains. Still, Catholic chaplains were spread thin compared to their Protestant counterparts, and some Catholic regiments were without the ministry of a priest.

One notable exception was the 88th New York Infantry, a regiment within the Irish Brigade that fought in the Battle of Gettysburg. On the morning of July 2, 1863, their chaplain, Father William E. Corby, climbed onto a rock to give general absolution to the men kneeling before him. They then marched into the infamous Wheatfield, where 202 Union soldiers died.

After the war, Father Corby, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, wrote about his experiences on the battlefield and later served as the third president of the University of Notre Dame.

Not all chaplains served on the Union side, of course. According to Benedictine Father Peter J. Meaney, writing in the Georgia Historical Quarterly in 1987, people of all faiths in the South were secessionists, and thus it was not unusual to find Catholics sympathetic to the Confederate cause. But the mission of bringing souls to Christ impelled priests like Father Whelan beyond any political motivation.

For Father Whelan, it was natural to sign up for chaplain duty, even if it meant marching off to war at 60 years of age. Soon after he took up his post in Savannah, Union troops began attacking Fort Pulaski. Enduring 30 hours of heavy bombardment, the Confederate troops finally were taken captive and transported north to a prison on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor.

Father Whelan accompanied his men and served them amid miserable conditions. The prison lacked latrines, adequate ventilation and sufficient heating, and many men suffered from pneumonia, typhoid and measles. In addition to ministering to the prisoners’ spiritual needs, Father Whelan set about obtaining food and clothing for them. When local New York priests caught wind of his heroic efforts, they successfully petitioned for Father Whelan’s parole.

But the Irish priest from the South chose to stay with his men. He applied for the post of chaplain and offered Mass on Governor’s Island twice a week.

Noticing that his clothes had suffered severe wear, Confederate officers bought him a new suit, but Father Whelan noticed a newly arrived prisoner who needed clothing even more than he did. When an officer asked why he hadn’t given the prisoner his old clothes, Father Whelan simply said, “When I give for Christ’s sake, I give the best.”

After his service on Governor’s Island, Father Whelan returned to his priestly duties in Savannah. However, his service to soldiers was not yet over. When a priest reported that there was a significant number of Catholics held in the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Ga., the bishop sent Father Whelan to minister to Union prisoners of war.

“Father Whelan was the longest-serving chaplain there — he stayed four months,” said Bethany Sheffer, curator of the Knights of Columbus Museum. “Ultimately he got sick there, and it shortened his life.”

Sheffer recounted another story about Father Whelan’s generosity. When malnourished prisoners were being transferred out of Andersonville, the priest managed to obtain a loan of about $16,000 in Confederate money to buy 10,000 pounds of flour.

“It was then given to the prisoners, and they called it ‘Whelan’s Bread,’” said Sheffer. “Later, he reached out to the federal government to get reimbursed, but was refused. He paid the loan off with money people had given him to take care of himself.”


The man who turned down Father Whelan’s request, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, may not have supported a heroic chaplain, but he did support the work of Catholic religious sisters who served during the war.

“The sisters were esteemed as nurses, so they were highly sought after,” Sheffer said, noting that Stanton asked them to administer hospitals in Washington, D.C. “They worked in Stanton Hospital, which is named after him, as well as Douglas Hospital. The sisters didn’t take any pay — they did what was needed out of charity, to assist both sides.”

After a visit to Stanton Hospital, run by the Sisters of Mercy from Pittsburgh, President Abraham Lincoln observed, “Of all the forms of charity and benevolence seen in the crowded wards of the hospitals, those of some Catholic sisters were among the most efficient. … As they went from cot to cot, distributing the medicines prescribed … they were veritable angels of mercy.”

Many of the more than 600 sisters who offered aid to wounded soldiers came from religious orders that had founded hospitals. Thus, many already had extensive training as nurses. Several had also served during the Crimean War (1853-1856) and shared their knowledge with fellow sisters to develop well-organized nursing wards. Through their example, war hospitals became more efficient, and future standards for the treatment of the wounded in battlefields were established.

These sisters did far more than bandage wounds and assist surgeons in operating rooms. They washed and mended soiled clothing, bandages and linens, ensured as sanitary an environment in the wards as possible, and made sure that those under their charge were fed, often going without food themselves. In addition, they provided moral support, wrote letters home dictated by soldiers, and in some cases entertained the wounded with musical recitals.

Though the women religious did not serve in the line of fire, like the chaplains who frequently ministered on or near battlefields, their lives were still at risk.

“When diseases such as smallpox broke out, even doctors refused to help patients,” wrote journalist Renee Standera in a 2013 article about Civil War nurses. “Some sisters sacrificed their lives to nurse soldiers suffering from contagious diseases. Others died from exhaustion.”

After the Battle of Shiloh, Tenn., where some 25,000 men fell in battle, Sister Anthony O’Connell, a Cincinnati-based Sister of Charity, recalled trials the sisters experienced attending the wounded.

“What we endured on the field of battle while gathering up the wounded is beyond description,” Sister O’Connell wrote. “Day would often dawn on us only to renew the work of the preceding day without a moment’s rest.”

One soldier later immortalized Sister O’Connell with these words: “Amid this sea of blood, she performed the most revolting duties for those poor soldiers. She seemed like a ministering angel and many a young soldier owes his life to her care and charity. Happy was the soldier who, wounded and bleeding, had her near to whisper words of consolation. … She was reverenced by Blue and Gray, Protestant and Catholic, and we conferred upon her the title of Florence Nightingale of America.”

A monument dedicated to the religious women of the Civil War

A monument dedicated to the women religious who ministered to wounded and dying soldiers from both the North and South during the American Civil War is seen across the street from the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)


While the many battlefields of America’s bloodiest conflict are frequently visited by reenactors and history buffs, other places related to the conflict have become like pilgrimage destinations. The Knights of Columbus Museum exhibit contains an artifact from one such location: an ornate 19th-century wooden missal stand, carved from a pew in St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg, Pa. It tells a chilling story.

During the Battle of Gettysburg and for several weeks thereafter, St. Francis Xavier Church was used as a field hospital. The vestibule served as an operating room, with the outside doors opened to provide ventilation and light. More than 200 injured men were brought to the church and laid on the pews and upon the floor, where some died from their wounds. The inscription of a relief work at the church today honors the Sisters of Charity from nearby Emmitsburg, Md., who tended the Union and Confederate soldiers with equal care.

One of the sisters serving the wounded later wrote about the first soldier who entered the sanctuary. Upon seeing the Stations of the Cross and a large painting of St. Francis Xavier holding a crucifix, he was converted and received baptism. “His pain was excruciating,” she wrote, “and when sympathy was offered to him he said, ‘Oh! What are these pains I suffer in comparison with those my Redeemer suffered for me.’ In these sentiments he died.”

After that horrific month, the church had to be reconsecrated because so many soldiers had died there, and the bloodstained pews could not be used again.

In 1925, together with a new memorial façade for St. Francis Xavier Church, the Pennsylvania State Council of the Knights of Columbus funded the creation of two bronze reliefs to honor the Catholic men and women who served in the war. The first represents Father Corby’s general absolution, while the second depicts the nursing service provided by the Sisters of Charity.

While sisters bound up physical wounds and priests sought to heal spiritual ones, Catholics as a whole contributed to the wider effort of healing a nation split apart.

The conflict between the Union and the Confederacy was not the only cause of social unrest at the time. Many Catholics, especially recent immigrants, struggled to gain acceptance in the New World. As the men who gathered around Father Michael J. McGivney to form the Knights of Columbus just a few decades later understood so well, nativists of various stripes were none too eager to accept these new Americans.

While sharing in these difficulties, the dedicated Catholics who served during the war, including priests and sisters, often challenged negative stereotypes. Like Father Whelan, Father Corby and Sister O’Connell, they offered their best for the sake of Christ and their countrymen.

JOHN BURGER is a news editor for Aleteia.org.


Sidebar: The Civil War and the Origins of the Knights of Columbus

Founded less than 17 years after the close of the Civil War, the Knights of Columbus counted many Civil War veterans among its initial members. Among them was the Order’s first supreme knight, James T. Mullen, who enlisted Sept. 11, 1861, to serve in the Ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers.

Known as the “Irish Regiment” because it consisted mostly of Irish-American soldiers, the Ninth deployed from New Haven, Conn., with 845 volunteers. The men traveled to Mississippi to begin work on what eventually became known as Grant’s Canal — an effort to redirect the Mississippi River and cut off the Confederate forces at Vicksburg.

“The Ninth Irish Regiment was not treated terribly well at the beginning of the war,” explained Matthew Warshauer, professor of history at Central Connecticut State University, during a lecture at the Knights of Columbus Museum March 21. “When they arrived at Ship Island on the Gulf Coast, they didn’t have weapons, they weren’t properly uniformed, and they got stuck trying to dig a new channel for the Mississippi River.”

Though some historians suggest that the successful completion of Grant’s Canal might have prevented the eventual Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, the undertaking proved more costly than any of its perceived benefits. As work on the canal progressed in 1862 with soldiers from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, Wisconsin and Michigan, disease began to spread through the ranks like wildfire, and hundreds of soldiers died. Many took ill with dysentery, diarrhea, heatstroke and malaria — including Mullen. His sickness prompted an honorable discharge on Dec. 27, 1862, and the future supreme knight returned home to Connecticut.

At the end of the war, Connecticut invited Catholics to reestablish militia units that would be incorporated into the state’s National Guard. One of these Catholic units was the Sarsfield Guards, an all-Irish unit from New Haven.

In 1874, at Mullen’s suggestion, a social organization called the Red Knights was created. The name originated from the red blankets from the Sarsfield knapsacks that were used at the first initiation. The Red Knights offered members an opportunity for self-improvement, respectability and mutual assistance in times of crisis for the Irish-Catholic community in New Haven, but the group disbanded in 1880 because of low membership and the relatively weak death benefit for members.

When Father McGivney founded the Knights of Columbus two years later, all of the Order’s original members, with the exception of the priests, had been members of the Red Knights. In fact, the name “Knights” was used at the insistence of Mullen and others in order to emphasize the ritualistic nature of the Order.

Another Civil War connection to the Knights of Columbus was Bishop Lawrence McMahon of Hartford. Selfless and untiring, he had served as a chaplain during some of the fiercest and bloodiest battles in the war. In 1879, he was appointed to head the Diocese of Hartford, and he served in that capacity until his death in 1893. It was Bishop McMahon who, after discussions with Father McGivney, gave approval to the founding of the Knights of Columbus. — Reported by Patrick Scalisi and John Burger.