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Fr. Peter Whelan 1802-1871

Fr. WhelanI read recently that having volunteered for duty, Fr Peter Whelan, from Loughnageer, Foulksmills, here in Wexford, ministered to sick and dying Confederate and Union soldiers during the bitter American conflict in appalling conditions.

In Savannah, Georgia, I understand his memory is revered and that there is a short historical documentary about his life entitled Fighting The Good Fight: The Father Peter Whelan Story, but no one knew where he came from in Wexford until recently.

During the American Civil War, Fr Whelan volunteered to serve Confederate troops defending Fort Pulaski near Savannah. He remained with them until the fort fell in 1862. Along with the troops Fr Whelan became a prisoner of war and was transported to Governor's Island in New York. On May 10, 1862, Fr Whelan was discharged on parole, but he refused to leave, choosing instead to remain with the men, who now needed him more than ever.

When he returned to Savannah, Fr Whelan resumed his duties as vicar general. Two years later he travelled to Andersonville to minister to the 33,000 sick and dying Union prisoners in that notorious camp. His ministry was carried out under blazing sun. He exposed himself to great danger of infection, kneeling by the side of decaying bodies, in the stench and filth of the gangrene wards. While there he contracted a lung ailment that eventually shortened his life. After the war he returned to Savannah as pastor of the new St Patrick's church.

Known as 'The Angel of Andersonville Prison', his funeral in 1871 was the biggest Savannah had ever witnessed, with thousands of people in attendance.



I visited Fort Pulaski but regrettably was not told about Fr. Whelan.
Many many irish men fought in our civil war. Irish folk songs became part of our music albeit some with different lyrics.
I wonder what Fr. Whelan's responses were to the plight of the slaves?

Savannah is a beautiful city. It was not burned in Sherman's March to the Sea. It was a very prosperous city and the residents negotiated with Sherman. Savannah had such a large Irish population that it started a St Patrick's day parade very early. It is one of the largest parades in the United States.
I regret to say that my knowledge of the civil war is very, very limited. It was great that so many Irish were helped in the war by one of their own. It must have been a dreadful experience for all involved. I was very stirred by that video.
The battle carnage was horrific. Tactics were still of Waterloo but the technology was much advanced.
Sherman's March decimated the south. But sieges to Richmond, Natchez and other cities also destroyed the economy.

We are commemorating 150 year anniversary of the war. It is said that before the war people said the United States ARE - their loyalty was to their state. After the war it changed to the United States IS - unity was cemented.
After the war the United States changed from an agricultural to an industrial focus. The economic and political power went to business.

The war was about slavery but slavery as an economic and social basis of power in the south. The south saw the election of Lincoln as a threat to that base of power and rushed to secede. The political struggle had been about the proliferation of slavery in the western territories applying to become states. If slavery was not allowed the agricultural interests of the south could not move into these new lands. Both northerners and southerners had moved west and they had competing interests.

Slavery started in the United States in 1619. The civil war did not "solve" the social and emotional problems it created. We are still working on it.
What a wonderfully concise summary. Thank you.
Thanks for posting this. I've never heard this story before ;o)
It is men like Fr. Whelan that should be recognized and canonized. (We're getting scarce!)
It's too bad that Whelan was anti-abolitionist and pro-secessionist; he fully supported the CSA and its objectives, which included spreading slavery throughout the hemisphere.

Savannah was founded by the protestant Oglethorpe -- it was a hospitable center for Wesley and Methodism. Wesley even spent time in Savannah. You will find many monuments to him as a religious leader. For Whelan it's about being an angel of mercy to confederate soldiers.

Oglethorpe also planned Savannah and part of that was that Georgia was to be a non-slavery state. Neither South Carolina nor his citizens were having that! Or Florida, later. Could not have a free soil state between two rabidly slave states, nosireebhob!

Very interesting slant on the politics of the whole period.
It went far beyond 'politics' for abolitionists and the enslaved. It was about morality and human rights.

The abolitionists were a minority in the north. They were a dedicated group but did not have wide political support.
Lincoln's fear was it he allowed the south to secede other areas would follow. There had always been a separatist element in New England. Lincoln feared that the vast physical territory would become like Europe, a number of small states forever at war with one another over competing interests.