Fr. Whelan, Angel of Andersonville, is Honored in Wexford
Father Peter Whelan didn’t take sides. He was on God’s side.
The Civil War priest was known, to Confederate and Union soldiers alike, as a good man who administered to their needs.
Fr. Peter was born in Wexford and made his way to America where he was ordained a priest in 1830. He served in Charleston, South Carolina, and the See embraced North Carolina and Georgia as well. He went on to become the pastor of the first Catholic parish in Georgia and, following the death of the bishop (Francis Gartland of Dublin, the first bishop of Savannah, who died during the yellow fever epidemic of 1854), Fr. Peter became the sole administrator of the entire parish of Savannah.
When the Civil War broke, out Fr. Peter signed on as chaplain to the Montgomery Guards, an Irish company established in Savannah, for the First Georgia Volunteer Regiment. He ministered to Confederate troops during and following the capture of Fort Pulaski by Union soldiers; volunteering to stay with his men during their imprisonment on Governor’s Island, New York. He was offered early release but refused to leave the prison. After a year, he returned to Savannah and went on to administer to the prisoners at Camp Sumter Military prison at Andersonville, Georgia. Built for 6,000, Andersonville, held up to 45,000 Union soldiers as prisoners, most of them without shelter, water or food – conditions under which some 13,000 of them died.
Fr. Peter was the only priest, and he was in his sixties at the time. In fact, he was the only chaplin of any denomination to serve at Andersonville. He was tireless in his ministry: giving last rites to the dying, hearing confessions, and consoling the men in that living hell, putrid with the smell of gangrene.
At one point, officers in charge gave Fr. Peter a new suit of clothing, so threadbare and worn were his own, but he quickly gave the suit away to a soldier who had been captured in his underclothes. When asked why he hadn’t given the soldier his old threadbare suit, he answered, “When I give for Christ’s sake, I give the best.”
Fr. Peter stayed at Andersonville until the end of the war, ministering to Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Surviving letters and prison diaries are filled with admiration for the man they called “the Angel of Andersonville.”
After the war, Fr. Peter returned to Savannah as pastor of the new St. Patrick’s church. He died just a few years later, on February 6, 1871, from a lung disease he is said to have contacted at Andersonville. His funeral procession was the largest that Savannah had ever seen – stretching two miles.
Though it was known that Fr. Peter was from Wexford (Savannah and the surrounding area was heavily populated with immigrants from Wexford), it wasn’t until recently that his homeplace was identified.
This past summer, a family in Clongeen, Foulksmills, Co. Wexford discovered a photo of Fr. Whelan in their home. Since then, a complete family tree has been put together. And this past August 18, two plaques honoring Fr. Whelan were unveiled: one at his homestead, and one at Clongeen Church. The unveilings were attended by relatives of Fr. Whelan and a group of invited guests from Savannah. The “Angel of Andersonville” is now remembered on both sides of the Atlantic, and a plaque honoring Fr. Peter also stands at the site of the former Andersonville prison, now a historic site. It serves as a memorial to all American prisoners of war throughout the nation’s history.