History of the 69th New York
by Claire Morris
RELIGION & PRIESTS IN THE IRISH BRIGADE
The Irish Brigade were very fortunate that there was so much provision for the men’s religious needs. The Brigade, which was almost exclusively Catholic, had at its peak three Catholic priests, and at no point during the war was the Brigade without one.
Father Dillion of the 63rd New York was from Notre-Dame, Father Corby the mild mannered and understanding chaplain of the 88th New York, was also from Notre-Dame, and Father Ouellet was a Jesuit Catholic Priest from Fordham for the 69th New York.
Father Ouellet was a short burly man who had a long beard down to his chest. The author Paul Jones believes that Father Ouellet was an “Uncompromising martinet on all matters concerning religious duties. In spite of his quick temper, the men liked him because he was just as likely to reprove an officer publicly for excessive profanity as he was to admonish a private in the rear rank,” (Jones pg 97). He was with the 69th New York from November 1861 until the summer of 1862. He was actually discharged from the 69th on 25th December 1862, but again he re-enlisted on the 15th April 1864 and continued until the end of the war. In between his two periods of service with the 69th, Father Oullet was the hospital chaplain in Newbern, North Carolina, still serving the Union. Father Edward McKee was the chaplain of the 116th Pennsylvania from 24th September 1862 to 21st December 1862, when he was honourably discharged after suffering illness for some time. Father Dillon worked hard to ensure that the men of the 63rd New York were ‘Temperance Men’ who took the pledge at Father Dillon’s urgings, to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the war.
There were always ample opportunities for the men to hear mass, take communion and to go to confession. Many Catholics in the Army of the Potomac were not so fortunate, and they would, when given the opportunity visit the Irish Brigade to see the priests.
The priest’s did more than perform the Catholic religious ceremonies. They were guardians of ‘moral fibre’ encouraging temperance and personal cleanliness whilst on campaign. They also helped with the organisation of the St Patrick’s Day’s celebrations, and assisted the men sending money home to their families in New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. For those soldiers who were not as literate as others, the Irish Brigade priests wrote letters home on behalf of the men. As Father Corby was one of the few Catholic priests in the Army Of The Potomac, he had to prepare several men from various Corps for executions after their court marshals. These understandably had a profound effect on Father Corby, and several of these accounts litter his memoirs.
Both Father Corby and Ouellet showed great courage in going forward with the men during battle, and performing their religious duties whilst often under severe fire, searching for wounded men to comfort them, and when necessary perform the last rites. After battles they would also stay at field hospitals administering rites to those who requested them, and generally caring for the wounded.
St. Clair A Mullholland in his history, ‘The Story Of The One Hundred & Sixteenth Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers In The War Of Rebellion: The Record Of A Gallant Command,’ states that, “At the time it did not occur to one, but now, when years have passed and we look back we must feel astonished at the high moral standard of the army that fought the War of the Rebellion, and the Regiment was second to none in that respect. Seldom was an obscene word or an oath heard in the camp. Meetings for prayer were of almost daily occurrence, and the groups of men sitting on the ground or gathered on the hill side listening to the Gospel were strong remaindered of the mounds of Galilee when the people sat upon the ground to hear the Saviour teach.”