At the time of American Civil War, Priest Chaplain William O’Higgins was having difficulties working with his pastor and bishop.
So, unlike many Americans of Irish descent who avoided the war, he decided to become a chaplain in the battle between the states.
Fr. David J. Endres, a Civil War expert and academic dean and associate professor of church history at Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati, presented a talk on O’Higgins on Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Kenosha Civil War Museum.
“Fr. O’Higgins’ story has a certain way of being a lens for us to understand the 19th Century in a better way,” said Fr. Endres, most recently the author of “Soldiers of the Cross, the Authoritative Text: The Heroism of Catholic Chaplains and Sisters in the American Civil War.” “He was an immigrant as so many were at this time. He was a member of an ethnic minority, an Irishman, a missionary and a pastor. He was also a soldier and a fighter, and we can think of a fighter literally or maybe figuratively in some ways. He had a lot of energy that he put forward.”
Comparing him to a “19th century Forrest Gump,” Fr. Endres explained that O’Higgin’s life skirted some of the most important and impactful moments in the 19th century, such as the Irish famine, the Civil War, post-war reconstruction — and then he rubbed shoulders with one of the most important bishops at the first Vatican council. His life ended where it began, in Ireland.
“Fr. O’Higgins tried many things, but his most significant years seem to be the three he served as Chaplain in the 10th Ohio,” said Fr. Endres. “This was where he seemed most at home. O’Higgins was a man who could bristle under authority. He could be disagreeable and mean-spirited, he could be jealous of others, but the war was one way he could claim a good deal of self-respect and even redemption.”
Born in 1829 in Ireland, O’Higgins’s famous uncle was William O’Higgins, the bishop of Ardagh. With his uncle’s support or prompting, the younger O’Higgins began studying for the priesthood at Maynooth, the largest seminary at the time, which is still in existence.
“The young William seems to be doing OK until the bishop dies. Then suddenly, without the kind of backing and the patronage that the soon Fr. O’Higgins was enjoying at the time, the rector of the seminary wonders if it might be better if the young O’Higgins was gone,” said Fr. Endres. “After the death of the uncle in 1853, the rector is pushing O’Higgins out the door, but O’Higgins himself finds his way out when a traveling missionary bishop comes to town, a man by the name of John Heinz. Heinz was a bishop to British Guyana and was recruiting seminarians to be missionaries.”
Heinz interviewed the rector and learned of O’Higgins’ violent temper, cunning and insolence. Heinz consented to have him anyway, for he said, he can “hardly be as bad as the priests I already have.”
The missionary life in British Guyana was grueling, with extreme poverty and rampant illness. It was so difficult that Heinz looked for a way out and complained repeatedly to the Vatican. Finally, the mission was put under the direction of the Jesuits.
“So, Heinz gets to leave, and O’Higgins was told he could choose his next move,” said Fr. Endres. “O’Higgins writes to Cincinnati Archbishop Purcell asking him if he had a place for him, and Purcell wrote back and told him to get there as soon as he can, and they will have a spot for him. He served a couple of years at some small parishes along the Ohio River, where many Irish had immigrated, (then) he got promoted to the big leagues. He was sent to the largest Irish parish, St. Patrick’s in Cincinnati, to be the assistant priest.”
Fr. Richard Gilmour, the parish priest, and Fr. O’Higgins clashed almost immediately. After thinking he was going to be removed from the diocese, Fr. O’Higgins sent a series of letters to Archbishop Purcell, explaining his side of things. One of his last letters expressed his desire to apply for the position of chaplain in the Army in the war because the situation at St. Patrick’s was so tenuous.
In the U.S., military chaplains have served since the Revolutionary War. The widespread use of Catholic Chaplains did not begin until the Civil War after large populations of Catholic immigrants changed the demographic of a previously Protestant-dominated America.
“This was his letter of escape,” said Fr. Endres. “So, on June 3, 1861, O’Higgins becomes chaplain of the 10th Ohio, which was primarily an Irish regiment.”
Not only did this help O’Higgins escape his situation, but he provided for a real need in the Army. He served for most of the war, unlike most chaplains, who may have served several months to a year. O’Higgins served for three years.
“O’Higgins’ duties were to prepare men for the sacraments, as war was a great time to get caught up on the sacrament of baptism, confession, communion and confirmation,” said Fr. Endres. “Despite challenging circumstances and a limited number of supplies, O’Higgins tried to say Mass daily. More challenging for him was to elevate the morale of the men.”
After the war, Fr. O’Higgins served in Cincinnati; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Cleveland before returning home to Ireland, where he died in 1874.
The Kenosha Civil War Museum Exhibit
“Loyal to the Union: Ohio in the Civil War” is available until June 4, 2023
Hours: Monday through Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday: Noon to 5 p.m.
For more information, visit museums.kenosha.org/civilwar