Few Catholic chaplains served in the American Civil War; Protestant chaplains outnumbered them twenty to one. Of forty or so priests ministering as part of the Federal war effort, at any one time never more than two dozen served the Union's estimated 200,000 Catholic soldiers (among them, 145,000 Irish).1 Consequently, Catholic soldiers often had no access to the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, confession, and—of particular importance during the war—"last rites." Reasons for the dearth included demand for priests to serve as pastors in the rapidly growing Church in America, Catholics' ambivalence toward the war itself, especially regarding the slavery issue, and many Protestant officers' refusal to allow Catholic priests to serve their regiments.
While religious order clergy, including the Congregation of Holy Cross and the Jesuits, provided some spiritual care, few diocesan priests served as chaplains, often because bishops did not view the chaplaincy as a priority. A notable exception, Archbishop John B. Purcell of Cincinnati (1800-1883), strongly favored the Federal cause. Within his archdiocese, located near the border between North and South, significant sympathy existed for the Confederacy in Cincinnati with its diverse population, and the assignment of chaplains may have been unpopular.2 Still, Purcell supplied two full-time [End Page 97] priest chaplains, one of whom, Rev. William T. O'Higgins (1829-1874), an Irish-born "refugee" priest, had arrived in America four years prior to the start of the war.
O'Higgins' life and ministry has never been well documented.3 Aidan Henry Germain's Catholic Military and Naval Chaplains (1929) contains less than a half-page of biography. Significant biographical compilations of Union chaplains provide barely a mention.4 Even David Power Conyngham's manuscript "Soldiers of the Cross" omits him in favor of telling the stories of more prominent priest chaplains.5 The following account of O'Higgins' life, based on his war-time letters6 and print and manuscript sources, opens a window into the remarkable experiences of a missionary, pastor, and army chaplain.
William T. Higgins (later O'Higgins) was born in June of 1829 near the border of counties Leitrim and Longford, Ireland, perhaps in Lurga, near Mohill (Leitrim) or Drumlish (Longford). His parents are believed to be Patrick and Rose (Brannan) Higgins.7 William apparently changed his family name at birth, Higgins, to that of his uncle, Bishop William O'Higgins (1793-1853), Catholic bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnois. The bishop himself added the "O" to his surname after 1832—a nod to the royal branch of the family. At age eighteen, the younger William began studies for the priesthood at the Royal College of St. Patrick's at Maynooth, [End Page 98] County Kildare, where his uncle had once taught.8 But Bishop O'Higgins died on January 3, 1853, leaving the young seminarian bereft of his protector and patron. William did not perhaps enjoy the favor of his uncle's successor.
Within a few months, Bishop John Thomas Hynes, O.P. (1799-1869), vicar apostolic of British Guiana, recruited O'Higgins for missionary work in the West Indies. The latter along with other recruits arrived at Demerara, British Guiana, on August 8, 1853. Though O'Higgins had not yet completed studies for the priesthood, Hynes desperately needed priests for his mission territory. Within the span of three days O'Higgins received a "plentitude" of holy orders: subdeaconate on August 13, deaconate on August 14, and priesthood on August 15.9
Ministry in British Guiana proved difficult. Clergy misconduct, especially alcoholism, communicable diseases, and difficulties of language and culture, stunted the Church's growth.10 Bishop Hynes looked for a way out, and in 1856 the Jesuits accepted direction of ministry in the British colony. In December, Hynes began to grant official, church-sanctioned exeats (literally "he may leave") to his diocesan priests, leaving O'Higgins to consider his next move.
O'Higgins departed Demerara for the United States, arriving in Philadelphia on May 23, 1857.11 Though he left British Guiana without securing sponsorship of a...