The General’s Priest

Most serious students of the Civil War may recognize the name of Fr. Jeremiah Trecy, the Catholic priest who Major-General William S. Rosecrans recruited to join the chaplin corps of the Army of the Cumberland. Trecy is more commonly referred to as “Rosecrans’s confessor” and, in truth, he personally did look after the general’s spiritual needs. However, on November 24, 1862, within Fourteenth Army Corps Special Orders, No. 25, Rosecrans officially authorized Father Trecy to administer to those of the Catholic faith in all the various “camps, hospitals and garrisons of this army.” At that time there were a sizable number of Catholic soldiers throughout that army, especially those Irish immigrants in the Regular units, who did not have the opportunity of fulfilling their religious obligations due to the lack of clergy. With orderlies assigned from the Army Headquarters guard, the Tenth Ohio Volunteer Infantry, Father Trecy at once embarked upon his ministries.

Much of the detailed information about Trecy was preserved by David Power Conyngham, a former staff officer in the Army of the Potomac and contemporary Irish-American advocate author, who began work in the 1870’s upon a manuscript focusing upon conspicuous Northern and Southern Catholic priests and nuns who had ministered in the ranks entitled, Soldiers of the Cross. That manuscript presently resides within the archives of Notre Dame University. Conyngham traveled to Trecy’s parrish, then on the Louisiana coast, and spent some considerable time interviewing the priest about his wartime experiences. Conyngham gathered enough information from Trecy to fill out a good sized chapter in his manuscript.

Trecy’s experiences with Rosecrans and the Fourteenth Army Corps (later designated the Army of the Cumberland) offer additional insights to the General’s character and make for fascinating reading. Trecy recounted one such episode to Conyngham that unintentionally revealed a bit of a hidden practical joke that was played upon the priest by the General, of which the good reverend was apparently still unaware some 15 years later!

This particular episode occurred just before the movement of the army from its Nashville encampments towards Murfreesboro in late December of 1862. Father Trecy, of course, was busily visiting the various camps, performing his ministries and attending to the needs of his military congregations. The life of an army chaplin was still something new to the priest, and Father Trecy did not pretend to understand the military workings of a field army on campaign. As Christmas approached Rosecrans was busily engaged with his own administrations, that of preparing the army for its eminent movement against Bragg’s forces to the south.

Conyngham relates that when Father Trecy eventually returned to headquarters on Christmas Eve, he was shocked to find out that Rosecrans had ordered a general advance for Christmas Day, “the greatest day in the Christian Era!” Trecy is said to have pointed out that fact to Rosecrans, who admitted, “he had not thought of it!” Turning worriedly to Col. Julius Garesche, his Chief-of-Staff, Rosecrans questioned if the order could be safely delayed, to which Garesche responded that such could be easily done. The advance was subsequently ordered for the 26th, a fact of which Trecy seemed both greatly pleased and personally satisfied, even some 15 years later! But, of course, there’s more to the story.

It’s very true that Rosecrans had earlier issued orders for his army to begin the Murfreesboro movement on the morning of December 25th. The execution of those orders, however, were seriously interrupted when the Left Wing commander, Major-General Thomas L. Crittenden, reported that he could not possibly make the intended movement due to a lack of ready forage for his animals, and that he would require virtually all of the 25th in making the necessary foraging expeditions to replenish his stocks. Similar reports had come in from George Thomas’s Center command and by the evening of the 24th Rosecrans had determined to delay the movement to the 26th. Thus for purely logistical reasons the decision had already been made well before Trecy’s visit to headquarters. Rosecrans and Garesche, both of them devout Catholics and socially adept individuals, seemingly could not resist the spur-of-the-moment opportunity that presented itself with Trecy’s horrified reaction to the news of the army’s ill-considered and pagan-like marching orders! With almost flawless aplomb and totally convincing performances they had good-naturedly, yet impishly, played a tongue-in-cheek prank with the good Father!

Light-hearted, jocular moments aside, Father Jeremiah Trecy gave a good account of himself in the subsequent short campaign and battle of Stones River. It is well documented that he was among those of Rosecrans’s staff that rode furiously behind him, under fire, while Rosecrans personally shored up the failing Union lines on Dec. 31st. But Trecy was not with the general the entire time. He left the staff to attend to the suffering of the wounded he saw streaming from McCook’s front. While doing so his orderly’s horse was struck and careened away with both orderly and his own horse. He continued his work until forced to fall back on foot, finding Rosecrans again and being remounted.

Later that cold afternoon Rosecrans prepared to launch a limited counterattack with the troops along the southwestern side of the Nashville Pike. Father Trecy quickly rode out in front of a portion of the line, raised himself in his stirrups, and called out to the men in his stentorious voice to prepare themselves and that he would give them a general absolution. “In an instant all hats were off and the soldiers were on their knees. The scene was indeed striking!”

It is said that on this terrible day, as he did in combat thereafter, Father Trecy carried two canteens; one filled with whiskey, the other water. The whiskey he used as a reviving draught to enable a dying soldier to make his last confession. The water he used to baptize them. Throughout the next 5 days and nights Father Trecy worked unsparingly along with all the rest of the army’s chaplains, Protestant and Catholic alike, to help relieve the suffering of the wounded and dying of both sides.

Conyngham’s complete story of Father Jeremiah F. Trecy, as told to him by Trecy himself, is one of those small, forgotten narratives that never made it into publication, but that do much to recall the immediacy of the times in which those experiences were lived.


4 responses to “The General’s Priest”

  1. twohigcrna Avatar

    The 10th Ohio, which was mostly Irish, had its own chaplain, William T. O’Higgins. I do know that there was a bit of rivalry between the two. What do you know about Fr. O’Higgins? I would be eager to learn of any information that you might have about him.
    While at West Point, William Rosecrans converted to Catholicism. His brother Sylvester Rosecrans, who was attending Kenyon College, through his brother’s influence, became catholic as well. He completed his college career at Fordham, then moved to Cincinnati. Subsequently, he was ordained by Archbishop John B Purcell of Cincinnati. Just prior to the War, he served as editor of the Catholic Telegraph Newspaper, was professor of theology, at The Athenaeum of Ohio (both entities are still in existence to this day), and ultimately became the first Catholic bishop of Columbus, Ohio

  2. Deacon Dave Avatar
    Deacon Dave

    I am currently doing research on Rev. William T. O’Higgins of the 10th OH. Would be interested in corresponding with others who have information or can point me to sources.

  3. Mel Avatar

    Deacon Dave
    The Ordo for Ohio dioceses is in need of information on Fr. William T. O’Higgins. I set a goal to try to find some of these in my spare time.

  4. Fr. Dave Avatar
    Fr. Dave

    Mel — Fr. O’Higgins’ death date is November 3, 1874 in County Leitrim, Ireland.

    Fr. Dave Endres

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