Great Jesuits 2: Chaplain of the Excelsior Brigade


Excelsior Brigade

Part 2 of my series on great Jesuits in American history.  Ireland has given many great gifts to the United States of America and one of them was Joseph B. O’Hagan who was born in the Olde Sod in County Tyrone on August 15, 1826, the feast of the Assumption.  His family emigrating to Nova Scotia, he entered the seminary in 1844.  Meeting a Boston Jesuit in 1847, he joined the order in December of that year.  Finishing his theological studies in Louvain, he was ordained a priest in 1861.

Returning to the US he joined the Union Army as a chaplain for the New York Excelsior Brigade, one of the hardest fighting outfits in the Army of the Potomac.  Assigned to the 73rd New York, at first Father O’Hagan didn’t think much of many of his fellow soldiers as this passage from a letter he wrote on August 7, 1861 indicates:  “Such a collection of men was never before united in one body since the flood. Most of them were the scum of New York society, reeking with vice and spreading a moral malaria around them. Some had been serving terms of penal servitude on Blackwell’s Island at the outbreak of the war, but were released on condition of enlisting in the army of the Union, and had gladly accepted the alternative..”  The sense of humor of Father O’Hagan is demonstrated by his account of a regiment electing a chaplain:  “Over four hundred voted for a Catholic priest, one hundred and fifty-four, for any kind of a protestant minister; eleven, for a Mormon elder; and three hundred and thirty-five said they could find their way to hell without the assistance of clergy.” .

Serving as a Chaplain involved many trials, and Chaplain O’Hagan steeled himself to the task by thinking of the tribulations and obstacles that Saint Francis Xavier overcame in his day.  In time he came to appreciate the courage amply displayed by his fellow soldiers on many a battlefield and how well most of them responded to military discipline and to his own efforts to encourage them to remember their religious duties. 

He became good friends with a Protestant Chaplain in the Brigade, Joseph Twichell, who was rather shocked when O’Hagan took him on a visit to Georgetown and found that the Jesuits liked to eat, smoke and drink!  (One can imagine the tales that Twichell had been told about Catholic priests in general, and Jesuits in particular, as he was brought up!)  At Fredericksburg they huddled together for warmth under the same blanket, which caused Father O’Hagan to laugh at the idea of a Jesuit priest and a New England Puritan minister in such close proximity!  A good memoir of O’Hagan by another Protestant Chaplain is here.  It speaks well of Father O’Hagan that his Protestant colleagues regarded him with so much fondness.

During the fighting at Fair Oaks in 1862, Father O’Hagan was briefly captured and held in Richmond.  A New York Times articles on his experiences as a POW is here.

At Gettysburg the Excelsior Brigade suffered severely.  Like his friend Father Corby of the Irish Brigade, Father O’Hagan gave battlefield general absolution to his men.  As always, he was in the midst of the fighting, giving the last rites and helping the wounded.  He gave the last rites to  the scoundrel General Dan Sickles , the original commander of the Excelsior Brigade, after Sickles, now in command of the III corp, lost a leg, and almost the battle due to his ineptitude.  Sickles lived to 1914, and one can only hope that the hardened old sinner gained some spiritual benefits from the ministrations of Father O’Hagan.

Coming through the war without a scratch, a small miracle for someone who served from 1861-65, Father O’Hagan served at many churches in Boston.  In 1873-1878 he served as the Eighth President of Holy Cross.  He died in 1878.  He was a true Catholic, a true Jesuit and a true Patriot.




35 Responses to Great Jesuits 2: Chaplain of the Excelsior Brigade

  1. What percentage of your “Great Jesuits” will be related to the military?

  2. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Keep reading, which I know you would in any case, and find out Catholic Anarchist.

  3. Rick Lugari says:

    Seems the Company of Jesus is related to the military in its very makeup and its founder’s roots and vision.

  4. Ignatius left the military, you twit.

  5. Donald R. McClarey says:

    And Saint Ignatius was the General of the Order, required military style obedience, used military imagery throughout his writings and had no qualms about Jesuits serving as military chaplains. Rick nails it.

  6. Rick Lugari says:

    Always pleasant witness to authentic Christianity(TM), Michael. Even as I don’t dispute being called a twit, I never said or implied that Ignatius never left the military. As Don explained, the military allusions and character of the Company of Jesus is evident to most, even semi-functional twits like myself.

  7. e. says:

    Rick & Donald:

    Why don’t the two of you tossers quit picking on Iafrate and try to follow his rather exemplary demonstration of genuine Christian ideals such as derogatory name-calling and outright condescension, will ya?

  8. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Catholic Anarchist I deleted your comment. I will not tolerate your calling me a fascist and I certainly will not tolerate your calling Rick a fascist. When you can behave like an adult, I will approve your comments. If this is simply beyond you, peddle your insults elsewhere.

  9. Rick Lugari says:

    Yeah, I can understand someone thinking me a twit. The person who thinks that has to have a fairly developed world view (valid or not) and consider me outside the bounds of what is or ought to be. The measure is their own view of reality. However, while the word fascist is considered in many different lights, it’s still a fairly objective term and to consider me a fascist is to not know what a fascist is or to not know the first thing about me. It’s just not a reasonable conclusion to make.

  10. jonathanjones02 says:

    I wonder if michael understands that fascism (by which I mean Fascist political parties and philosophy) was very much a movement of Left.

    Perhaps, though, such a recognition would have gotten in the way of the name-calling and cheap labeling.

  11. Donna V. says:

    The real question is why Michael I. feels an automatic desire to spit and rage whenever Donald puts up a post about a military chaplain. Are these men he feels should not be honored? Does he consider their service contemptible? Should their sacrifices be forgotten and their names erased from history? Well, I think we know the answer to those questions.

    But even if he holds these men in no esteem, why feel the need to drop a predictably sour and uncharitable comment into a thread meant to honor them? Simply scrolling past the post is an option.

  12. Dale Price says:

    Keep posting these historical vignettes, Donald–I am enjoying them immensely.

  13. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you Dale! I enjoy writing them!

  14. S.B. says:

    I note with interest that Vox Nova now has a blogger who doesn’t like Michael’s style of argumentation.

  15. Pope John Paul the Great, in his 2003 message to military chaplains, wrote: “Peace can only be achieved through love! Right now we are all asked to work and pray so that war may disappear from the horizon of humanity.”

    While we must honor the courage of Jesuits who administered sacraments to men engaged in warfare, we must also recall that those men should never have been there in the first place. The best service our chaplains can offer American soldiers is to protect them from the evil of modern war itself – especially with regard to its demonic methods of indoctrination and training. Here’s one of the cadences I recall singing heartily:

    “Burn the town and kill the people
    Throw some napalm in the square
    Do it on a Sunday morning
    While the people are at prayer
    Throw some candy in the school yard
    Watch the kiddies gather ’round
    Slap a mag in your M-16
    And mow those little f#*$&#s down”

    We sang these, and worse.

  16. Here’s the one we used to sing the most often, I recall:

    “I went to the playground
    Where all the kiddies played
    I pulled out an uzi
    and I began to spray

    Left Right left right
    Left Right Kill
    Left Right Left Right
    I think I will

    I went to the market
    Where all the people shopped
    I pulled at a machete
    and I began to chop

    Left Right left right
    Left right Kill
    Left right left right
    Ya know I will.”

  17. I’m not sure why it is that Catholic chaplains come in for so much disapproval from modern Catholic pacifists. I don’t know if it’s still the case now as it was prior to Vatican II (now that people are so much more “rational” about Last Rites), but in Fr. O’Hagan’s time Catholic chaplains went into battle battle and braved enemy fire (unarmed, and making no attempt to defend themselves) in order to bring the sacraments and first aid to the wounded and dying — of either side.

    I would think that for a Christian pacifism, the witness both of battlefield chaplains and of the medics/stretcher bearers of that period (who were often Quakers or other pacifists) would be a powerful and positive one, not something to be rejected.

  18. The great problem as I see it, DC, is that the chaplains are officers in the military rather than ’embedded’ civilians. Chaplains are bound not only by the UCMJ, but also by the military’s efficacious indoctrination and culture. Many of the chaplains I met in the military were very sympathetic to peacemaking, but these sympathies were private beliefs that they kept to themselves.

    The secondary reason why pacifists focus on chaplains is one of scandal. The presence of uniformed priests in the military serves to legitimize modern war, especially for young soldiers. I will never forget the day that the Archbishop of the Military Archdiocese preached at West Point. This was right before the invasion of Iraq, and he told us that it wasn’t our duty to listen to the Pope when he spoke out against the war. Rather, it was our duty to obey the orders of the Commander in Chief.

    God bless Archbishop O’Brien, but he let many of us down that day. He wanted to reassure our consciences, but he only made our struggle worse. The chaplains are in a tough spot – how are they to preach resistance to unjust wars when both the UCMJ and their training say they must do otherwise – that they must comfort soldiers in their duty? Chaplains must not only be priests. They must be prophets. God help them!

  19. Well, guess one of the first things you’d have to ask yourself is whether your thinking on this is the same as that of the Church. After all, the see of US Military Archdiocese fell vacant a couple years ago, and Pope Benedict XVI immediately filled with Archbishop Timothy Paul Broglio. I think one could probably take it from this action that our pope does not consider it a scandal for there to be uniformed priests providing the sacraments to US soldiers — even with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan actively ongoing (as they certainly were in 2007 when Apb Broglio was appointed.)

    Traditionally, certainly at the time of Fr. O’Hagan (when Pope Pius IX himself was actively calling for faithful Catholics to come serve in the papal army and fight Italian nationalists — armed with the very latest military rifle technology), the Church has not called on each soldier to decide if the war he is ordered into by the ruler he is sworn to serve is just — rather rulers were held responsible for waging just wars, and soldiers were held responsible for behaving justly in the individual situations they found themselves in.

    While I think there’s some virtue to calling on soldiers to question whether they are being deployed in a totally unjust or downright evil cause (a category into which I can hardly see the Iraq war falling — but that’s a topic for another day) I think that Church has traditionally had it’s priorities right in focusing first on individual souls: on providing the sacraments to men living near death. Indeed, I always found it rather inspiring that bishops in both the North and South in the Civil War went to significant lengths to authorize chaplains with both armies to provide the sacraments to those in need within their diocese. That despite the truly weighty causes which lay between the two sides, the Church focused first on the needs of the souls on both sides, rather than on delivering lectures on which side was just who and who conscientiously object, strikes me as ringly far more truly to the universal nature of the Church than the modern peace movement.

  20. You make some good points, DC. Pope Benedict’s filling of the post of Archbishop certainly indicates that he feels there is a need for the position. Howeover, the Archbishop is not an officer in the US Military, he is not liable under the UCMJ, and he does not undergo indoctrination and training in warfare. I think it is right to have an Archbishop and priest assigned to minister to soldiers, even soldiers engaged in unjust wars. But I do not think it is right to force our priests to endure military indoctrination and to be subjected to military law and authority.

    Aggressive warfare is an intrinsic evil, and those who kill in such a war commit the grave sin of murder. God help them, and our chaplains, to resist orders to wage unjust wars!

  21. Rick Lugari says:

    Aggressive warfare is an intrinsic evil, and those who kill in such a war commit the grave sin of murder.

    I agree with the first part of your statement, Nate, but I’m not so sure the second part necessarily follows. One only need to think of a conscript going into battle and fighting only because he doesn’t want the sergeant to put a bullet in the back of his head. If God understands all, including what’s in our hearts, and is just and merciful, then I doubt He considers that soldier guilty of murder. It seems to me that those who culpably put the soldier in that position will have to answer for consequences and injustices of their actions.

  22. Rick, I think you and I probably agree, if we make the distinction between grave sin and mortal sin. Are you saying that killing in an unjust war is a grave sin, but not necessarily a mortal sin? I would agree with that wholeheartedly. Many (if not most) soldiers who fight in an unjust war typically do so without full knowledge or full freedom – lessening their culpability.

    Think of the Japanese and Germans who died fighting in an aggressive and unjust war – I doubt that most of them did so with full knowledge and full freedom. Yet surely the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor must be described as a murderous action – a grave sin. Yet if I’m understanding you correctly, we should be clear in making a distinction between grave sin and mortal sin.

  23. I think it is right to have an Archbishop and priest assigned to minister to soldiers, even soldiers engaged in unjust wars. But I do not think it is right to force our priests to endure military indoctrination and to be subjected to military law and authority.

    I guess I’d have to understand more clearly what you think is being done to chaplains that is so horendous. Overall, however, I’m having trouble understanding how on the one hand you’d accept that it is a good thing that the Vatican has a US military chapliancy, and on the other insist that the chapliancy as it exists (and the Vatican has accepted it) is totally unacceptable — indeed so unacceptable that one shouldn’t even praise the bravery a priest living 150 years ago who worked under fire to bring the sacraments to the dying.

    Are you saying that killing in an unjust war is a grave sin, but not necessarily a mortal sin?…
    Think of the Japanese and Germans who died fighting in an aggressive and unjust war – I doubt that most of them did so with full knowledge and full freedom. Yet surely the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor must be described as a murderous action – a grave sin.

    See, I guess the thing that rubs me the wrong way about this way of looking at things is the “the good side and the murderers” element of it. This strikes me as judgemental and dualistic in a way that’s more likely to inspire conflict than peace.

    Also, working with the precise modern, Catholic definition of “just war” I’m having a bit of trouble with it. I mean, take the following: In WW2, the Soviet Union invaded Finnland in an aggressive war. Germany later invated the Soviet Union in an aggressive war. Finnland, which was still desperately fighting off the Russian invasion, sought and received German help — in the form of arms and even a small number of German soldiers as “advisors”. So here are a German and Finnish soldier sitting in a foxhole together, and Soviet soldiers are charging at them. Is it murder for the German to shoot because Germany is waging an unjust war against the Soviet Union, but legitimate defense for the Finn to shoot because he’s defending his country against the unjust aggression of the Soviets?

    Or if one accepts that the war in Iraq is unjust: When US and Iraqi soldiers are out on patrol together looking for members of an illegal militia which has been terrorizing civilians in the area, is it murder and unjust for the US soldier to be there but legitimate for the Iraqi soldier to be there? When they’re working together and doing the same thing?

    Those just don’t make sense to me.

  24. DC, I didn’t say that the current military chaplaincy was totally unacceptable, but rather that they must be prophetic, and that their status as officers makes that very difficult, if not illegal under the UCMJ. I also didn’t say that we shouldn’t praise the bravery of chaplains, but rather that “we must honor the courage of Jesuits who administered sacraments to men engaged in warfare”.

    Your questions about the Fins, Germans, Soviets, Americans, and Iraqis are complex ones, I agree. I think that highlights the need for a better theology of war, peace, and homicide. The intense focus on just-war theory is analogous to focusing on the bare minimums of the Catholic life. What would we say about a priest who regularly preached about the minimum requirement of receiving communion once a year rather than the merciful grace of receiving communion daily? When it comes to our thinking about war and peace, we’ve really let the minimum set the standard instead of calling us to something greater.

    Archbishop Carlson of Saint Louis has a wonderful peace letter that he wrote a year ago, which you can find on my website. I think he nails it:

    Click to access CarlsonPeaceMessage.pdf

  25. “And Saint Ignatius was the General of the Order, required military style obedience, used military imagery throughout his writings and had no qualms about Jesuits serving as military chaplains. Rick nails it.”

    It’s important to be careful Donald about how far you stretch that “military” language. For example, Superior “General” is just meant as far as I can tell to mean the opposite of “particular,” which would be the superior of a particular house in a city. The “general” superior governs the whole world.

    I don’t think that the obedience is particularly military style. That would be the Legionaries maybe, but not us. There are many forms of representation in the Society of Jesus, where superiors can be questioned and even sidestepped. The obedience that Ignatius founded — which was an afterthought by the way — was meant to be practical, to keep them together when already as a young order they were going all over the world. Their form of obedience, as opposed to the monastic form, precluded them returning for Chapter on a regular basis. It made for easier and more practical missionary work.

    The military language that Ignatius used is more akin to his former allusions to knighthood, such as Amadis de Gaul, rather than the Prussian military form that we know. A “soldier” in the former sense referred to one who had more of a “vocational” relationship with his king than the relationship that we would associate with a soldier in the American military. Go back to the Spiritual Exercises and read the Kingdom of Christ meditation again. It is all about a knighthood or soldiering of personal relationship. Hence, the individual has quite a bit to say, which goes back to the obedience bit. There is a dialogue at work in this meditation, particularly at the end in the Colloquy.

    By laying down his arms at Montserrat, Ignatius truly left the military, and by using some of this language again, he subverted it in the service of a higher calling. It is primarily the “impulse” to higher service that he borrows from the military as opposed to anything substantial.

  26. […] I take a break to answer this question since it was a matter of some debate at The American Catholic following a few posts on Jesuits in the military. The articles have been written by one Donald R. […]

  27. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Good points Nathan, although I disagree with your ultimate conclusion. I think that Saint Ignatius deliberately set out to have his Company of Jesus, company of course being the basic military unit in the sixteenth century, established along military lines to form an army for Christ. This perhaps is seen most clearly in the opening words of his Formula of the Institute:

    “Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross in our society, which we desire to be designated by the name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman pontiff, the vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind. He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures, and any other ministration whatsoever of the word of God and further by means of the Spiritual Exercises, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments.

    Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals and, indeed, to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.”

    Although the Jesuits themselves were not to wield carnal weapons, they would, and did, serve as chaplains for those who did. Unfortunately I can not find it on line, but I recall a letter from Saint Ignatius to Emperor Charles V urging a naval crusade against the Turks. I have always been struck by the strategic insight shown by the Saint in that letter. Of course long after the deaths of both Saint Ignatius and Charles V, Pope Saint Pius V cobbled together such an alliance to shatter the Turkish fleet at Lepanto in 1571.

  28. Joseph Fromm says:

    Here is a link to the book,
    History of the life and institute of St. Ignatius de Loyola, by Daniello Bartoli

    and the quote,

    “He brought about a reconciliation between the Pope and the king of Portugal; he concerted with John de Vega to persuade the Emperor Charles V. to fit out a fleet against the Turks”

  29. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thanks for the info and the link Joseph!

  30. Donald – You are living in a fascist dreamworld. Your children must be proud. Happy Sunday to you. Go to Mass, clean the guns.

  31. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Catholic Anarchist, I approved your last comment so our readers could see the typical type of bilge I delete which you submit. You are banned forever from commenting on any of my posts on this blog. Go be a total jackass elsewhere.

  32. You know, I’ve long been a sucker for the “maybe there’s some redeeming quality in this guy, we shouldn’t shut out the opposition” school of thought on Michael — but I think that kind of comment pretty much underscores how, in the end, there is not a Christ-like fiber in his being. This alleged pacifist is one of the most consistently angry and in-humane people I’ve ever encountered online, and it seems well past time to cut things off with him. He just doesn’t add anything positive.

    I’ll commit to banning him from my posts as well — and to be fair I’ll go ahead and never try to comment on Vox Nova (or Catholic Anarchy) either. At a certain point, sanity and standards have to kick in.

  33. Tito Edwards says:


    I didn’t appreciate your last comment on my post.

    Please stop with your juvenile comments.

    You’ve been warned.

  34. […] 5 in my series on Great Jesuits of American history.  A hallmark of the Jesuit Order has always been utter […]

  35. […] 6 in my series on great Jesuits of American history.  Pierre-Jean De Smet first saw the light of day […]

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