Great Jesuits 2: Chaplain of the 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.
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.