Matthew Brady, Father Thomas H. Mooney, Dagger John and the Fighting 69th

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The above photo is one of the archetypal Matthew Brady photographs of the Civil War.  Whenever religion in the Civil War is mentioned in a history, odds are you will see this picture.  It was taken on June 1, 1861 in the camp of the 69th New York, later to be christened The Fighting 69th  by no less an authority on fighting  than Robert E. Lee, and it depicts Mass being said by Father Thomas H. Mooney, the first chaplain of The Fighting 69th.

Born in Manchester, England, and ordained in 1853 in New York City, Father Mooney had been pastor of Saint Brigid’s in New york City, as well as being the chaplain of the 69th New York.  Archbishop Hughes of New York City, known universally by friend and foe as “Dagger John”, warned Father Mooney about the large number of Fenians, a precursor of the Irish Republican Army, who had enlisted in the regiment:

“They are incompetent to be admitted to the Sacraments of the Church during life and of Christian burial after death, unless they shall in the meantime renounce such obligations as have been just referred to. In regard to the whole subject, you will please to exercise all the discretion and all the charity that religion affords: but speak to the men and tell each one (not all at one time) that he is jeopardizing his soul if he perseveres in this uncatholic species of combination.”

The Church in Ireland and America had a mostly negative view of the Fenians due to an overall opposition to revolutionary movements in Europe by Pope Pius IX and because the Fenians called for a separation of Church and State In Ireland.

The 69th was one of the first Union regiments to go to Washington in 1861 in response to Lincoln’s call for volunteers.  Father Mooney went with it, and quickly proved extremely popular with the men and officers of the regiment.  He founded a temperance society in the regiment,  held daily Masses and confessions, and was tireless in reminding wayward soldiers in the regiment that this was a great opportunity for them to return to the Faith.  A correspondent for the New York Times reported on the high esteem in which Father Mooney was held:

As for the Sixty-ninth, they turned out more than twelve hundred muskets, leaving yet another hundred — the newly-arrived Zouaves — in their late headquarters at the College. This Regiment has grown into great fever in Washington — not a single one of its members ever having become amenable to the police authorities in any way; and its discipline and efficiency having frequently been made the subject of complimentary notice by Gens SCOTT and MANSFIELD. For very much of the good order and moral restraint existing in the ranks, it is doubtless indebted to the ceaseless and zealous exertions of Father THOMAS MOONEY, an admirable specimen-priest of the true high type, who, if he were not chaplain, would certainly be a candidate for Colonel — fate and a sanguine temper giving him equal adaptation to the sword of the spirit and the “regulation sword” — a veritable son of the church-militant. But this again is a degression.

Father Mooney’s career as a chaplain was cut short by “Dagger John”.   On June 13, 1861 the 69th was helping to emplace a rifled cannon in Fort Corcoran, named after Colonel Corcoran the commander of the 69th, near Washington.  Everyone was in high spirits.  Father Mooney was called upon to bless the cannon.  Instead, he decided to baptize the cannon.

“Gentlemen It is with more than ordinary pleasure that I come forward to perform a ceremony which is not only pleasing to us all, but highly honorable I may say, a welcome prerogative to me on this auspicious occasion and that is, the christening of the noble gun on Fort Corcoran. In the kind providence of God it had been for me, as a priest during the last nine years, to baptize many a fine blue-eyed babe; but never had I brought before me such a quiet, healthy, and promising fellow as the one now before me.

Indeed I may remark, it has often occurred, when pouring the baptismal water on the child’s head, he opened his little eyes; and got a little more of the baptismal water than he wished; but on this occasion, this noble son of a great father had his mouth open, evidently indicating that he is anxious to speak, which I have no doubt he soon will, in a· thundering voice, to the joy of his friends and the terror of his enemies. I need not tell you that a most appropriate name has been selected by our esteemed Colonel, therefore, the great gun shall hereafter answer to its name “The Hunter Gun”.

Now parents anxiously listen to the first lispings of the infant’s lips, and the mother’s heart swells with joy when she catches the first utterances of her cherished babe in the words “Mama, Mama”, but here I shall guarantee to you that this promising boy will speak for the first time, in loud, clear, accents, these endearing words, “Papa, Papa! -Patria mia, Patria mia” and in name, as in effort, he will hunt traitors from this fort, while the echo of his voice will be as sweet music, inviting the children of Columbia to share the comforts of his father’s home; and thus may he soon speak, the glory of the Stars and Stripes, honor to the name he bears and lasting credit to the Sixty-Ninth, New York.”

It could be argued that Father Mooney did not intend this “baptism ceremony” to be taken seriously, but alas for him, “Dagger John” had never been noted for his sense of humor, and on July 3, 1861 he wrote this sharp command to Father Mooney:

“Reverend Dear Sir:
I received yours of the 25th ultimo I am glad to hear that everything is going well with the Sixty-Ninth Regiment. At the same time I cannot forget that you have disappointed me in regard to the advice, which I gave you in Mullay’s office, when you were about to start with the Sixty-Ninth Regiment. Your inauguration of a ceremony unknown to the Church, viz., the blessing of a cannon was sufficiently bad, but your remarks on that occasion are infinitely worse. Under the circumstances, and for other reasons, I wish you to return, within three days from the receipt of this letter, to your pastoral duties at St. Brigid’s.”

I assume that the advice referred to “by Dagger John” was in regard to the Fenians in the regiment.  When questioned about the dismissal later of Father Mooney as chaplain, he said it was because Father Mooney had climbed a flag pole in camp to straighten out an American flag that had gotten stuck during a flag raising ceremony.  Presumably such athletic feats did not comport with “Dagger John’s” idea of priestly deportment!  Archbishop Hughes sent Father Bernard O’Reilly, S.J.  to the 69th as a replacement chaplain.

Father Mooney returned to Saint Brigid’s and a hero’s welcome with 4000 parishioners coming out to greet him.  When men who had enlisted in the 69th New York for 90 days returned, he marched at their head in a parade.  On August 14, 1861 he said a requiem Mass for the dead of the 69th.  Throughout the War he remained active in supporting the Irish Brigade at functions in New York and remained enormously popular with the men of the 69th.

After the War Father Mooney remained popular with both the men of the 69th and the members of his parish.  Both groups mourned in 1877 when he died from his carriage overturning on 5th Avenue.

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