By KEVIN J. MARTINEZ, Special Contributor | Published March 18, 2004
Patriotism, remembrance, faith and community: these are the ideals by which Father Thomas O’Reilly is defined. But they are not only the measure of the man who saved Atlanta’s churches from Gen. Sherman’s torch. They are also the elements that have guided Atlanta as a city and its Irish residents as a group for generations. No other historical moment underscores the Irish contribution to America like the Atlanta military campaign of 1864 and no historical character personifies it better than Father Thomas O’Reilly, the feisty young priest from Drumgora, County Cavan, Ireland.
In 1861 Father O’Reilly arrived in Atlanta to assume the duties of pastor at Immaculate Conception Church. It must have seemed to him like a triumphal victory march. The pastorate was his reward for four years of service as a missionary priest in Georgia. He had served the faithful from Albany to Dalton, building churches in both cities and ministering to smaller congregations at various points in between. No stranger to Atlanta, he had stopped here many times and felt quite comfortable on its streets. Its large Irish population made the city that much more inviting to him and because his health had been permanently damaged by a bout of yellow fever contracted shortly after arriving in the United States, he anticipated a little more rest in the exercise of his priestly duties. But history, however, would make other plans.
The Civil War came to Atlanta in July of 1864. Three major battles were fought outside the city within eight days of each other. Father O’Reilly visited these battlefields numerous times, sometimes riding out alone and sometimes riding with the medical transport wagons sent by Atlanta’s premier surgeon and president of its medical college Dr. Noel D’Alvigny.
The purpose of these grueling and dangerous sojourns was to retrieve the wounded and return them to Atlanta for medical care. As the hospitals began to overflow, Father O’Reilly turned Immaculate Conception Church into a supplemental infirmary. There, fallen men, no longer distinguished as Union or Confederate, lay side-by-side. During this time he became known to the Irish troops serving in the federal forces. Much of the Union Army was made up of recent Irish immigrants who had come to America in search of a better life, but instead found themselves shooting at other Irishmen who had allied themselves with the South.
Sherman’s victorious army entered Atlanta on Sept. 5. His first order was to evacuate the wounded and civilian population of the city. Less than 700 people out of approximately 8,000 were allowed to remain because of the special skills or services they could render. Among them were Father O’Reilly and his friend D’Alvigny. During the occupation Father O’Reilly became friends with most of the Irish troops. He socialized with them, guided them spiritually and helped them find solace in the madness of war. But his stature also grew among the non-Irish, non-Catholic troops as well. They too had seen how he had taken care of their wounded comrades, risking his life and sacrificing his church in order to tend to them. A particular admirer was Gen. Henry Slocum, commander of the Massachusetts 2nd Infantry and a member of Sherman’s staff.
Atlanta had suffered greatly during the war, but when Sherman decided to burn the city, once again Father O’Reilly took action. Unable to see Sherman personally, he approached Slocum. During the meeting he explained that although burning the city was a crime against the people, burning the churches was a sin against heaven. In a voice mixed with both anger and eloquence he demanded that all of Atlanta’s churches be spared, as well as the City Hall and the Court House. He reminded Slocum of the considerable influence he had among the Irish Catholics troops in the federal army and he threatened to use that influence to encourage desertion and mutiny within the ranks. If Sherman did not rescind his order then Father O’Reilly would issue his own order: that of excommunication against any Catholic who carried out such a barbaric and unholy act.
Slocum reported the conversation to Sherman fully expecting the grizzled war veteran’s next order to be the arrest of the 33-year-old upstart cleric. Surprisingly, however, Sherman acquiesced and ordered that guards be posted around the requested structures, which were Immaculate Conception Church, St. Philip’s Episcopal, Second Baptist, Central Presbyterian, and Trinity Methodist as well as the Court House and City Hall. In a rare show of munificence, Sherman also ordered that none of the surrounding buildings in the vicinity be set alight lest the flames should spread. Because of this over 400 buildings were spared from the historic conflagration. After the Union army had left and Atlanta’s residents began to return they found a large part of their city saved and the doors of Immaculate Conception opened yet again, this time as a shelter for those who lost their homes. The reconstruction of Atlanta was about to begin.
Today the Atlanta of 1864 is unrecognizable. As the years pass and the remnants of blue and gray are faded ever lighter by the light of national unity, the depravations of that war have become the stuff of history books and novels. Try though we may to imagine the horrors and uncertainties of a war fought in our own backyards, we thankfully cannot. What we do remember is the first Atlantan who was truly “too busy to hate.” A man whose patriotism led him to look forward in his new land but who always remembered his roots. A man whose faith allowed him to single-handedly prevail against an army and a man who loved his community to such an extent that he weakened his already fragile health to ensure its survival . . . In saving both the temporal and spiritual houses of the city, Atlanta was able to rise quicker from the ashes of war than many other cities and grow into the metropolis that it is today.
Kevin Martinez is a member of the Hibernian Benevolent Society and chairman of the 2004 wreath-laying ceremony honoring Father Thomas O’Reilly. He researched his article on Father O’Reilly at the Atlanta History Center and through correspondence with All Hallows Seminary, Dublin.