Civil War priest died while serving soldiers

The last thing Benedictine Father Emmeran Bliemel did in his life was to hear the confession of mortally wounded Col. William Grace, offer him absolution, and raise his hands in a blessing.

Father Emmeran
Father Emmeran

In that split second, the 32-year-old priest was hit by a cannonball and fell on the dying officer. When the battle cleared enough, soldiers of the 10th Tennessee Infantry carried both bodies off the field and buried them near the home of a prominent Catholic businessman.

It was Aug. 31, 1864, the first day of the Battle of Jonesboro in Georgia, when Father Bliemel is believed to have become the first and only Catholic chaplain to die in the Civil War.

“So many times these chaplains were going right onto the battlefield, right behind their boys and looking over them like they promised — ‘I will be over you as you breathe your dying breath,’” said historian, lecturer and re-enactor Peter Bonner of Jonesboro. “It was said that Father Bliemel had his hands raised to heaven as he knelt over Col. Grace from Alabama, and the cannonball literally beheaded him.”

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. It ended 150 years ago, April 9, 1865, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at the village of Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

During those four years, more than 2,000 men, including 93 priests, served as chaplains in the Union Army. The Confederates had 30 Catholic priests serving as chaplains. The Union and Confederate armies respectively lost 66 and 25 non-Catholic chaplains on the battlefields.

A need to serve

Father Bliemel was 19 when he left Bavaria to finish his studies and ordination at the newly founded St. Vincent Monastery and Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. His first assignments were in Pennsylvania, and in 1860, abbot and founder Boniface Wimmer sent him to pastor the Church of the Assumption, a German parish in Nashville, Tennessee, at the request of Bishop James Whalen.

Father Emmeran Bliemel
The gravestone of Father Emmeran Bliemel in Tuscumbia, Ala. Courtesy photo

He was from Europe and lived in the North, but when the war broke out, he sympathized with the cause of the South.

“These were his parishioners, and many of them were from Europe, like he was,” said Benedictine Father Warren D. Murmann of St. Vincent Seminary, who has an interest in the history of the monks and monastery. “It may have been that he had empathy for them, and not an indication of political leaning.”

Father Bliemel’s church was pillaged and taken over when the Union Army occupied Nashville, and most of his parishioners enlisted or were drafted into the war.

He repeatedly asked his bishop for permission to join the 10th Tennessee Infantry — “The Bloody Tenth” — as a chaplain, but permission was denied even though Catholic troops were begging for priests.

So he did what else he could for the war effort — and ended up being arrested several times for his deeds.

‘The Bloody Tenth’

In the 1980s, Benedictine Father Peter Meaney wrote “Valiant Chaplain of the Bloody Tenth” for the Tennessee Historical Quarterly. According to his research, Father Bliemel was able to move freely in occupied Nashville and minister to the Union soldiers as well. He took advantage of that freedom and was arrested on charges of smuggling morphine to Confederate soldiers and of authoring treasonous writing.

Charges were dropped, but the Union commander still wanted him out of the area and wrote to Abbot Wimmer asking that Father Bliemel return to Pennsylvania. There was no response. The officer pressured the diocese to get him out of Nashville.

“The officer’s sister was a nun, and he was worried that eventually he was going to have to shoot this priest who was giving aid to the enemy,” Bonner said. “He feared that if he did that, he would never be able to go home again.”

In the fall of 1863, the way was finally cleared for Father Bliemel to join the Bloody Tenth. Armed with questionable credentials, he headed for Georgia on a mule, traveling around and through Union lines until he met up with troops in Savannah.

Father Bliemel ministered to men regardless of their religion or regiment. He followed the litter-bearers and fell to his knees in prayer, then went back on the battlefield to tend to the wounded and the dying. There were many battles to come.

Some 1,500 Confederates died in Jonesboro, the final battle in the Atlanta Campaign, and the soldiers were retreating under heavy fire when Col. Grace went down.

Father Bliemel and the stretcher-bearers found him and helped him to the rear, and the cannonball struck while the priest was in prayer.

Final resting place

They were hastily buried nearby, and for years their graves were tended by the Robert Kennedy Holliday family. That connection is a story itself. Holliday’s daughter, Nellie, was in love with her Protestant first cousin, John Henry Holliday.

“Catholics then didn’t marry first cousins or non-Catholics,” Bonner said.

Heartbroken, she became Sister of Mercy Mary Melanie at a convent in Savannah. Her beloved cousin went to dental school, contracted tuberculosis, then headed West to live his remaining years as the gunslinger and gambler Doc Holliday. The Hollidays were also cousins to Margaret Mitchell, who wrote “Gone With the Wind.”

Sister Mary Melanie returned to Jonesboro years later, when the bodies were moved to the Patrick Cleburne Confederate Cemetery in town, to ensure that Father Bliemel received a proper Catholic burial.

It wasn’t until 1889 that the Benedictines in Pennsylvania finally learned what happened. The mystery was solved when Benedictine Father Otto Kopf, who was Father Bliemel’s close friend in Bavaria and at St. Vincent, was assigned to St. Mary’s Church in Tuscumbia, Alabama, and heard about a priest who was killed in the Civil War.

“Sure enough, it turns out to be his buddy,” Father Murmann said. “Until then, nobody knew what had happened to him.”

Father Kopf arranged to have his friend’s remains moved to St. Mary’s Benedictine cemetery in Tuscumbia, where his grave is now marked by a large stone cross.

Father Bliemel’s legacy as a Catholic chaplain was honored last year when the Knights of Columbus Father Emmeran Bliemel OSB Assembly at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Jonesboro held a memorial service. Benedictine Father Brian Boosel, representing St. Vincent Seminary, was one of the speakers.

“He saw Jesus in those who were wounded and dying,” he said about the fallen chaplain. “No one would be abandoned.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.