First to Serve, First to Fall
Every year from 1845 to 1851, a deadly blight attacked Ireland’s potato crop causing severe famine. Well over a million people died of starvation and disease and more than a million others emigrated to the United States. Thousands of young Catholic Irish men from among them joined the United States Army. However, because there had never been a Catholic chaplain in the U.S. Armed Forces, these troops had to serve without spiritual guidance or ministrations from their faith.
In 1846, when the United States went to war against Mexico, President James K. Polk had a problem. Mexican government propaganda was trying to portray the war as Protestants from the North attacking the Catholic population of Mexico. In fact, some Catholics in the U.S. Army deserted to the Mexican Army after receiving promises of land and position in the Mexican military. These men comprised the San Patricios Battalion. Attempting to counter the propaganda and to stop such desertions, Polk wanted to appoint Catholic chaplains to officially serve in the U.S. Army. He turned to Archbishop John Hughes of New York for help. Even though the Archbishop wondered about Polk’s possible political agenda, he recommended two Jesuit priests for the new chaplain positions. One was Father Anthony Rey, who was an immigrant like most of the U.S. Army Catholic troops during the Mexican War. Born in Lyons, France, on March 19, 1807, he would eventually study at the Jesuit College in Fribourg, Switzerland, before being sent to America in 1840 to join the faculty of Georgetown College in Washington D.C. First a Professor of Philosophy, he then became Vice President of Georgetown in 1845. Accepting his new appointment as one of the first official Catholic chaplains in the U.S. military, Father Rey joined the army of General Zachary Taylor in northern Mexico in time to participate in the Battle of Monterrey, September 20-23, 1846. Coming from a sheltered academic life, Father Rey was tossed into the vicious urban combat. Not willing to stay in the rear of fighting, he went right into the teeth of war to administer to the dead and dying. An admiring Protestant officer wrote about his courage and actions during the Battle of Monterey:
"The bulletins of your generals, and the glowing eulogiums of letter-writers of particular deeds, present no examples of heroism superior to this. That Jesuit priest, thus coolly, bravely and all unarmed, walking among bursting shells, over the slippery streets of Monterrey, and the iron storm and battle steel that beat the stoutest, bravest soldier down, presenting no instrument of carnal warfare, and holding aloft, instead of true and trusty steel, that flashed the gleam of battle back, a simple miniature cross; and thus armed and equipped defying danger, presents to my mind the most sublime instance of the triumph of the moral over the physical man, and is an exhibition of courage of the highest character. It is equal to, if not beyond, any witnessed during that terrible siege."
After the battle, Father Rey was stationed as part of the U.S. Army garrison in the town of Monterrey. Chaplain Rey not only helped the American wounded but ministered to his Mexican Catholic flock in the towns and surrounding area. U.S. Army officers warned Father Rey that the area where he would travel was bandit infested and very dangerous. Regardless of the danger, Father Rey felt obligated to carry out his functions as a Catholic priest. On January 19, 1847, Father Rey went missing after saying Mass in the village of Ceralvo. Several days later his lance pierced body was found. His death was not only a blow to both Catholic and Protestant U.S. troops, but also to the Mexicans for whom he was solely their priest. Father Anthony Rey was the first Catholic chaplain to be killed in service to his country.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848. The U.S. acquired Texas, New Mexico, and California. Following Father Rey’s example, Catholic priests continue to serve as chaplains in the U.S. military.
Randal L. Hoyer, PhD, Professor Emeritus
Michael W. Marihugh, MA, Adjunct Assistant Professor Department of History
Madonna University – A Catholic, Franciscan University