Father Trecy and the Battle of Stones River

Father Jeremiah F. Trecy seated at left next to Father Fontaine. The Irish-born Trecy moved to Pennsylvania with his parents in 1836 and was ordained a Catholic priest at age 28 in 1850. His first assignments were in Iowa and Nebraska but by 1860 he had moved to Huntsville, Alabama for health reasons. Tasked with attending to the needs of the scattered Catholics of northern Alabama, he networked and succeeded in raising funds to build a church in Huntsville but the outbreak of war prevented its completion. Father Trecy worked in the hospitals and army camps attending to the sick and wounded before he joined Rosecrans' headquarters in the summer of 1862. 

    Father Jeremiah F. Trecy tried to make himself as inconspicuous on the battlefield as he could. Wearing a light blue Federal overcoat to hide his black vestments, he wore a typical soldier’s hat and high boots as he worked his way through the battlefield at Stones River. Over his shoulders he carried two canteens, one filled with whiskey to help revive the spirits of the wounded and dying, and a second filled with water which he used to baptize the men.

The 38-year-old Irish-born Roman Catholic priest had been laboring to found St. Mary’s Parish in Huntsville, Alabama when the war began in 1861; Trecy had managed to lay the cornerstone for the church and build up the walls to the windows when the shortages of labor and supplies brought on by the war halted construction. Trecy thereafter devoted himself to attending to the spiritual needs of soldiers North and South.

          It was the cold morning of January 3, 1863, when Father Trecy spied what appeared to be a log in the field, but the log moved and upon reaching it, he discovered that it was a wounded Confederate soldier. “Who are you?” Trecy asked. The soldier rolled back the blanket that covered him with his right arm, thereby exhibited three bars on the collar of his coat and then looked at the priest for a moment and said, “My name is Ryan, sir.”

          “Are you an officer?”
          “Yes, sir.”

          “You are a Catholic I presume? To which regiment do you belong?”

          “To the 13th and 20th Consolidated Louisiana.”

          “Have you a priest with you?”
          “Not for the last six months or more.”

          “Well, my poor fellow, I am a priest and I suppose during the past night lying here in this mud, you have made as good a preparation as ever made in your life. I will hear your confession.”

          The Confederate was having none of it until Trecy offered him a drink from the canteen; a good draught of whiskey combined with Trecy placing his stole around his neck finally convinced the wounded man that Trecy was indeed a priest. “The soldier actually shed tears and after hearing his confession, the captain said, “I wish I were sitting by that tree” pointing to one about 50 yards distant. ‘I will help you,” the priest responded and lifting him up, helped the man hobble to the tree.

          As they approached the tree, three bullets zinged by the men, two of them plunking into the tree mere inches from Trecy’s head. “Oh, the damned rascals, what are they shooting at you for,” Ryan complained. “The priest immediately got on his saddle and fled over the crest, followed by a volley.”

          The battlefield at Murfreesboro, Tennessee was a long way from Drogheda, on the eastern coast of Ireland where Trecy had been born in 1824. His family emigrated to the U.S. when Trecy turned 12 and settled in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He studied at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland before being ordained in Dubuque, Iowa in 1851. Father Trecy spent 9 years on the prairies performing missionary work in Iowa and Nebraska before declining heath drove him to seek a fairer clime. He went first to New Orleans and then Mobile where Bishop John Quinlan dispatched Trecy to Huntsville in northern Alabama to survey the needs of area Catholics. It didn’t take long before Trecy was actively working to build up a parish in Huntsville. Then the war began.

          He devoted himself to working in the hospitals and army camps to attend to the needs of the men in uniform. By the summer of 1862, he was attending to both Union and Confederate soldiers in northern Mississippi and made a powerful convert to Catholicism in General David Stanley. This association brought him to the attention of Major General William S. Rosecrans, a devout Catholic, and Trecy would serve as Rosecrans’ spiritual adviser for much of the following year. When Rosecrans assumed command of the Army of the Ohio from Don Carlos Buell in late October 1862, Father Trecy followed him to Kentucky not long after. When Rosecrans’ army marched out from Nashville on December 26th, Trecy accompanied Rosecrans as part of army headquarters and conducted Mass for the general.

Colonel Julius P. Garesche

          It was barely 4 o’clock on the morning Wednesday December 31, 1862, when Father Trecy conducted mass at headquarters. “General Rosecrans, Colonel Garesche, and some others went to communion, which was destined to be poor Garesche’s last. After Father Trecy having finished the holy sacrifice, Father Cooney said another Mass. A short time after the conclusion of the latter service, Father Trecy celebrated High Mass in a little tent opposite the General’s. The General knelt humbly and devotedly in the corner of the tent with Garesche, no less devout, at his side. Soldiers meekly knelt in front of the tent and groups of officers, booted, and spurred for battle with heads reverently uncovered, stood outside and mutually muttered their prayers. Mass being over, the General called the priest to breakfast, but they were scarcely seated when firing began.”

          Rosecrans immediately ordered his staff to mount and rode to the east towards Colonel Charles G. Harker’s brigade which was preparing to cross Stones River. Shells were already flying across the river and leaving the General, Father Trecy turned his horse to the field hospitals where he commenced his work. He soon found himself caught up in the general retreat of the Federals toward the Nashville Pike. After falling back a spell, Trecy “rode to the front, raised himself in his saddle and with a stentorious voice cried out, “Men prepare yourselves. I will give you the general absolution.” He recited the Confiteor aloud for them, and them told them to make an act of contrition while he pronounced the words of absolution. In an instant, all hats were off, and the soldiers were on their knees. The ceremony over, the priest dashed through the line to the rear of the batteries. The battle raged, wounded men were carried to the rear,” and the priest was again at his work. During this struggle, he was frequently seen with some poor fellow’s head on his knees giving him a reviving draught so as to enable him to make his confession and prepare himself for eternity.”

          Going back to the beginning of the story: Father Trecy managed to return safely to army lines and reported that he had left a wounded Confederate officer behind. Rosecrans gave an order to have the man retrieved and a few days later, Trecy decided to check up on the officer. After an extended search, he discovered the man resting in a bedroom at Colonel Charles Ready’s home located on the town square in Murfreesboro. His condition was worsening. “After examining the wound, the priest found that as yet it had but a field dressing and that mortification was likely to set in,” it was written. Trecy notified Rosecrans who had the man taken to a Federal hospital where it was found necessary to amputate his leg above the knee. Trecy then arranged to have the officer sent across Confederate lines to his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

          A few months later in Nashville, Father Trecy received the following letter from the man whose life he had saved at Murfreesboro.


Baton Rouge, Louisiana

Thursday, January 29, 1863

Very reverend Father Trecy,

          Under God to you I am indebted for my life. I would dear Father to say much to you but as I believe you a man of deeds more than words, I will be brief in asking you to accept the assurance of one who shall ever cherish and pray for the name of Father Trecy. As my watch and gold you spurned, pleased accept this small token of regard, the emblem of our salvation and which united you and I. My mother sends her loving regards to you and hopes she will have an opportunity in person to thank you. My sister Mary Ann who will hand you this will say much I cannot.

J.S. Ryan


          Enclosed with the letter was a diamond cross as a memento of their fortuitous meeting on the battlefield of Stones River.


Soldiers of the Cross: Heroism of the Cross or Nuns and Priests on the Battlefield by David Power Conyngham, University of Notre Dame archives


  1. Again, you've dug up a new nugget of history regarding a Civil War about a battle about which I thought I'd just about read everything. Well done, Dan!


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