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Catholics and the Civil War Print E-mail
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 20 April 2011

With the exception of history buffs, most people are unaware that this month America begins the sesquicentennial observance of the Civil War. That’s because politically correct media and academia have deemed the subject unworthy of public discourse. For them the thought of toasting courageous and honorable men and women of the North and the South is repugnant.

It was different in the 1961 centennial year. As a young boy, I couldn’t wait for the mailman to deliver the issues of Life magazine devoted to the Civil War. I, like many kids, collected commemorative postage stamps, Classic Comics about the Civil War, and hand-painted blue and gray miniature soldiers. I was delighted one Christmas to receive a wonderful gift: Bruce Catton’s American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War. And, to much fanfare, there were the publications of two trilogies: Bruce Catton’s The Centennial History of the Civil War and Shelby Foote’s The Civil War: A Narrative.

In the Brooklyn Catholic grammar school I attended, plenty of time in American history classes was devoted to the Civil War. The nuns proudly instructed us on the important contributions made by Catholics to the strugglea story in my judgment that is still worth telling.

After the April 12, 1861 attack on Fort Sumter, when President Lincoln was calling for volunteers to bear arms to humble the rebellious Southern states, many Catholics were well prepared to assess the issues.


    The Blue: Gen. Philip Sheridan, Catholic

Lincoln and his fellow Republicans regarded secession as illegal and the Union as more important than states’ rights. But Catholics remembered that the Republicans’ political forbears, the northern Federalists, had called for secession at the Hartford Convention (1815) partly in reaction to the naturalization laws that gave immigrant Catholics the right to vote. They also knew that the North hid behind “states’ rights” in order to evade the Dred Scott decision and to ignore the Fugitive Slave Law. Catholics well gauged the grandstanding on both sides because few were either Southern slave owners or proprietors of Northern manufacturing plants who viewed slavery as an unfair labor advantage. Most Irish Catholics in the North agreed to fight essentially for one reason – to preserve the Union at all costs. On the other hand, German-Catholics in Pennsylvania and the Midwest agreed to fight because they staunchly opposed slavery and its extension into new territories.

Finally, all Catholics realized that the war gave them the opportunity to show their appreciation of, loyalty to, and solidarity with their adopted nation. From scores of Northern pulpits, priests called upon the faithful to don blue uniforms because, “The Union must and shall be preserved.”

As brother turned against brother, the Church tried to stay above the fray. The hierarchy encouraged priests to act as chaplains and nuns to work as nurses in order to minister to the needs of all the faithful. On St. Patrick’s Day 1861, when bishops across the nation spoke out on the war, New York’s first archbishop, John Hughes, expressed the Church’s position best: “there is but one rule for a Catholic wherever he is, and that is, to do his duty there as a citizen.”

Riots broke out in New York City in 1863 because disproportionately higher numbers were drafted in heavily Catholic Congressional districts over Protestant-dominated upstate districts; Archbishop Hughes, quelled the violence.

Responding to flyers distributed throughout the city by Catholic priests, 5,000 people gathered outside his residence. Too weak to stand, the ailing Hughes addressed them sitting in a chair: “a man has a right to defend his shanty, if it be no more, or his house, or his church at the risk of his life; but the cause must be always just; it must be defensive, not aggressive.” After cheers and a final benediction, he told the crowd to go home and they answered in unison, “We will.” 

His appeal worked, and the riots simmered down. But the damage had already been done. Millions of dollars of property was destroyed and 105 people died – 84 were killed by police or soldiers, and 11 African-Americans and 10 police were killed by the rioters.

Although there were strong political differences between Catholics and Protestants about the reasons for fighting, none could deny that Catholics made a major contribution to the war effort and showed great valor on the battlefield.


         The Gray: Gen. Pierre Beauregard, Catholic

When the war began, there were 2.2-million Catholics in the United States, 1.6-million of them Irish. The U.S. Sanitary Commission reported that 144,221 Irish served in the Union armed forces: 51,206 from New York, 17,418 from Pennsylvania, 12,041 from Illinois, 10,007 from Massachusetts, 8,129 from Ohio, 3,621 from Wisconsin, and 4,362 from Missouri. Approximately 40,000 German-Catholics served as did 5,000 Polish immigrants. Catholics became prominent in the officer corps, including over fifty generals and a half-dozen admirals.

In the North, prominent Catholics included General William D. Rosecrans, Generals Hugh and Charles Ewing, and General Philip Sheridan. General Grant referred to Sheridan as a man who had no superior as a general, either living or dead, and perhaps no equal.

In the South, at least 40,000 Irish served in the Confederate Army. Catholic officers included General Pierre Beauregard, General James Longstreet, General William Hardee, and Admiral Rafael Semmes.

By the end of the war, the Church’s prestige was greatly enhanced. She had remained unified; her soldiers had fought bravely, and Americans had witnessed uncountable acts of Catholic charity. The Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, and other religious orders helped the wounded and distraught, and made a great impression on the public. Catholics and non-Catholics living, marching, and fighting together overcame many old prejudices.

In October 1866, the American hierarchy held a plenary council in the nation’s first episcopal see, Baltimore, in an effort to demonstrate this unity. Seven archbishops, thirty-seven bishops, and two abbots led the opening procession. President Andrew Johnson and Washington’s mayor attended the closing session – a clear tribute to the role Catholics played in the war and to the growing Catholic presence in America.

 

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Comments (23)Add Comment
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written by Barry from Victoria, April 20, 2011
I had an ancestor, one James Rooney, who served on the USS Delaware for the entire duration of the war, but somehow he got back to the Dakota Territory often enough to ensure he had lots of descendants- including me. Afterwards I think he may have plied his trade on the Missouri River and its tributaries, but I have been unable to find out for sure.
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written by kelso, April 20, 2011
It was only after the Civil War that "These" United States became "The" United States. Did the States not have a right to secede under the Constitution? Was the principal cause of the war states rights vs. federalists? Slavery was an issue,to be sure, but did not the practice exist in at least one state that fought for the Union? And the Emancipation Proclamation wasn't published until the war was three years raging.
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written by Tim Hollingworth, April 20, 2011
And lets not forget Fr. O'Reilly out of Atlanta..

In 1864 hearing of an order to Sherman to destroy and burn the city of Atlanta, Fr. O’Reilly warned General Slocum of Sherman’s army staff that if they persisted in the plan to burn down the Catholic Church, Sherman would face massive desertions of the Catholics in the Federal ranks.(A majority of Sherman’s forces on this campaign were said to be Catholic, and many had personal knowledge or experience of Fr. O’Reilly.) During Sherman ’s burning of Atlanta , some of these Federal soldiers did help to protect the church by preventing the setting of fires too near the church building.

Sherman's wife was Catholic and so that might have had something to do with his willingness not to burn the Churches.

-Tim-
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written by Steven Barrett, April 20, 2011
James Longstreet became a Catholic after the Civil War was over. While I'm unsure of the exact year, his conversion may have occured during the time he was also serving his old friend and (official foe) Ulysses Grant's administration as Ambassador to Spain. Thus in the eyes of many Southerners of the Protestant faith who reconstituted a newer "Southern elite," Longstreet had become a complete pariah. Not only did he serve Grant's administration, he also became a Republican and Catholic! Quite frankly, I'm not sure which one of the three they considered the biggest form of "apostasy" to the old order. (LOL)
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written by Dan Deeny, April 20, 2011
Excellent article. Are there any books describing Catholic participation in the Civil War?
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written by Arthur, April 20, 2011
Unfortunately, Sheridan is well known for his burning of the Shennandoah Valley, taking the war to the civilians, much like Sherman. It is true ... the cause for war must be defensive, and the North was the aggressor.
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written by Steven Barber, April 20, 2011
The pope personally made Jefferson Davis a crown of thorns when he was in prison, and letters to him sympathetic to his plight. Davis almost converted as a teen. The Vatican recognized the CSA as sovereign nation.

Read The Politically Incorrect Guide to the South. It's great!
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written by Tim Hollingworth, April 20, 2011
@kelso

I encounter the "States rights" justification for the Civil War here where i live in the deep south all the time. Yes, the war was about states rights - and of paramount value to the Southern states was the right to own human beings as slaves. The Civil War would not have happened if slavery did not exist in the US prior.

In answer to your question about slave vs. free states, Maryland and Missouri abolished slavery during the Civil War. Kentucky was a slave state and especially the southern part of the state to this day is culturally southern though less so in the north part of the state. Nevertheless, politicians managed deals which kept Kentucky in the Union.

Lincoln himself acknowledged God's divine providence in bringing about the end of slavery. Read the inscription on the interior of the Lincoln Memorial.

Any argument that the war was not about slavery or that the Union or its leadership was somehow hypoctritical is absurd.


-Tim-
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written by Tim Hollingworth, April 20, 2011
@ Arthur

Soldiers drawing US Government paychecks firing on Fort Sumpter in defiance of a clear warning from the US Commander in Chief was not defensive. A study of military tactics used during the Civil War shows that many generals destroyed civilian resources that could have military value, including Johnston here in Georgia who scorched his share of earth himself.

-Tim-
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written by Jason, April 20, 2011
Google Father John B Bannon. He was a Confederate soldier and chaplain for general Price. They called him the Confederacy's fighting chaplain
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written by J S, April 20, 2011
Nothing is perfect of course. It's been said that the first great sin of America was slavery, and the second was emancipation (or rather, the way that it was handled). Nevertheless, we must settle for imperfections in an imperfect world. Complain about Northern hypocrisy if you must, but be aware that even hypocrites are sometimes closer to the truth than slavers.

Growing up in Tennessee, I have also heard it said that the Southern states were afraid that their "rights" would be or were being violated. The question is, of course, "which rights, and were they really rights?" The particular right that had them ready to secede was the right to determine the legality of slavery withing their own borders. The truth is that no one has such a right - the Southern practice of slavery violated human rights, and no nation or state has the right to make that legal.

It has also been said that the Southern states had the right to secede. They may or may nor have thought this. However, I highly doubt that they attempted secession because they felt that the Union wouldn't allow it. This opinion might have influenced the way in which these states reacted, but it certainly didn't cause the reaction.
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written by John, April 21, 2011
Tim,
I agree that slavery played a major role in helping to spark the Civil War. I think though, that war could easily have happened even without slavery. North and South had never quite seen eye to eye, even with signing the Constitution.

If you think the mantra about State's rights overblown, don't forget that you, yourself, admit to hearing about it today, when slavery has been dead and gone for over 140 years. Then too, there's been the furor over the Confederate flag now and then, even in our lifetime.

In other words, I think the average Southerner likely held more strongly to the idea of defending his homeland than you might admit today. Not surprising really. How many issues exist today which, in moral light, might summarily condemn this nation? Yet even so, many of us have put on uniforms to defend the same Constitution under which those moral offenses happened.

Be careful about assigning too much blame to slavery. I think that's for too simple.
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written by Jim Morgan, April 21, 2011
Steven Barber wrote: "The Vatican recognized the CSA as sovereign nation."

No, it did not. Pope Pius IX wrote a letter to Jefferson Davis in November, 1863 in which, out of courtesy, he addressed Davis as "President of the Confederate States of America." That form of address was touted by Southerners as diplomatic recognition which it absolutely was not.
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written by Jason, April 21, 2011
Mr. Morgan how is it that you determined that "it absolutely was not"? Because I can't see anyone, other that the Pope himself, who would be able to tell us his intent, and since he can't do that now we have to take what has been written as it is written.
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written by Yezhov, April 21, 2011
Sherman's son, Thomas, became a Jesuit priest, and later an Army chaplain.
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written by Jim Morgan, April 21, 2011
Jason wrote: "Mr. Morgan how is it that you determined that "it absolutely was not"? Because I can't see anyone, other that the Pope himself, who would be able to tell us his intent, and since he can't do that now we have to take what has been written as it is written."

Because diplomatic recognition is more than a matter of intent. It is a formal process. It involves public and formal notification, an exchange of the relevant documents, and an exchange of representatives at the ministerial, possibly ambassadorial, level. None of that happened.

The ONLY thing that happened was that Pius IX, in response to a letter from Jefferson Davis, wrote a reply and courteously referred to Davis by the title of "president." That does not by any definition constitute diplomatic recognition.

If anything, Pius made it clear that he would not and could not recognize the Confederacy when he said to US Minister to the Vatican, Rufus King, that he could not "as a Christian and the head of the Catholic Church lend any sanction or countenance to the system of slavery." Certainly, recognizing the Confederacy would have done that.

This was in a meeting in late 1864. Note that the Vatican DID have diplomatic relations with the United States. Despite the strong desire of southerners that it were so, the Vatican did not recognize the Confederacy.
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written by Jim Morgan, April 21, 2011
One other point regarding the Vatican's attitude toward the Confederacy:

Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston visited Rome in mid-1864. He was acting as an official representative of the Confederacy and held the title, "Commissioner of the Confederate States of America to the States of the Church."

The Pope received Bishop Lynch but only in his capacity as a bishop making an ad limina visit. He pointedly did NOT receive Lynch in his formal capacity as a Confederate "commissioner." That is another indication that there was no diplomatic recognition.
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written by jason, April 21, 2011
"ambassadorial level" The pope agreed in a letter to recieve President Davis' Ambassador; Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston South Carolina. Also if it was not the Pope's, who is a monarch and supreme ruler of the Vatican, intent to recognize the C.S.A then why did the Whitehouse get so bent out of shape about the letter, prompting a response from the Vatican that the pope's letter did not amount to recognition in the "formal" sense. But, you see it was a recognition all the same as the Vatican did not deny that it was a form of recognition they said just not in a certain sense. The Pope had always been partial to the south because the north was to liberal.
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written by Vynette Holliday, April 21, 2011
Unfortunately, the truth about the assassination of Lincoln is today deemed either politically incorrect or labelled as "hate speech." However, to present to current and future generations a sanitised version of history is to do them a grave disservice. From a "politically incorrect" time therefore -

Mary Surratt was born in Waterloo, Maryland, and schooled in a Catholic female seminary. She married John Surratt Sr. at age seventeen.

Mary Surratt protested her innocence throughout her trial in the face of overwhelming evidence and, despite appeals from the Bishop of Baltimore, was hanged. She proclaimed before her death:

"I think J. Wilkes Booth was only an instrument in the hands of the Almighty to punish this proud and licentious people." [Weichmann affidavit, 8/11/1865]

In 1844, Mary had given birth to John Surratt Jr. who was preparing for the priesthood at St Charles Seminary College near Baltimore, Maryland, when his father died suddenly and he returned home. [Maryland is considered the cradle of Catholicism in the US.]

John Surratt Jr. was one of the prime conspirators in the assassination of Lincoln, the "one that got away."

He had taken himself off to Canada before he could be captured and was hidden in the St. Liboire Catholic rectory by Father Charles Boucher. Surrat remained there throughout the trial and the hanging of his mother on 7 July 1865. He moved on to Montreal where he was hidden by another Catholic Priest, Father LaPierre, until he could be moved to Quebec and then on board a steamer, the Peruvian, bound for Liverpool. [These facts can be gleaned from any reputable historical source]

In Liverpool he was once again handled by a Catholic Priest, Father Jolivet, to whom he wrote a letter years later. [John Surratt to Father Jolivet, Emmitsburg, April 26, 1873, Emmitsburg Area Historical Society, Maryland]

John Surratt made his way from Liverpool all the way to the Vatican where he enlisted in the Papal Zouaves in 1866 under the "alias" of Giovanni Watson. [A group of military men known as the Papal Zouaves was formed in 1860 to defend the Papal States. The Zuavi Pontifici were mainly young men, unmarried and Roman Catholic, who volunteered to assist Pope Pius IX in his struggles against the forces of Italian unification.]

Unfortunately for Surratt, he was recognised by an old acquaintance who tipped off the United States Consul in Rome in the hope of receiving the reward money promised for his apprehension by the US Congress [see Reward Poster].

Before the Vatican could hand him over to the US authorities, Surratt mysteriously "escaped." After a series of misadventures, he was eventually captured and returned to the US in February 1867 to face trial as an accomplice to Lincoln's assassination. Because the jury could not reach a unanimous decision on a "murder" verdict, the government decided to retry Surratt on "treason" charges but the indictment fell outside the two-year Statute of Limitations. Because Surratt had been hidden so effectively for so long by the Catholic Church, the government of the United States lost out in its attempt to bring Surratt to justice.
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written by Jim Morgan, April 21, 2011
jason wrote:

"ambassadorial level" The pope agreed in a letter to recieve President Davis' Ambassador; Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston South Carolina. Also if it was not the Pope's, who is a monarch and supreme ruler of the Vatican, intent to recognize the C.S.A then why did the Whitehouse get so bent out of shape about the letter, prompting a response from the Vatican that the pope's letter did not amount to recognition in the "formal" sense. But, you see it was a recognition all the same as the Vatican did not deny that it was a form of recognition they said just not in a certain sense. The Pope had always been partial to the south because the north was to liberal."

Several points, Jason. First, Bishop Lynch was not an "ambassador" but a "commissioner," as I noted. His own authorizing document from the Confederate government notes that. Such distinctions matter in the diplomatic world.

Second, again as I noted, the Pope did not receive a Confederate official. He received one of his bishops. And he made it clear to Lynch and to the American minister that such was the case.

Third, it should be no surprise that the White House was concerned about the meeting. It certainly did not want there to be any possibility of recognition and no misunderstanding. The Vatican hastened to reassure the US government that there was not going to be any diplomatic recognition of the Confederacy.

Fourth, if there is no diplomatic recognition in the "formal" sense, then there is no diplomatic recognition - period. Once more, this sort of thing matters in the world of diplomacy.

Fifth, you're partially right about the Vatican thinking that the US was "too liberal." But it was more than that. The Vatican viewed the United States through the lens of the European revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, all of which were anti-Catholic and anti-clerical. Given the history of the US with it's own anti-Catholic violence and the temporary rise of the Know-Nothings, it is understandable that the Vatican did not have a favorable view of the US.

It is probably fair to say that the Vatican would have been pleased had the US split into two countries because this growing and strengthening anti-Catholic power would have been weakened by the split.

Nonetheless, none of the normal procedures of diplomatic recognition between two nations occurred between the Vatican and the CSA. Such records of correspondence as we have show clearly that there was not going to be any recognition.
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written by Rev. Michael Roach, May 21, 2011
The sister of John Wilkes Booth, Asia, was educated at the short-lived school of the cloistered Carmelites in East Baltimore. She converted to Catholicism not long afterwards. In her book, A Sister's Tale, she opines that John Wilkes Booth became a Catholic the year before his death. Who knows?
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written by JMD, September 05, 2012
This is an excellent article on an important topic. There are also some great and enlightening comments, only tarnished by the sophomoric, “official state history” of Mr. Hollingworth.
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written by Kevin, July 30, 2013
General Longstreet was not a Catholic until later in life. He was very much from the Protestant culture and mindset which formed this country. He was a devout Episcopalian for some time. I don't know the details of his conversion in old age to the Catholic Church, but in any case it is totally inaccurate to imply that he was a Catholic as a younger man and all his great achievements in the Civil War were the product of his Protestant upbringing.

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