Catholics and the Civil War

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.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of The American Catholic Voter.

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The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.