In the movie Gettysburg, amidst the lines of battle and artillery fire, there is a brief scene of a priest, his back to the camera, offering absolution to a vast field of kneeling Catholic soldiers. On the Gettysburg battlefield today, a statue honors this priest, Father William Corby, CSC, a Holy Cross priest whose name is familiar to the students and graduates of the University of Notre Dame, from whence he departed to serve his country, torn apart by civil war.
Other Catholic stories are often told about the American Civil War. Irish brigades, with distinctive green harp flags, served on both sides of the conflict, famously meeting one another in battle at Fredericksburg. But beyond these romantic images, what was the Catholic experience of the Civil War and its aftermath?
Less than a century after its founding, American politics resulted in a bloody battle over the nation’s integrity. And Catholics – who had long occupied an ambiguous place in the nation’s political and social life – found themselves having to navigate the even more difficult terrain of being strangers in a strange land, when that strange land was undergoing an existential crisis.
University of Virginia historian Will Kurtz’s Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America  examines the history of the Catholic experience of the Civil War in the North. The title leaves no doubt about his conclusions: Kurtz argues that northern American Catholics, and their leadership in particular, had two aims: “For many pro-war Catholics the conflict was not just about preserving the Union, it was also about gaining tolerance for themselves and their religious faith in American society.”
Among these Catholics, a few figures loom large in Kurtz’ story. There is General William Rosecrans, the notoriously devout commander whose victory at Stones River was celebrated by the Catholic press as an example of Catholic men finding success as leaders in the fight. On the civilian side, we find Orestes Brownson, among the most prolific American Catholic men of letters of the nineteenth century, and ardent supporter of the Union cause.
Brownson is buried in the center aisle of the crypt chapel of the basilica at Notre Dame, itself an important part of the Catholic Civil War story. Notre Dame contributed seven priests, including Father Corby, to the Union Army. For the cover of his book, Kurtz chose a painting of Father Corby giving the aforementioned absolution at Gettysburg.
Kurtz makes a point of including an account of the North’s German Catholics, who served with distinction and dedication, but whose history, Kurtz argues, has been neglected, having generated little of the romantic attention that the Irish have.
There is no doubt that these Catholics fought sincerely and fought well for their country. Yet for all their efforts, Kurtz thinks that the hope of wider recognition of Catholic patriotism via their service in the war was not realized. He writes, “The war and its aftermath ultimately accelerated the growth of a separate Catholic subculture in the United States.”
By the time the Civil War broke out, American anti-Catholicism already had a long history, and even dedicated war service could not eradicate it.
As the war’s toll mounted, significant portions of the northern Catholic population became cynical about the war’s aims – as Kurtz puts it, hoping “to avoid playing the role of cannon fodder for their Protestant or Republican enemies.” He adds, “They did not want the Union to fail, but they thought that it could be saved only through negotiation and by turning away from Republican policies that were needlessly prolonging a horrifically bloody conflict.”
And they had reasons for their suspicions. It was the abolitionist, pro-war wing of the Republicans who were – perhaps ironically from the modern perspective – most strongly associated with anti-Catholicism, both before, during, and after the war. In the post-war struggle with these memories of Catholic participation, a significant anti-Catholic sentiment still persisted, as Kurtz shows, into the twentieth century.
Kurtz’ account is strictly historical. He does not presume to extrapolate and draw lessons about modern Catholic political engagement from the Civil War experience. Yet as the saying goes, history does not exactly repeat itself, but it does rhyme. As Catholics live again through a time of stark political division, and as debate rages about the proper way of living in, but not of, the world, American Catholics may learn from their history.
This is not the first time that Catholics have had to endure a time of great national turmoil, or have found themselves dedicated to principles that seem to stand in contrast to every other faction in the political and social sphere.
Whatever our judgments may be about the wisest Catholic response to our own times, serious attention to American Catholic history – such as the story the Kurtz tells – can give us a better perspective from which to find a path forward. We can expect to be in the middle of the battle, to get little credit for our pains, but to remain an influence – if we remain faithful.