It is a common, even clichéd saying that the American Civil War pitted "brother against brother." Certainly, the conflict divided the nation as the seceded Southern states fought for independence, while the Northern and Border states fought to preserve the Union. Even within the sections, there were politicians, civilians, and soldiers who sympathized with the other "side." The issues of Slavery, "States-Rights," and the meaning of the Federal Constitution created passions and hatreds, which leapt from the ballot box to the battlefield. Even churches— especially churches— were prone to this division. Each section, denomination, and parishioner believed God to be on their side.
The sectional conflict of the 1860s over slavery and union collided with other heated socio-political struggles of the 19th century. America's pastoral Protestant society, so praised by Alexis de Tocqueville, with its patchwork of Yankee Pilgrims, Anglican planters, and Scotch-Presbyterian yeomanry was becoming more urban, immigrant-filled, and Catholic. Southern and Border states had already assimilated a small gentry of French and English Catholics but would not see drastic ethnic and religious change. Instead, the newcomer Catholics from Germany and Ireland chose to settle in the port cities and factory towns of the northeast and Midwest. They spoke with foreign accents, crammed tenements, performed manual labor, and backed big city political machines. Indeed an entire political faction arose to counter the influx of refugees from the Irish potato famine and German political revolutions of the 1840s. They were officially known as the American Party but were famously nicknamed Know Nothings for their secretive ways. They campaigned, among other things, to close saloons, limit Catholic immigration, restrict political office to Protestants, and require a 21-year wait for citizenship. The Know Nothing movement exploded in popularity during the 1850s as its candidates captured the mayoral elections of Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington. They were accused of fomenting political violence against Catholic voters in Louisville and Baltimore, and burning Catholic churches and attacking priests in New England.
Catholic voters clung to the Democratic Party for political protection. As the Know Nothing movement fizzled by 1856, much of its membership switched to the new Republican Party. Though some prominent Republicans such as Abraham Lincoln chastised anti-Catholic radicals, to Irish and Catholic Germans the Republican Party became the party of "isms": temperance-ism, abolitionism, and know nothing-ism. When that "ism" party won the White House in 1860, and southern Democrats chose to secede, many in the Protestant North questioned the loyalty of the urban Catholic masses amongst them as the war clouds stirred.
Catholics had long shown their loyalty to the United States despite distrust from other Americans. Charles Carroll of Maryland signed the Declaration of Independence. Daniel Carroll (Charles' brother) and Thomas Fitzsimmons were members of the Constitutional Convention. Father Pierre Gibault rallied French frontiersmen to the American cause in the backcountry of Ohio and Indiana, while the Irish–born John Barry became the first American naval commander to sink a British ship. Barry's statue stands outside of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Hundreds of Irish and Frenchmen served in the ranks of the Continental Army. Furthermore, without the aid of predominantly Roman Catholic France, American independence would hardly have been possible. George Washington remembered this service when he addressed a letter to the Catholic Church in America in 1790. He hoped that, "as mankind becomes more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government."
The prior service of Catholic Americans was largely forgotten by the time of the Civil War. Most early American Catholics had been of British or French stock. They were members of the middle class and gentry, small in number, and not seen as a threat (perhaps not even as identifiably Catholic) to the larger Protestant community. By 1860, there was an estimated 4.5 million Catholics in the United States, nearly one-sixth of the American population. Half of this Catholic population came from two decades of massive Irish immigration. There were now five archbishoprics (New York, Baltimore, New Orleans, Cincinnati, and St. Louis) and 24 bishoprics in the country. Pope Pius IX oversaw the rapid creation of new American dioceses and archdioceses, and encouraged American bishops to conduct synods and meetings. The United States government championed Pius as a "liberal reformer" and established good relations with him and the Papal States.
Yet it was this rapid growth and success of the Catholic faith in America which created a climate of fear and hatred among the Protestant majority. Archbishop Hughes of New York complained of convents and churches having been burnt down by "the work of what is called mobs." The archbishop further confessed "disappointment at not having witnessed a prompt and healthy true American sentiment in the heart of the community at large in rebuttal of such proceedings." Archbishop Purcell of Cincinnati engaged in a series of debates with Protestant clergy where he fielded barbs against the Catholic faith and defended the loyalty of his parishioners against the charge that they were more loyal to a "tyrannical Rome" than to the United States.
Lay organizations were few in number, and the Catholic population was insular and largely foreign, which made it difficult to respond effectively to anti-Catholic bias and attacks. Even the few Catholic newspapers in the country were dismissed as organs of the Democratic Party's big city political bosses.
On the eve of the Civil War, as citizens were taking sides, and taking up arms, leading Unionists questioned where the Church stood on the issues of slavery and secession. In May 1861, the Third Provincial Council of Cincinnati attempted to clarify the Catholic position on the crisis. The Council stated that the "spirit of the Catholic Church is eminently conservative and while her ministers rightfully feel a deep and abiding interest in all that concerns the welfare of the country, they do not think it their province to enter the political arena." It further elaborated on the Catholic "unity of spirit" that recognized "no North, no South, no East, no West." Yet historian Mark Noll states that the American Catholic position, while not as "fully developed domestically as they were abroad" created a theological challenge to prevailing American beliefs. Catholics challenged the Protestant notions that linked democracy and Christianity, capitalism and Christianity, and the individualism Protestants interpreted from scripture. Noll stated in his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis that the Catholic position "amounted to a fundamental assessment of prevailing beliefs and practices that American protestants, whose main principles were so closely intertwined with the nation's dominant ideologies, could not deliver." Northern theologians could not understand Catholic misgivings about the abolitionist movement, with its willingness to break the law for its goals, and Know Nothing roots, while Southern radicals could not abide the Church's sympathy for and identification with the plight and suffering of slaves. Furthermore, while Protestant denominations split along sectional lines and theological interpretations of slavery, even to the point of advocating war, the Catholic Church seemed maddeningly united and suspiciously neutral during the secession crisis.
Roman Catholic chaplain ministering to Union soldiers during the Civil War.
Theological and political confusion were further complicated by the overwhelming Irish character of the American Catholic population. On the one hand, Irish Catholics could be expected to fight for their adopted country which had provided them an asylum from famine and British persecution. On the other hand, Irish Catholic Southerners could as easily liken their state's push for independence from the Union to the fight to liberate Ireland from the British Empire. While the Irish might be expected to identify with the oppressed slaves of the South, they also stood to lose manual labor jobs to any potential freedman. The Irish had long supported the Democratic Party and viewed the abolitionist Republicans with fear and suspicion, yet had previously provided military and community service to the nation regardless of the political party in power. The voice of Catholic America during the Civil War would have a brogue.
While precise statistics on Catholic service in the Civil War are unknown, the vast majority of the Irish and thus Catholic community sided with the Union over the Confederacy. While the Irish devotion to the Union cause can largely be attributed to circumstance of settlement rather than conviction, there were leaders among the Irish Catholic episcopate that loudly championed the Federal Cause. Archbishop Hughes of New York rallied Catholic northerners to his side, calling for the national flag to be displayed at churches, and advocating conscription, a practice that would prove to be unpopular with the Irish Catholic working class. Archbishop Hughes defended the draft, saying it was "not cruel…this is mercy…this is humanity." He believed that "anything that will put an end to their drenching with blood the whole surface of the county, that will be humanity." He also went on a diplomatic mission to Europe to ensure neutrality among the papal and Catholic majority nations.
Among the laity, Thomas Francis Meagher, a former Irish revolutionary leader who escaped execution by the British Empire, helped organize several ethnic Irish Union regiments into the famed "Irish Brigade." Although the Federal government was reluctant to organize ethnic brigades, it relented in order to encourage immigrant enlistment and thwart British attempts to aid the Confederacy. The Irish Brigade consisted of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th, New York regiments, along with the 28th Massachusetts from Boston, and the 116th Pennsylvania from Philadelphia. The Brigade served with distinction in combat, losing over half of its numbers at both Antietam and Fredericksburg. Further casualties at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg reduced its size to mere regimental strength. By 1864, the Irish Brigade was disbanded, but not before winning the praise of the northern public and encouraging the enlistment of many more Irish Americans.
Not all Catholics were as eager for war as was Meagher and his Irish Brigade. Among German Catholics, support for the Union cause was more ambivalent than in the Irish community. While there were German Union soldiers of all faiths, the most devoted German immigrants to the Union cause were the "Forty-Eighters." They were political refugees from the failed revolutions in Germany of 1848 who strongly supported abolitionist Republicans, leaned towards liberal Protestantism or even agnosticism, and viewed Catholics with suspicion. German Catholics subsequently failed to organize for the northern war effort in large numbers. Among Irish Catholics, many of the working class were suspicious of conscription and felt they had been pulled into a "rich man's war but a poor man's fight." Many participated in the draft riots in New York City from July 13-16, 1863, which killed hundreds of people, wounded thousands, destroyed millions of dollars in property, and led to race-based lynchings in which scores of African- Americans became victims.
Yet the overwhelming majority of Catholics in the north supported the Union war effort, if for no other reason than to prove the loyalty of their Church and ethnicity to their adopted homeland. Along with the thousands of soldiers that fought in the ranks were hundreds of priests who ministered to the troops and Catholic Sisters who assisted as nurses and sanitary workers. Catholic soldiers were at a religious disadvantage compared to the Protestant comrades, as the church lacked enough priests to both serve in the army and minister to the congregations at home. Nevertheless, Catholic priests heard confession, comforted the men, and celebrated Mass prior to battle. More than eight different orders of nuns served the soldiers during the war. Before the organization of the American Red Cross, nuns were among the most organized and experienced nurses available to serve the army. Catholic sisters were praised for their assistance to all soldiers, North and South, Catholic or Protestant. When observing this ministry, a Protestant doctor remarked to a Catholic bishop that "there must be some wonderful unity in Catholicity which nothing can destroy, not even the passions of war."
Indeed, it was this unity of the Catholic Church which proved unique among American Christianity. While Protestant denominations split over theological and sectional lines, the Catholic Church stood as the only major church which remained united during the war, even if its congregants fought on opposite sides. While the Civil War brought violence and destruction to the nation on a horrific scale, it did provide the Catholic Church in America, and its largely immigrant community, a means to show the "better angels of our nature" and the loyalty and Christian sense of duty of its parishioners; a service and devotion which continues to the present day.
Mark Summers of Petersburg, Va., recently completed his M.A. in history from Virginia Tech. He has worked as a public historian in several Virginia museums. He authored "The Great Harvest: Revival in the Confederate Army during the Civil War" for the Summer 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty.