Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America

Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America

Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America

Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America

Synopsis

Anti-Catholicism has had a long presence in American history. The Civil War in 1861 gave Catholic Americans a chance to prove their patriotism once and for all. Exploring how Catholics sought to use their participation in the war to counteract religious and political nativism in the United States, Excommunicated from the Union reveals that while the war was an alienating experience for many of 200,000 Catholics who served, they still strove to construct a positive memory of their experiences in order to show that their religion was no barrier to their being loyal American citizens.

Excerpt

The Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861, unleashed a patriotic fury across the northern United States. Americanborn men, immigrants, and later African Americans rallied to support the Stars and Stripes and save the Union. Men of all faiths answered the call enthusiastically, among both the Protestant majority and the growing but significant minority of Roman Catholics. Orestes A. Brownson, the leading Catholic intellectual of his day, was an outspoken critic of southern secession. “The American citizen who seeks to overthrow the American government is not only a traitor, but … a dis-humanized monster not fit to live or to inhabit any part of this globe: he has no suitable place this side of hell.” Brownson believed that his fellow Catholic northerners were overrepresented in the army and that their service would promote their integration into American society. Their loyalty, he argued, was a natural corollary of their religion, which obliged Catholics to do their “duty” in defense of the nation.

Other pro-war Catholic leaders across the North similarly spoke out to both support the war and celebrate Catholic men who volunteered for military service on behalf of the Union cause. Patrick Donahoe, the Irish American proprietor and editor of the most important and widely circulated Irish Catholic newspaper in the United States, the Boston Pilot, argued the bloodshed of Catholic soldiers during the war was irrefutable proof of their patriotism and valor. “Let us hear no more ‘nativism,’” he declared, “for it is now dead, disgraced, and offensive, while Irish Catholic patriotism and bravery are true to the nation and indispensable to it in every point of consideration.” By nativism, Donahoe meant the widespread prejudice against immigrants in American society, culture, and politics. Catholic Americans like Donahoe believed that nativism was not only anti-immigrant but also inherently anti-Catholic. Catholic elites were intent on proving their community’s patriotism because, at that time, many American Protestant leaders openly feared that Catholicism was incompatible with the nation’s republican government. In response to such apparent hostility and in order to preserve their ethnic traditions and faith, Catholics had often segregated themselves from . . .

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