Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Catholic Chaplains in the Civil War

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Catholic Chaplains in the Civil War

Article excerpt

Many Catholics, particularly the clergy, saw the American Civil War as an opportunity to demonstrate their legitimacy as Americans. Therefore, the Catholic chaplains ministering to military personnel were not only important outlets of faith for Catholic soldiers who fought in the war but also were ambassadors to the wider American population. Their ministries brought new Catholics into the fold, undermined popular prejudices, and encouraged toleration. The author examines the ministries of these Catholic chaplains, seeking a better understanding of their role in, and perception of, the Civil War and the ways in which they helped to promote Catholicism in the United States.

Keywords: American Civil War; anti-Catholic prejudice; Irish Brigade; military chaplains

When the American Civil War began in 1861 Catholics were acutely aware of their status as outsiders in the United States. Although the Catholic population had been increasing in recent years due to massive waves of immigration from Europe (particularly Ireland and Germany), and Catholicism was gaining an increased national presence as a result of strengthening Catholic institutions (such as schools and the press), Catholics still lacked significant social or political influence, and they continued to be subject to nativist aggression.1 The Catholic hierarchy in America followed an established precedent of avoiding political involvement and took no formal position on secession, leaving American Catholics free to follow their particular allegiance, which many of them did passionately.2 The American bishops also saw the outbreak of war as an opportunity for Catholics to demonstrate their patriotism and loyalty as well as cement Catholicism's place in America's religious life. As such, they encouraged Catholics who chose to fight to do so bravely and with honor, whichever side they chose, thereby demonstrating the legitimacy and loyalty of Catholics in America and, by extension, of the Catholic Church itself.3

With this and the spiritual needs of enlisted Catholics in mind, many Catholic priests signed on as military chaplains for both the Union and the Confederacy. Their chaplaincies were highly demanding positions, and they served their men often without consideration for the danger to themselves. They were daring and dedicated men who were a source of strength and an outlet of faith for the soldiers to whom they ministered. Their service and dedication often gained opprobrium and praise from the Protestants who had occasion to interact with them and were impressed by the ardor with which they performed their ministries. That the Catholic chaplains' commitment would lead them out onto the field of battle in the midst of violence and chaos was but one indication of the strength of their faith and the importance they assigned their mission. This dedication and faith did much to improve Protestant opinions of Catholicism in general.

The role of Catholics in the Civil War has been largely overlooked by historical research in the past. The only monograph to approach specifically and exclusively the relationship between the two is Benjamin Blied's aptly titled Catholics and the Civil War, which is regrettably short at only 162 pages and was published more than half a century ago.4 Another exception is the slightly more recent (but still thirty years old) PhD dissertation by Judith Conrad Wimmer, "American Catholic Interpretations of the Civil War."5 Wimmer's dissertation is a well-researched and informative effort, but, as the title suggests, it focuses on Catholic interpretations of the war and largely ignores the Catholic experience in the war. Other literature is scarce. Most major studies of religion in the Civil War hardly acknowledge Catholicism as more than an aside or a footnote. Likewise, histories of Catholicism and Catholics in America tend to skim over the war and downplay its importance in the narrative of Catholic history.

In recent years this trend has begun to shift, and the story of Catholics in the Civil War is beginning to be told. …

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