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Catholic Christianity

Catholic Christianity

Anti-Catholic sentiment was pronounced in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. Powerful nativist impulses found political voice in the Know Nothing (American) Party, which had reached its zenith during the 1850s, but prejudices against Catholics remained on the eve of the Civil War in 1861. The fact that American Catholics increased their numbers from approximately 1 percent of the total population during the Revolutionary period to become one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States by 1860 (Wagner, Gallagher, and Finkelman 2002, p. 82) seems to have exacerbated the hostility that white Anglo-Saxon Protestants felt towards immigrant Catholics. These complex religious and ethnic conflicts produced particularly inflammatory tensions in the cities in the Northeast and Midwest, where most of the poor German and Irish Catholic immigrants lived.

Many Americans were particularly suspicious of these immigrant Catholics because of their purported loyalty to the Pope. Fearing the inroads of papal influence on domestic politics, nativist Protestants sought to deny immigrant Catholics the vote. During the 1860 election, Catholics generally voted in favor of the Democratic Party because they disagreed with the Republican Party's support of temperance and emancipation (McPherson 2003, p. 176). Although the Catholic Church opposed the institution of slavery on moral grounds, working-class American Catholics feared that if the Republican Party freed the slaves, then the competition for low-paying industrial jobs would increase, potentially leaving them unemployed.

After the Civil War began on April 12, 1861, the Catholic Church took no official position on the war so as not to cause a schism among its followers. Some Catholics were initially leery about the conflict and, later, about emancipation, but many, both civilian and clergy, rallied to their respective causes in the North and South. They were motivated by a mixture of patriotism, a desire to silence nativist attitudes, and, like many Protestant volunteers, a need to obtain a steady income through military enlistment.

Catholicism in Camp, on the March, and under Fire

Catholic soldiers and clergy who served in the Northern and Southern armies continued to practice their religion despite the fact that they constituted a minority of both Union and Confederate forces. Catholic soldiers turned to God and Catholic theology to sustain them in combat, to prepare them for death, and to see them through the trials of their daily lives in camp and on the march.

Because of the predominant anti-Catholic sentiment, the number of Catholic chaplains on both the Union and Confederate sides was small in proportion to their population when compared to the number of Protestant chaplains. Catholic priests were assigned only to regiments whose ranks were composed entirely of Catholics because Protestant officers commonly refused priests' services for their Catholic soldiers (Shattuck 1987, p. 55). Army regiments fortunate enough to have a Catholic chaplain, such as the Irish Brigade of the Union Army of the Potomac and the Fourteenth Louisiana Infantry of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had their spiritual needs fulfilled on a regular basis.

Chaplains believed in the causes for which they fought, emphasized the exemplary nature of the Catholic soldier, and honored the opportunity to save soldiers' souls through conversion, absolution, or the administration of last rites. Reverend Sheeran of the Fourteenth Louisiana summarized his devotion to God, the Confederate cause, and his men by saying, "The interest I feel in the Cause for which our brave men are sacrificing the comforts of society and periling their lives as well as the salvation of their souls prompted me to do all in my power to keep them in the friendship of their God" (Sheeran 1960, p. 5). These priests believed that a man's commitment to God and the Catholic faith translated into heroic service on the battlefield. Father Corby of the Irish Brigade likened the commitment that men make to soldiering to the promise made in marriage, because both covenants bound men until death. Because of this commitment, the Irish priest held that "there is no braver soldier in this world… than a consistent Catholic" because these men realize that their power "comes from the 'God of battles,' not from man" (Corby 1992 [1893], pp. 6, 296).

In order to ensure that their men were ready to meet God at any moment, Catholic chaplains labored tirelessly in camp, on the battlefield, and as members of burial details. Catholic priests heard many confessions and administered absolution to soldiers individually or en masse, as was the case of Father Corby and the Irish Brigade before battle at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863. Observers noted that absolution brought peace of mind to both Catholic and, at Gettysburg, non-Catholic soldiers because it enabled them, in the words Major St. Clair Mulholland, to "receive every benefit of divine grace that could be imparted through the instrumentality of the Church ministry" before God called them home (Corby 1992 [1893], p. 184).

Religious practices also brought comfort, order, and some of the familiarity of home to the unfamiliar world of the army. If the armies were not actively campaigning on Sundays, both Union and Confederate soldiers constructed rustic altars in their camps where a congregation could gather to celebrate Mass. In their sermons, chaplains exhorted men against the temptations of liquor, gambling, immorality, and blasphemy, all readily accessible in the army. Chaplains also helped soldiers manage their money by forwarding soldiers' pay to their families in order to keep it from being squandered (Blied 1945, p. 115).

The religious life of the army also provided men with leisure activities during the holidays. Saint Patrick's Day in the Irish Brigade never passed without mass and festivities such as a steeplechase. Catholic regiments also observed the Easter and Christmas holidays. Reverend Sheeran recalled that in 1862, at his request, the men of the Fourteenth Louisiana donated the money they had raised to purchase him a Christmas present—a sum of $1,206—to Saint Joseph's Asylum in Richmond. On Easter Sunday the following year, Sheeran was moved by the sight of "a large number of the Catholics" gathered in the morning "knee-deep in the snow, cheerfully awaiting the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass" (Sheeran 1960, p. 39).

Priests and Nuns Tending to the Wounded

The presence of Catholic priests and nuns in military hospitals or on burial details bridged the sectional divide between Union and Confederate soldiers. Following the fighting at Fair Oaks (Seven Pines), Virginia on June 1, 1862, Captain David Power Conyngham of the Irish Brigade praised the work of chaplains as they tended to fallen soldiers, and noted that the clergy "know no distinction between rebel or Federal" because their mission was "to console the mind and heal the body, and in this they know no distinction" (Conyngham 1994 [1866], p. 161). Following the battle of Malvern Hill in early July 1862, Conyngham noted that Catholic chaplains remained on the field until all the wounded, dead, and dying were treated and "cheerfully allowed themselves to fall into the enemy's hands sooner than neglect the spiritual or temporal welfare of our brave sufferers" (p. 226).

Reverend Sheeran reported that on September 15, 1862, he encountered Union soldiers burying their comrades who had fallen in the recent siege of Harpers Ferry. The Yankee soldiers, who turned out to be Catholic, "rejoiced" to learn that Sheeran was a priest and forgot "for the moment that they were in the hands of the enemy." Following the fighting at Chancellorsville, Virginia on May 4, 1863, Sheeran visited a Union field hospital. After administering the sacraments to a number of wounded Catholic soldiers, the men informed Sheeran that Federal surgeons "had paid no attention to them." Upon hearing this, Sheeran found the Union doctors and "requested them as a matter of humanity not to neglect the men" (Sheeran 1960, p. 44). A year later, following an engagement at Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia, Sheeran took it upon himself to care for the Union wounded, Catholics who happened to belong to the Union Irish Brigade (p. 88).

Catholic nuns played a significant role in caring for wounded Civil War soldiers. By the mid-nineteenth century there were approximately 1,500 nuns in the United States whose mission was to carry out the works of Christian charity by teaching, caring for orphans, nursing the sick, and providing spiritual assistance to the dying (Maher 1989, pp. 2, 14). The nuns' antebellum mission was rare, and they were the only source of trained nurses at the outset of the Civil War (p. 27). Many orders of nuns worked in military hospitals, or turned their convents into medical wards. The specific orders that ministered to the wounded and dying included the Sisters of Charity, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, and the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Many soldiers and civilians, however, made no distinction among the orders, and commonly referred to all nuns as "Sisters of Charity" (Barton 1897, p. 3).

Doctors specifically requested Catholic sisters to assist the wounded and dying because of their medical expertise (Maher 1989, p. 69). The Sisters of Charity of Emmittsburg, Maryland, had great demands placed on their service: These nuns traveled to Richmond in June 1861 to serve at the city's Confederate Military Hospital. On May 24, 1863, five Sisters of Charity fulfilled a request to minister to wounded soldiers in Atlanta, Georgia (Barton 1897, pp. 86, 90). Although sometimes they were negatively received, the sisters worked in the hospitals tirelessly and without pay, bringing food to the hungry, writing letters home on the behalf of dying soldiers, and bringing spiritual and physical comfort to those in pain. After benefiting from treatment at the Atlanta hospital, one wounded soldier confessed to the Catholic nurse that when he learned that the nurses were nuns his "heart was filled with hatred," but that he later recognized "the unintentional blackness" of his heart and saw the sisters "in their true light" (p. 91).

Although the Catholic sisters devoted a large amount of their time to nursing wounded soldiers, they did not forsake their commitment to aiding orphans during the Civil War. On November 9, 1864, the Washington, DC, Daily National Intelligencer ran an ad for a fair benefiting orphan girls, soliciting donations to "relieve the necessities of the numerous orphan girls of St. Vincent's Orphan Asylum… where they will partake of the maternal and judicious care of the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph." The paper praised the nuns' noble devotion to caring for the suffering regardless of creed, and commended their "devoted attention and zealous labors in nursing the sick, wounded, and dying soldiers in our military hospitals during the present war."

Catholicism as Sustaining Motivation

Catholicism not only sustained Civil War soldiers on a day-to-day basis, it also gave them and civilians at home a reason to continue supporting the war. As both the Union and the Confederacy suffered heavy losses during the latter part of 1862 and early 1863, patriotic rhetoric became steeped with religious metaphors, particularly that of the martyr and Christian warrior (Fellman, Gordon, and Sutherland 2003, p. 179). The requiem mass for the repose of the souls of the Irish Brigade held on January 16, 1863, at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York, and the sermon titled "Patriotism, a Christian Virtue" preached by the Reverend Joseph Fransioli at the same location on July 26, 1863, reveal the role that religion played in consoling the bereaved and sustaining civilians' and soldiers' motivation. Many Union soldiers attached religious significance to the preservation of the United States (Woodworth 2001, p. 111). The requiem mass, accordingly, honored the country's fallen and praised "Men who had pledged to this land their troth, and died to defend her, ere break there oath" (Conyngham 1994 [1866], p. 358).

The Reverend Fransioli's sermon echoed the requiem mass's reverence for the dead, and exhorted men and women to support the Union cause by contending that patriotism "is not only a social virtue, commanding respect, but a Christian virtue to be rewarded by the blessings of God here and hereafter." The priest concluded by advising the congregation to love God above all, then country and family, and stated that "the Christian patriot brings before the altar of his country, his property and his life cheerfully ready for the sacrifice when it is demanded." Ultimately, soldiers' and civilians' Catholic faith inspired them to see the Civil War through to its end and helped them to cope with human loss. Catholic soldiers' participation in the conflict, however, did little to quell anti-Catholic sentiment, which continued in the postwar years.


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Angela M. Zombek

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