Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Catholics in the American Civil War: the North

While many Protestant denominations, Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians among them, broke apart over the issue of slavery or their respective regional alliances, common allegiance to Rome kept the Catholic Church united during the American Civil War. Nevertheless, while the Catholic Church remained intact, it certainly was not of one mind over the political issues of the day. As in the Protestant denominations, the Bishops—and presumably their clergy and laity—found their strongest allegiance to their particular region.

In the Union, the strongest Catholic voice supporting the Union was New York Archbishop John Hughes. Hughes was a close friend of and regular correspondent with Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward. While Seward was an Episcopalian, his prominence in New York politics—he had been Governor (1839-1842) and served New York in the United States Senate (1849-1861) led to contact with and then friendship with Hughes. In the Seward Home in Auburn NY, among the dignitaries whose portraits grace the hall and main stairway is Archbishop Hughes. One of the challenges facing the Union was raising troops—and keeping them—and the New York Irish were a valuable resource to the Union Army. Hughes played a leading role in the recruitment of Irish troops to the national cause. Lincoln invited Hughes to meet with him and his cabinet in October 1861—he wanted to offer Hughes an official position as Jefferson Davis was offering one to Bishop Lynch of Charleston. Hughes declined the office but agreed to visit Europe to explain the Union cause to the Pope and to the French Emperor, Napoleon III. Hughes hoped—in vain—to forestall a papal recognition of the Confederacy, but he had more success with the French Imperial Court which was also considering, along with Great Britain, in giving formal recognition to the Confederate government. Such diplomatic recognition would have given the Confederacy an internationally recognized legitimacy which the Union wanted, indeed needed, to prevent.
Another danger to the Union was a possibility that Britain would not only recognize the Confederacy but send troops to help the South defend itself against the North. Hughes was an inveterate Irishman, native to Ireland, and no friend of the British. He used his contacts in Ireland to make sure that the British understood that the Irish who had fought for the British crown in the Crimea and in India, would not fight against the United States. Moreover, Hughes recruited several Irish officers fighting in the papal armies—John Coppinger, Myles Keogh, Daniel Keily, and Joseph O’Keeffe—to come and fight in the Union Army. Coppinger would eventually attain the rank of General while Keogh would die with Custer at the Little Big Horn.
In the summer of 1863 New York was racked by draft riots. Four hundred and forty-three people were arrested, one hundred twenty eight were injured, and more than fifty were killed protesting the new draft laws designed to replenish the Union Armies as the war dragged on. These riots were the biggest demonstration of civil strife to date in the United States. Over a hundred buildings were burned to the ground and several hundred more were severely damaged. Much of the rioting was from the Irish immigrant community who had come here looking for work not for a war in which they, as recent immigrants, felt no compelling interest.
Hughes was already terminally ill (he would die the following January) but he called a rally at Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral where he declared “no blood of innocent martyrs, shed by Irish Catholics, has ever stained the soil of Ireland.” I am not quite sure how that was relevant to the issue, but it sufficed to quiet the populace and suppress the riots.
Other Yankee bishops did not achieve the national acclaim that Hughes did for their support of the war but the hierarchy in New England and the Mid-Atlantic States was solidly behind the Union cause. Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick of Boston made a trip to Europe during the war, ostensibly to Belgium for his health but seemingly also making political contacts on behalf of the Union Cause. The Border States were another issue. Archbishop Martin John Spalding of Louisville was a Confederate sympathizer and published a pro-Confederacy article in L’Osservatore Romano, the official press of the Holy See. The Archishops of Baltimore, Francis Patrick Kenrick, and Saint Louis, Peter Richard Kenrick, were brothers and they both headed dioceses where the Union cause was very unpopular and consequently they remained very non-committal about the political conflicts of the day which, under the circumstances, gave the appearance of being pro-Confederacy. This was probably not fair. Peter Richrd Kenrick—when the war was over—was an ardent supporter of the radical reconstruction severity designed to punish the former Confederate States.
The Bishops of Ohio and Indiana were not very enthusiastic about the war either. Ohio, and even more Indiana, were heavily rural states and while they were free states, the farmers in the southern part of Ohio and Indiana felt more in common with the rural south than the industrial north. Strong prejudice among the rural farmers against people of African descent did not serve to stir pro-Union loyalty either. Despite Archbishop Purcell’s support of the Union cause, the assembled bishops at a Provincial synod in Cincinatti in May 1861, a month after the war began, issued the following evasive statement.
It is not for us to enquire into the causes which have led to the present unhappy condition of affairs. This enquiry belongs more appropriately to those who are directly concerned in managing the affairs of the Republic. 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 into the political arena. They leave to the ministers of the human sects to discuss from their pulpits and in their ecclesiastical assemblies the exciting questions which lie at the basis of most of our present and prospective difficulties. Thus, while many of the sects have divided into hostile parties on an exciting political issue, the Catholic Church has carefully preserved her unity of spirit in the bond of peace, literally knowing no North, no South, no East, no West. Wherever Christ is to be preached and sinners to be saved, there she is found with ministrations of truth and mercy. She leaves the exciting question referred to previously where the inspired Apostle of the Gentiles left it, contenting herself, like him, with inculcating on all classes and grades of society the faithful discharge of the duties belonging to their respective states of life, knowing that they will all have to render a strict account to God for the deeds done in the flesh, that this life is short and transitory, and that eternity never ends. Beyond this point her ministers do not consider it their province to go, knowing well that they are the ministers of God, who is not a God of dissension, but of peace and love.
Had this wise and considerate line of conduct been generally followed throughout the country, we are convinced that much of the embittered feeling which now unfortunately exists, would have been obviated, and that brotherly love, the genuine offspring of true Christianity, instead of the fratricidal hatred which is opposed to its essential genius and spirit, would now bless our country, and bind together all our fellow-citizens in one harmonious brotherhood. May God, in his abounding mercy, grant that the sectarianism which divides and sows dissensions, may gradually yield to the Catholic spirit which breathes unity and love!
If it were not for a few jibes at their Protestant neighbors, this would seem an irenic statement but it is not consistent with the Catholic Church's support for American military policy in other wars--from the Revolution down to today's conflict in Afghanistan. Its failure to support the Union cause, despite the pious--indeed smarmy--words, was read as an endorsement of secession and its lack of patriotic commitment would never have come from John Hughes.

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