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Civil War: The Catholic Story


Scholar reflects on Catholic contributions to the War Between the States

April 12th is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. The firing on Fort Sumter, S.C., that day led to one of the bloodiest conflicts in history and a war that pitted brother against brother. Yet after five years, the union was preserved and slavery was abolished.

To draw some insights on the war from a Catholic perspective, we reached out to John Barnes, recently elected president of the Houston Civil War Roundtable, and author of Ulysses S. Grant on Leadership: Executive Lessons from the Front Lines (Crown, 2001). Barnes and his wife, Mary, are members of the Knights of Malta and are the parents of Mary Elizabeth, 10, and John Paul, 5. Barnes spoke recently with John Burger.

Civil War

Fathers for Good: Obviously, there were soldiers in the Civil War who came from Catholic families. Is there any new scholarship in this area?

Barnes: There has been scholarship in this area. Of course, Catholics were a rising force in the United States in the 1860s, mostly propelled by Irish immigration, but also a significant number of Germans. German Catholics emigrated to the United States around the same time, after the 1848 revolutions. Many of them were political refugees. So Catholics were a rising presence in the United States, viewed of course with great suspicion by the overwhelmingly Protestant majority in the country at the time.

But there was significant Catholic involvement, not only by soldiers — of course, there were many Catholic soldiers in the war, mostly on the northern side; there were some on the southern side, but there were relatively few Catholics in the South at that time. And there were a number of Catholic clerics who were very prominent on both sides in the war.

FFG: What side did the bishops take? How did the Vatican figure in?

Barnes: The archbishop of New York, “Dagger” John Hughes, who built St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was a very important figure in the northern war effort. He supported the Union. Abraham Lincoln consulted him a number of times during the war. And he was instrumental in calming New York after the draft riots.

On the southern side, there was the bishop of Charleston, S.C., Patrick Neeson Lynch. He was born in Ireland and emigrated to the United States as a young man and was ordained a priest in Charleston and ultimately became the bishop. He was a quite unapologetic Confederate, a strong supporter of the confederacy. In fact, the day Fort Sumter fell, he presided over a high Mass of thanksgiving in the cathedral. He, in a kind of mirror image of the way Lincoln treated Hughes, was quite influential in his own way in the Confederacy.

Jefferson Davis consulted him and actually sent him on a ship, through the blockade, to Rome to meet with Pope Pius IX and try to persuade him to diplomatically recognize the Confederacy. Now Pius IX was polite; he heard Lynch out. And he did write a letter that was complimentary of Lynch and of Davis. And Lynch brought this back with him, and Davis tried to use this letter as a way of claiming that the Vatican had recognized the Confederacy. Of course the Vatican had done no such thing. The pope was just being polite.

So both sides were vying for the support of the Holy See. It wouldn’t have been as significant as, for instance, Britain or France or one of the major European military powers. But the pope’s recognition was a sought-after commodity during the war. But Pius IX had bigger fish to fry at that time, with the Italian unification movement going on … He probably thought one war at a time is enough.

Then there was Father Abram Joseph Ryan. He looks almost like a southern version of John Brown in some ways. He didn’t have a beard, but he had this wild mane of hair. He was actually born in Maryland. His parents were Irish immigrants. And he was a very active component of the Confederacy. He wrote a number of poems, mostly after the war, which lauded the Confederate cause and were quite widely published. He was called the poet priest of the confederacy or the poet laureate of the Confederacy.

So yes, there was a significant Catholic presence, and of course on the Union side there was the chaplain of the Irish Brigade, Father Corby. I think he was twice president of Notre Dame after the war. He gave a famous benediction to the Irish Brigade before they went into action at Gettysburg. The statue of him on the battlefield is of him with his hand raised in benediction on the spot where he is said to have given the benediction.

FFG: You’ve written about leadership lessons. Are there lessons we can draw from that can help us find our way through today in a very polarized society?

Barnes: I know some people might say that what we’re experiencing is akin to a civil war. I wouldn’t go that far. There are always issues that divide societies, especially democratic societies. It’s kind of an easy analogy to make to say that it’s kind of a cultural civil war. I’m not quite sure it’s that bad, with people actually seriously thinking about shooting at each other or anything like that. It doesn’t rise to that level.

But Ulysses Grant actually said in the last chapter of his memoirs … the definition of a civil war is that one side or the other had to yield principles that each held dearer than life itself. So it was settled by clash of arms, and one side was forced to yield.

Was there reconciliation after the war? Yes, there was. But the thing I’ve always pointed out is that, yes, there was reconciliation between northerners and white southerners. The people who were forgotten in all this, of course, were the freed slaves. They had to pay the price of all this good feeling between the north and the south after the war, and of course that came to a head 50 years ago with the beginning of the civil rights movement.

So I wouldn’t liken what we’re going through today to a civil war. The Civil War left a lot of bitterness in the country. White American southerners are the only English-speaking people in history to experience defeat in a total war. English-speaking people don’t lose wars. If you travel through the South, you still encounter that bitterness sometimes. Churchill said it takes a country 200 years to get over a civil war. By this time we have another 50 years to go.

John Burger is news editor of the National Catholic Register.