Dr. William B. Kurtz is a digital historian and archivist at the John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America. Dr. Kurtz has presented his research at many Civil War conferences and he is very active with the annual Virginia Festival of the Book.
Why were you interested in focusing on Catholics during the Civil War?
There is a renewed attention to religion during the war among Civil War historians. There was only one other book on the Catholic community (laity and religious) when I started writing and researching as part of my PhD at the University of Virginia. I was dissatisfied with how Catholic scholars neglected the war and how Civil War scholars neglected Catholics.
What unique challenges did Catholics experience, compared to those of the Protestant majority?
First, many were immigrants and as Catholics they pledged their religious loyalties to a European monarch, the pope. As huge numbers of them moved to the U.S. in the two decades before the war, the native-born population worried that these new arrivals might threaten their way of life. As foreigners and non-Protestants then, Catholics were suspected of being truly loyal to their native countries, blindly obedient to their priests, and potentially antagonistic to democracy.
Protestants during the war didn’t face questions about their loyalties, because Protestantism was taken as a given for most Americans. It was seen as an inherently modern and democratic religion, thus perfectly suited for the United States. In the 1840s and 1850s there were many instances of violence against Catholics. During the war and long after, Catholics had to combat that legacy of being regarded as disloyal and un-American because they weren’t native-born Protestants.
What about challenges for the Catholic soldiers?
There was this idea that one should die a “good death.” This was particularly important for soldiers away from their families. For Protestants this was an inner conviction and way of behaving at death, but for Catholics it required a priest to hear one’s confession before the battle or give last rites to a dying soldier. There were hundreds of Protestant chaplains, but only a few dozen Catholic ones to serve perhaps as many as 200,000 men scattered throughout Union armies. The U.S. Christian Commission supplied Protestant soldiers with thousands of bibles and tracts, but there’s no equivalent for Catholics. Catholic bishops were haphazard at best; they didn’t make a united effort to take care of soldiers of their faith.
What was one major reason Catholics were unable to combat prejudices from Protestants and Nativists?
Catholics were very loyal to the Democratic Party because it was conservative on social issues, had reached out to them as newly-arrived immigrants, and was the major political force opposing nativism in the antebellum U.S., North or South. During the war, Catholics refused to bolt from the Democratic Party, even after many Northern leaders and anti-slavery radicals saw its refusal to endorse all of President Abraham Lincoln’s wartime policies as an impediment to the North’s military victory. After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September 1862, many Republican northerners, especially radicals, came to believe that opposing the eradication of southern slavery was tantamount to sympathizing with the Confederacy. Catholics and most Democrats wanted a war for the “Union as it was,” not to eradicate slavery or to promote other radical reforms.
Many of us have seen films or shows about the Civil War. I don’t remember seeing much about Catholic nuns and their service!
The Conspirator actually does a good job of highlighting Mary Surratt’s Catholic faith and there’s a brief scene in Gettysburg meant to be Father William Corby’s famous battlefield absolution. But you’re right there’s little on nuns, and that continues with the show Mercy Street where the focus is on Protestant lay women.
Why do nuns rank as the top nurses of the Civil War?
Unlike most women at the time, some nuns like those from the Daughters of Charity, based out of Emmitsburg, Maryland, actually had some pre-war training in nursing. They were also hard-working, extremely dedicated, and believed that the self-mortification daily experienced as nurses was a path to personal holiness. While they ostensibly tried to be religiously neutral, they also hoped to convert soldiers they attended or at least to shed a more positive light on the Catholic Church’s image in America.
By all accounts, they were successful in dispelling old prejudices held by many Protestants they came in contact with on both sides. Statistics from one hospital run by Daughters of Charity, Satterlee General Hospital in Philadelphia, clearly shows it had a much lower mortality rate than most in the North or South. Those statistics were recorded by the hospital’s Protestant chaplain, Nathaniel West, who lavishly praised the nuns for their hard work and devotion.
Do any failures/successes from these formative years of our country’s history carry over to today for Catholics?
I think the example of Father Corby and the heroism of the Irish Brigade are stories that are better known today to Civil War scholars and buffs than to most Americans in the 19th century, and in that sense they stand as widely recognized and irrefutable instances of Catholic patriotism. As far as the failures or points of disagreement go, they still exist and are often found in disputes between Catholic conservatives and more liberal Americans over hot button issues today (sexual freedom) just as they were over the big issues in the past (nationalism, education).
Unlike during or after the Civil War, World War II and its aftermath did a lot to get rid of anti-Catholicism (and anti-Semitism) in the U.S. The soldiers themselves finally had enough of it and dedicated themselves to easing religious tensions back home. Thus you have the sociologist William Herberg famously proclaim in 1955 that Judaism and Catholicism are just as American as Protestantism, and the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who was a WWII veteran, was elected in 1960.
What is really interesting to me are the parallels between the Catholic experience then and the Muslim experience now. See for example Humayun Khan, a Muslim American, UVa graduate, and U.S. Army captain who died in Iraq in 2004. Just as he is an example of a patriotic Muslim that counteracts anti-Islamic stereotypes in modern America, Father Corby and the Irish Brigade were revered the same way by Catholics after the Civil War. Both Catholics and later Muslims have been suspected of being un-American because of their religion. Both groups sent soldiers of their faith to fight and die for the nation. But, unfortunately, these sacrifices were only appreciated by some Americans and the religious prejudices against them remained long after the Civil War and Second Iraq War ended.