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On Civil War's 150th anniversary, historian reflects on religion's role
Union infantry at Petersburg.
Union infantry at Petersburg.

.- Religion had a “pervasive” role in American life at the time of the United States’ Civil War, one historian says, explaining his “fascinating” discoveries about the roles Catholics played.

“One of the things that surprised me was that there were certain dominant ideas, regardless of particular religious affiliation. Ideas about providence, ideas about sin, ideas about judgment. Those were common themes that crossed religious traditions,” George C. Rable, a history professor at the University of Alabama, told CNA on Dec. 7.

“Religion was absolutely pervasive when Americans tried to explain the causes, and the course, and the consequences of the Civil War.”

The year 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.

The conflict remains a central event in American history. It preserved the union of the states and emancipated the slaves, both actions which Christians saw at the time as providential.

Differences about slavery and whether it was a divinely inspired institution helped divide the Protestant churches before and during the war. Some contemporary Catholic observers saw these divisions as a religious fault.

Prof. Rable, author of the 2010 book “God’s Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War” (Univ. of North Carolina Press, $35), read many northern Catholic newspapers from the period for his research.

“One argument that they make is that essentially Protestantism caused the war. You might say that that is a peculiar idea, but their point was that Protestants are inherently divisive and schismatic. Had the nation been entirely Catholic, they said, the nation would never have divided.”

Catholics were a relatively small minority and tended to side with the people in their own section.

Contemporary Catholics, especially in the North, were “especially fascinating” to Rable because they did not speak in one voice and became increasingly divided as the war went on.

“Some remained very conservative, almost Copperhead in orientation, while somebody like Orestes Brownson came out against slavery early in the war and became a strong supporter of the Lincoln administration,” he said.

The anti-Catholicism of the 1850s accompanied the rise of the nativist Know Nothing Party, which contributed to Catholic fears.

“One of the things more conservative Catholics say during the war is, ‘you can’t trust the Republicans, because after they are through with the Confederates they’ll turn on the Catholics,’” Rable explained.

A variety of Catholics came to prominence within the Church and in American public life.

Orestes Brownson was a “very important Catholic intellectual” in the 1850s. He was also a “late Catholic” who held many religious and philosophical positions before his conversion.

Archbishop John Hughes of New York was very important among the Irish population and went on a recruiting trip to Europe on behalf of the Lincoln administration. He was perhaps the leading Catholic figure of the United States and he supported the Union, but he took a “conservative” position on slavery.

James McMaster, the “most conservative” Catholic spokesman in Rable’s view, was “bitterly anti-Lincoln and anti-war.”

He edited the Freeman’s Journal newspaper in New York. At one point he was arrested and his newspaper was suspended because of his attacks on President Lincoln.

Bishop William Henry Elder of Natchez, Miss. ran afoul of federal military authority when he refused to tell his priests to pray during Mass for the U.S. president, rather than the Confederate president.

General William Rosencrans, a Union commander in the war’s western theater, had mixed success in battle. He was a “very ardent Catholic” who ensured that Mass was held on a regular basis in his camp.

“Rosecrans liked to stay up late discussing theological questions, including with a future president of the United States, James Garfield,” Rable said. “Garfield was an ordained Disciples of Christ minster and he and Rosecrans would talk long into the night about theological questions.”

The shortage of Catholic chaplains was always an issue. Though they sometimes had tension with Protestant chaplains, there were also examples of cooperation.

“One of the things the war did, especially in the armies, was that it lessened the importance of denominational differences. Some thought that it lessened anti-Catholicism among Protestants,” Rable explained.

Religious women also had a part. The Sisters of Charity worked in the military hospitals and cared for everyone regardless of their political affiliation.

“They were there to serve as nurses. Soldiers on both sides were impressed with the Sisters of Charity,” added Rable, whose book recounts the story of one soldier so impressed by a sister that he converted to Catholicism.

Though the armies had a reputation for irreligion, there were also religious revivals during the war in both armies, especially the Confederate camps.

“I would argue that a substantial minority of soldiers in both armies were deeply religious. And I wouldn’t go beyond that. I don’t think you can argue that a majority were deeply religious at all,” Rable said.

Some traditional histories of the Civil War say that the conflict caused a great deal of religious disillusionment among Americans, but Rable found little evidence to support that claim.

“For one thing, they could use their faith to explain what was going on in the war. If you lost a battle, that was a sign of divine chastisement. If you won a battle, that was a sign of divine favor. The theology was pretty flexible.”

Americans at the time also held to a “civil religion,” an informal and commonly held set of beliefs that emphasized their nation as a chosen people with a special destiny.

They believed not only that Christ might soon come again, but that they would achieve a “human perfectionism” to usher in “a great age of peace and change and reform.”

“A lot of people on both sides really thought that the American Civil War would solve some fundamental problems for all time,” said Rable.

Both sides assumed that God was on their side, which Rable thought lengthened and intensified the war.

The biggest post-war religious change came in the South.

“It’s easy to forget that the southern churches before the war were in a sense biracial. A lot of slaves were members of white churches. They might have to sit in the balcony or the gallery. Certainly segregated, and the slaves were not involved in church governance. Yet in some ways the churches were more integrated than they are today,” said Rable.

A “massive” black exodus followed the war, with many joining the African Methodist Episcopal churches.

Rable also suggested that histories of the war benefit from more viewpoints. He pointed out that works on religion in the American Civil War are largely accounts of Protestants. “I’ve found that Catholics, Mormons and Jews all had important things to say about the war itself,” he said.

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