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The Civil War Diary of Rev. James Sheeran, C.Ss.R.:
Confederate Chaplain and Redemptorist

edited by patrick j. hayes
catholic university of america, 584 pages, $29.95

Soldiers of the Cross, The Authoritative Text:
The Heroism of Catholic Chaplains and Sisters in the American Civil War

by david power conyngham
edited by david j. endres and william b. kurtz
notre dame, 536 pages, $35

Excommunicated from the Union:
How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America

by william b. kurtz
fordham, 250 pages, $35

In recent decades, the Civil War has received an increasing amount of attention from historians. Some of this scholarship has focused on the role religion played in the war. In The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006), Mark Noll describes the Civil War as a turning point in the nation’s religious life—a claim that has been borne out, though modified, by subsequent scholarship.

Most antebellum Americans had a supreme trust in the Bible as the authoritative guide for public and private life. But they disagreed about what the Bible taught concerning slavery and race, and this disagreement, in part, led the nation into war. Having failed to settle the nation’s greatest political debate, the Bible came to be seen as publicly ­irrelevant—­useful for private devotion but not for matters of policy. Something similar happened to Americans’ belief in divine providence. Before the war, most Americans believed that God directed public events as well as their private lives. But both sides during the war claimed that God was on their side, and the obvious impossibility of this cast doubt on the notion that God directed the affairs of men. In Noll’s view, this theological crisis reshaped the nation’s faith. America became publicly secular and privately pious, and remained so down to the present day. (One wonders, though, how thorough the removal of faith from public life has been.) 

If the Civil War challenged America’s Protestant majority, it seemed to present an opportunity to the Catholic minority. Many Catholics hoped that their sacrifices on the battlefield, and their Church’s ministry to wounded soldiers, might dispel the prejudice against them. The Irish immigrant journalist David ­Conyngham (1825–83) was one of those hopeful. His previously unpublished account provides a Catholic apologetic for “the services rendered, both on the field and in the hospital, by the Catholic chaplains and sisters, in both the Federal and Confederate Armies.” But Conyngham’s hopes would be disappointed. The recently republished diary of James Sheeran (1819–81), a Catholic chaplain for the Confederacy, shows how tensions between Protestants and Catholics remained high, even as they were joined in common suffering.

According to the best figures, 3,706 commissioned chaplains served at ­various times during the war, 2,398 from the North and 1,308 (42 percent of whom were fully ordained) from the South. About 2 percent (that is, 80) of the chaplains were Catholic priests, though some non-­commissioned Catholics served both sides, particularly in the South. Almost seven hundred Catholic women religious from various orders of nuns served in the hospitals, most of them without pay. By 1861, there were three million Catholics in the United States—about 10 percent of the total population—and it is estimated that about two hundred thousand of the 2.75 million soldiers in the war were Catholics, 7 percent of the total.

Catholic chaplains on both sides celebrated Mass for soldiers, heard confessions, gave general absolution before major battles, celebrated the sacrament of Extreme Unction, and prayed with and prepared young Catholic and Protestant men on the battlefield and in hospitals for a Christian death. Funerals for individual soldiers and for massive interments were also celebrated regularly. Death was the soldier’s and chaplain’s constant companion.

Catholic chaplains, like Protestant ministers, frequently preached to the soldiers. Preaching normally occurred on Sunday afternoons, after morning Mass (during which sermons were not delivered). One recurring theme, evident in Sheeran’s diary, was the immediate need to repent in time of war. Protestant ministers and Catholic priests both censured the common camp vices: blasphemy, profanity, gambling, and drunkenness. They privately admonished military officers whose misbehavior set a bad example for the troops.

The role of the chaplain did not end with giving religious and moral guidance. Chaplains provided nursing assistance in the military hospitals and on the front lines, washing and binding up soldiers’ wounds, comforting soldiers, and writing letters to their parents, wives, sweethearts, and friends, reporting their conditions and sometimes their last words. Some priests acted as bankers for the soldiers, collecting their wages and sending them to their families before they could be squandered through gambling. Chaplains ­mediated between soldiers and officers and advocated for soldiers unjustly condemned to death for desertion.

There was ecumenical cooperation between Protestants and Catholics in their mutual ministry to the sick, wounded, and dying. Conyngham contrasts the antebellum bigotry of the Protestant crusade against Catholics with the cordial relationships evident during the war: “The few years of the war did more to allay the bigotry of the Protestant mind than fifty years of civil life could have possibly done.” Conyngham whitewashes, though, the hostilities that continued to exist, as is evident in his reworking of passages quoted from Sheeran’s diary. Conyngham suppresses Sheeran’s frequent anti-Protestant statements and highlights Sheeran’s descriptions of Protestant-Catholic cooperation. For instance, at one point during the war, Sheeran instructed a Protestant minister in preparing a Catholic soldier in danger of death to confess his sins, and gave the minister a Catholic formula for absolution. Sheeran and other Catholics, though, were faced with old antebellum charges that Catholicism was a religion of forms and power. When Sheeran was thrown into a dirty prison, the Union officer executing the order called him a “d––d old Catholic Priest.”

Though friendly relationships between Protestants and Catholics did exist during the war and some prejudices were modified, religious hostilities persisted. Sheeran debated Protestant soldiers and citizens in northern Virginia, defending sacramental confession, the temporal power of the pope, and especially the dictum “No salvation outside the Church,” which Sheeran interpreted to mean that Protestants could not be saved by their religion. He also rejected the Protestant accusations of papal opposition to progress.

Conyngham’s text gives journalistic descriptions of battles (Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Gettys­burg, Vicksburg) and graphic accounts of the horrors of war. Sheeran describes the gruesome carnage left on the battlefield:

Those [dead bodies] scattered through the woods and over the field presented a shocking spectacle; some with their brains oozing out; some with the face shot off; others with their bowels protruding; others with shattered limbs. I think it would be no exaggeration to say that, in front of [Stonewall] Jackson’s lines alone, there were nearly 4,000 dead Yankees. Consider that some of these were four days unburied, some three and the remainder two, and you can form an estimate of this loathsome scene.

William Kurtz’s Excommunicated is the most comprehensive, ­well-documented, and balanced examination of the role of Catholics in the Civil War. Kurtz argues that the war

played a pivotal role in accelerating the antebellum trend in American Catholicism toward isolation and separatism. Alienated by a hostile society that showed no appreciation for their wartime sacrifices, that continued to attack them and their faith as not fully American, Catholics sought refuge for themselves and their faith in a subculture of their own making.

Counter to what certain Catholics had hoped, Kurtz concludes, the war increased Catholic isolation from American society.

By Kurtz’s estimation, 90 percent of Catholics lived in the northern and border states. Relying on ­copious primary and secondary sources, he outlines the positions of pro- and anti-war, pro- and anti-emancipation Catholics during the war. Catholics, like Protestants, were divided over the issue of slavery. Unlike their Protestant neighbors in the North and South, Catholics disagreed not so much over interpretations of the Bible concerning slavery as over the Church’s historical teachings on slavery, as was particularly evident in the battle between the pro-emancipation Cincinnati Catholic Telegraph and James McMaster’s New York Freeman’s Journal

Even before this newspaper debate, however, Pope Gregory XVI published In supremo apostolatus (1839), an apostolic letter condemning the slave trade, or so Bishop John England of Charleston argued. Commentaries on this letter in England, on the Continent, and in an 1864 Italian assessment of it for Propaganda Fide (the Vatican congregation primarily responsible for supervision of the Catholic mission in the United States) took a different view. As ­Suzanne Krebsbach recently argued, these sources saw the pope’s letter as a condemnation of slavery itself and not just of the slave trade. Yet John England’s interpretation seems to have prevailed in ­American Catholic circles, nullifying to some extent the force of the pope’s ­condemnations. Propaganda Fide, apparently unin­fluenced by the papal document, provided very little moral guidance on the issue for American Catholics throughout the antebellum period.

Kurtz also describes the contributions of Catholic soldiers (mostly Irish, but also German and native-born) and Catholic generals (William S. Rosecrans and Philip Sheridan). In a chapter on priests and nuns, he describes Catholic care for the sick and dying and Catholic religious life during the conflict.

Using primary sources as well as apologetic texts such as George ­Barton’s Angels of the Battlefield (1897) and subsequent historical studies, Kurtz provides a comprehensive historical analysis of the spiritual and medical care nuns provided to both Protestant and Catholic ­soldiers—a contribution that has often received insufficient attention, in part due to a lack of primary sources. The sisters served mostly in hospitals, assisting physicians, washing and binding up wounds, conversing with the invalids, discussing religion with them, and praying with the sick. In the absence of chaplains, the nursing nuns prepared the dying for a Christian death. The St. Louis Sisters of Mercy, Conyngham notes, treated all soldiers in the hospitals alike, “irrespective of country, religion, or politics,” and “found hundreds of soldiers, Federal and Confederate, ignorant of the simplest truths of religion, and when asked, they instructed them in the principles of religion, and if [the soldiers] demanded it, when the opportunity offered, they brought them chaplains of other denominations.” 

Kurtz shows that despite such moments of cooperation, Catholics continued to face hostility during and after the Civil War. John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874), for example, focused primarily on the “extremists” (i.e., the Catholic Church) in the conflict. He charged that Catholicism was openly hostile to all free intellectual inquiry and the progress of the ­human mind. 

Catholic hopes for acceptance into the American mainstream were disappointed, Kurtz argues, and they responded by building a series of religious and social institutions that stood apart from the broader society. In my view, Kurtz’s thesis of separatism and isolationism, which he shares with a few other historians, needs modification. In a voluntary culture like the United States, religious peoples are not necessarily separatist or isolationist when they decide how they are to communicate the faith in a pluralistic society with multiple religious and secular options. They participate in American voluntaryism when they build their own institutions, many of which serve the common good.

Patrick Carey is author of Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, 1918–2008.