Review: Catholic Confederates

David Roach

David Roach is a Ph.D. candidate at Baylor University.

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David Roach, "Review: Confederate Catholics," Journal of Southern Religion (23) (2021):

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Gracjan Kraszewski. Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South. Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2020. 196 pp. 978-1-60635-395-0

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What do General P.G.T. Beauregard, Father Abram Ryan, Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, President Jefferson Davis, and General James Longstreet have in common? In addition to their Confederate commitments, as Gracjan Kraszewski points out in Catholic Confederates, all were either “Roman Catholics or had strong ties to the Church” (xvi). Kraszewski believes southern Catholics merit greater attention, and Confederate Catholics attempts to integrate this group more fully into the historiographies of American Catholicism, Civil War religion, and Confederate nationalism. Primarily focused on 1861 to 1865, his book tracks the assimilation of southern Catholics, many of whom were immigrants and all of whom were religious outsiders in a Protestant land. And yet, affinities between the politically conservative South and theologically conservative Catholics facilitated the assimilation, or “Confederatization,” of southern Catholics (xvii–xviii). Ultimately, then, Kraszewski argues that southern Catholics had no difficulty reconciling their religious beliefs with their political loyalties, and that they fully assimilated and enthusiastically participated in the Confederacy’s attempt to build a new nation.

To demonstrate this Confederatization, Kraszewski reconstructs the wartime experiences of Catholic bishops, chaplains, laypersons, and religious sisters and explores how these various groups conceptualized the relationship between their faith and the Confederate nation. The first and fourth chapters focus upon the southern episcopate, the first on their reaction to secession and the fourth on their activities during the civil war. On the eve of the conflict, southern bishops made overtures of peace and much of their neutrality, but southern sympathies tinged these comments, even among Border South bishops like Martin John Spalding. To be sure, some were more enthusiastic than others—perhaps none surpassed Bishop of Charleston Patrick Lynch’s devotion to the cause—but all supported the Confederacy. Yes, peace was the desired outcome, but only on southern terms. No surprise, then, that bishops in the seceding states warmly embraced and publicly supported the cause of secession soon after the civil war commenced. Over the next four years, in addition to their many pastoral and administrative duties, these bishops spoke much about and prayed often for peace—but only if it recognized the legitimacy of the Confederate nation.

Moving from the home front to the battlefield, Confederate Catholics’ second and third chapters piece together the lives of Catholic chaplains and soldiers. Here, Kraszewski ably uses diaries to give a good sense of the pastoral duties of Catholic chaplains as well as the devotional practices of soldiers. But in addition to piety, he also finds loyalty to the Confederate cause. Thoroughly committed to the South, these Catholics saw little tension between their religious beliefs and their political commitments, evidence that “one could be a devoted Confederate and a devout Catholic with easy symbiosis” (71). In fact, Catholics tended to think of themselves as the best sorts of Confederates and their religion as the faith most suited to the Confederacy. Even religious sisters contributed to the Confederate cause, working as nurses throughout the conflict. Although Kraszewski contends their involvement was less political and more humanitarian, their medical assistance both underscored the extent of Catholic involvement in the Confederate war effort and demonstrated that very point to non-Catholic southerners. (One wonders, though, if the chapter’s focus on nuns’ battlefield service to both Union and Confederate soldiers mutes the degree of their own political commitments to the South.)

Not only did Catholics support the Confederacy on the battlefield and the home front, they also aimed to drum up support for the South abroad, the subject of the book’s final chapter. Detailing the diplomatic missions of Father John Bannon and Bishop Patrick Lynch, Kraszewski illustrates how Southern Catholics labored to bring about international recognition of the Confederate nation, further evidence of their Confederatization.

In most chapters, Kraszewski’s approach is biographical, and he draws upon diaries, private correspondence, and newspaper accounts to tell the story of Catholics during the Civil War.  His accounts of bishops like Patrick Lynch and William Henry Elder, chaplains John Bannon and Louis-Hippolyte Gache, and laymen Felix Pierre Poche and Henri Garidel often deftly use diaries to reconstruct these civil war lives. This biographical approach has its advantages—the characters are interesting and the narrative moves briskly along—but one wonders how representative these men were. What about less well-off southern Catholics? And women? Granted, identifying and then accessing such sources is an exceedingly difficult task, but there are a few—Louisianan Florence J. O’Connor’s 1863 propaganda novel comes to mind—and these groups demonstrates the extent of Confederate nationalism. The book also occasionally flattens the regional variations of Southern Catholic wartime experience. At times, Border South Catholics like Bishop Martin John Spalding and Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick are listed among southern Catholics, but their relationship to the Confederacy differed markedly from Catholics who resided in states that seceded.

These criticisms aside, Kraszewski successfully demonstrates that many Southern Catholics saw their religious identities as Catholics wholly compatible with their political loyalties as Confederates. And along the way, he points to sources—usually secular newspaper articles—that illustrate how Southern Catholics’ participation in the Confederacy proved their loyalties to fellow Southerners, a chronological extension of Andrew Stern’s book on Protestant-Catholic relations in the antebellum South, Southern Crucifix, Southern Cross. Although, at times, this reviewer wished Kraszewski had used his sources evidencing Protestant-Catholic comity to analyze more closely the relationship of religion, pluralism, and Confederate nationalism, Catholic Confederates is an important starting place for conversations about southern Catholics in the civil war era.