Religion and War
Citizens on both sides of the Civil War saw the conflict through the lens of religion. Many in the north saw the war as the continuation of the spread of democracy and Christianity. Many southerners fought to create a nation they believed would have a closer obedience to the Bible.
These mixed religious feelings largely described Protestants of this era, who made up the majority of the population in the 1860s. Whereas Protestant congregations historically split along geographic lines, the Catholic Church remained united during the Civil War. Unlike the widely supported Protestant notions that Christianity was linked to democracy and capitalism, the Catholic Church took an official stance of neutrality.
Although small populations of French and English Catholics dotted the country during the late 1700s and early 1800s, the 1840s saw a massive influx of Catholic immigrants fleeing the German revolutions and Irish potato famine. The face of Catholic America quickly became predominantly Irish, with roughly half of the 4.5 million Catholic population of Irish descent.
The rapid increase in immigration saw the rise in popularity of the Know Nothing movement. This political party was known for its anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiments. They were also known for starting riots, ballot-rigging, harassing priests, and burning down Catholic churches. When the Civil War began and the call came for soldiers, many Irish Catholics were hesitant to align themselves with the Republican Union, which many of the Know Nothing members joined when their movement collapsed. Irish Catholics in the Union were also concerned about their future in a country where slavery was abolished. Would their already meager wages and hard-won jobs be taken from them?
Irish Catholics in the south likewise were not quick to join the Confederate cause. Many had sympathy for the suffering of the slaves and saw their own mistreatment by Protestant Americans in a similar vein. This confusion only increased as numerous Irish linked the Confederacy’s push for independence with Ireland’s push for independence from Britain. Still others felt obligation to fight for the Union who had adopted them and provided refuge from starvation and British persecution. In the end, the majority of Irish Catholics did side with the Union, but largely because of the location of their settlements rather than sentiments for or against the Union or Confederacy.
Catholic service in the war was notable. The famous “Irish Brigade,” organized by Thomas Francis Meagher, served with distinction at Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. It won the praise of the Union and encouraged many Irish Catholics to enlist. Many officers on the Confederate and Union side were Catholic as well. Priests served as chaplains in both the Union and Confederate armies. Catholic sisters who volunteered were the most organized, trained, and experienced nurses in the country. Their service on both sides of the war were praised equally, for their compassion and for their fight to raise healthcare standards.
The service and unity of Catholics during this time was unique among the religious in the country. Their actions provided the Catholic Church a chance for outside understanding, respect and even gratitude. The outcome of the Civil War not only better united the citizenry, but it also helped unite American Catholics with the rest of the country.
Several digitized archival artifacts are located below.