The Civil War as a Proving Ground for the Church

April 2016By Christopher Gawley

Christopher Gawley is an attorney in the New York City area. His academic articles have been published in The South Dakota Law Review, The Capitol University Law Review, and The George Washington Law Review. He regularly writes book reviews and articles for Christian Order.

For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War.  By Max Longley. McFarland. 312 pages. $45.



No era in U.S. history was as transformative as the period that bracketed the Civil War. For the Union and the Catholic Church is a riveting account of that period of change, as told through the experience of four Catholic converts. Max Longley surveys the issues that defined the latter half of the nineteenth century and gives an inspiring account of American Catholicism and the men who went about building it from the ground up. Longley’s subjects are William Rosencrans, Sylvester Rosencrans, Orestes Brownson, and James Healy. The two Rosencranses hailed from Ohio, Brownson was a Vermonter, and Healy was born a slave in Georgia. Each man’s conversion was remarkable in its own right; each joined what was clearly an alien religion in an aggressively Protestant society.

The book begins with William Rosencrans, who in many ways is the most remarkable convert of the four. William was a talented West Point grad (class of 1842) who served in the Army for years before the Civil War. Like many of the era, William was a searcher. His unlikely path to the Catholic Church was initiated in part by a longing for authority. In a milieu of “revival” and the growing multiplicity of Protestant sects, the Church seemed a rock of stability in the shifting sands of American religious opinions.

Upon his conversion, William was filled with an all-consuming zeal for the faith. He was unabashed in his willingness to engage, to evangelize, to dispute, and to build the Church. His enthusiasm helped to convert his wife and his brother Sylvester. The latter appears more judicious in the contemplation of his conversion, but when he crossed the Tiber he followed his newfound faith to Rome and the priesthood. William’s strength was passion and drive; Sylvester’s was steadiness and composure. Both Rosencrans brothers succeeded in converting much of their family.

As with many former soldiers, William offered his services immediately upon the outbreak of hostilities in 1861. He rapidly ascended the ranks to generalship, and he served as a commander in numerous battles in the western theater. He orchestrated one of the first victories against General Robert E. Lee in what would seal West Virginia’s status as a new state in the Union. Although his reputation waxed and waned during the Civil War, he was one of the better Union commanders, notwithstanding his role in the North’s greatest setback at Chickamauga. After that, he was demoted and spent much of the remainder of the war in charge of the near-anarchy in Missouri. Still, he was considered for President Lincoln’s running mate in 1864. He had strong abolitionist tendencies and relished slavery’s demise. His story within a story is the most concerned with the war itself.

Sylvester’s story brings in an aspect largely ignored in Civil War literature: the role of Europe. Most studies only describe the Confederacy’s desperate attempt to obtain diplomatic recognition and the North’s determined approach in preventing it. Young Fr. Sylvester’s sojourn in Italy at precisely the time when the Papal States were crumbling proved instructive. Italian revolts and the Great Powers’ intervention provided a backdrop to the Church’s rearguard action against rising liberal and nationalist forces in Europe. The American public generally saw the Church as a backward institution that thwarted the deserved liberty of the Italian people. What Fr. Sylvester saw in Italy was a mob and an attempted overthrow of authority. His experiences there would flavor his view of the South’s overthrow of the United States’ authority. Fr. Sylvester eventually became auxiliary bishop of Cincinnati and the first bishop of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio.

James Healy is the most interesting convert. He was born to a Georgia planter who had immigrated from Ireland. Healy’s father obtained great wealth and had an unusual common-law marriage to one of his slaves who bore him nine children. Under then-prevailing Georgia law, the child of a slave was also a slave, so Healy and his siblings were legally slaves. Healy’s father was troubled by what might happen to his children if he died. During a chance encounter with a Massachusetts priest, he inquired whether his children might be educated (and made free) in the North. The priest agreed to take the boys with him and educate them at the newly formed College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Healy was a standout student and eventually studied for the priesthood in Quebec. He became a central administrator of the Boston Diocese during the Civil War and afterward became bishop of Portland, Maine — and the first ever African American consecrated a Catholic bishop. Healy personified three attributes that Protestant America despised: He was black, Irish, and Catholic. Frs. Healy and Rosencrans mirror each other to some extent: They were able, reliable priests who administered local dioceses that were under severe strain. They were tireless workers who oversaw the building of churches and schools, relations with government and army, and the needs of a chronically poor laity. These were the men who made the U.S. Church work.

Orestes Brownson was, even in his day, a famous convert and controversialist. If any man in U.S. history absorbed and reflected the varied and sometimes contradictory currents of American thought and culture, it was Brownson. A New England Yankee who dabbled in many Protestant sects prior to converting to a militant brand of Catholicism, Brownson was a writer of prodigious output. He opined on seemingly every question of the day. His friendships and acquaintances ranged from Massachusetts transcendentalists to Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman. Brownson’s opinions made him more than a few enemies within and outside the Church; some deemed him unnecessarily provocative and disrespectful. His Brownson’s Quarterly Review is a treasure trove of thought and observation of the Civil War era as it was happening.

Longley draws out themes that animate the era and are critical to understanding the early American Catholic Church. He presents a movement of thesis and antithesis between the Church and her flock and the broader American public that defines much of the war era and beyond.

The antebellum period saw a great surge of immigration from Ireland and Germany that swelled Northern cities. This influx gave rise to the “Know-Nothings” — native-born Protestants who were vehemently opposed to the demographic change posed by a seemingly endless stream of Catholic immigrants. In the 1850s the Know-Nothings surged to power in many Northern states that had absorbed the bulk of antebellum immigration. They made numerous attempts to stymie and push back the Irish — and, to a lesser extent, the Midwestern German Catholic — hordes. Immigrant-bashing knew almost no bounds. Longley’s four converts, on account of their new religion, were sympathetic to the plight of their pitiable immigrant co-religionist.

The war ultimately became a proving ground for Irish and German immigrants. When the free-soil Republican Party exploded onto the scene in the mid-1850s and absorbed many Know-Nothings into its ranks, the fusion of the anti-slavery and anti-immigration movements was largely cemented. The anti-immigration plank receded, however, in light of the desperate need for Union soldiery. The Irish in particular proved their mettle in battle after battle. Indeed, the war might have turned out differently had the Irish not served in such large numbers. By the end of the war, the immigrant Irish and their Church were accepted as fixtures of the American social and political landscape. They had earned it.

A “native” American’s conversion to the Catholic Church in the 1840s was a bittersweet experience. Second-generation Americans took great pride in their new country and institutions. Becoming a Roman Catholic was an embrace of a foreign and despised religion that carried with it the rejection of those shiny new democratic and secular institutions. The Catholic rejection of Americanism (for lack of a better word) was made manifest by events taking place in the Papal States during the 1850s and 1860s. While the U.S. was being torn apart by sectional discord, Italy was riven with similar internecine battles that ultimately resulted in the unification of the Italian peninsula in the 1870s. The popes of the era strove to protect their secular power to rule the Papal States and, in doing so, provided incisive condemnations of many central political tenets that Americans held most dear. Longley gives heed to the impact of the Italian conflict — and the papal response thereto — on the American psyche at precisely the time when American Protestants were reeling from the implications of massive Catholic immigration.

America emerged from the Civil War with two primary questions settled that our nation’s founders had essentially deferred. Slavery was answered finally in the negative, and the contest between federal and state sovereignty was decided in favor of the central government. Moreover, papal condemnations of liberalism, which included American liberal institutions, were largely ignored by Americans of all religious stripes. Notwithstanding that the Second Vatican Council appeared to offer an olive branch to Americanism, Catholic thinkers today are revisiting pontifical pronouncements against liberalism such as Mirari Vos and Quanta Cura in light of the aggressive imposition of state-sanctioned moral anarchy that has come to characterize the modern American state. More and more faithful Catholics are questioning the inevitability and righteousness of American governance and culture as the U.S. becomes the world’s predominant purveyor of immorality. Longley’s contextualizing of these papal pronouncements, especially from a then-contemporary American point of view, is a great service to the Catholic reader.

American Catholics struggled, as did everyone else, with the twin questions of slavery and the South’s attempt to break the Union. William Rosencrans appears to have held strong anti-slavery convictions from the beginning. Brownson evolved on the question, first excoriating abolitionism and then embracing it wholeheartedly during the war. Catholic doctrine in theory sanctioned instances in which slavery could be acceptable — e.g., prisoners of war or self-imposed slavery. But the manner in which slavery existed in the South transgressed certain moral limits, not the least of which was the legality of breaking up slave families and marriages. Catholic thought on this seems to have been that even though a master might be morally entitled to a slave’s labor in a narrow set of circumstances and in exchange for certain duties (food, clothing, and religious instruction), the master is never entitled to own the person. Longley unpacks the quandary in which American Catholics found themselves during this era, and he provides a glimpse into then-prevailing Catholic and non-Catholic opinions on slavery and the future of the Freedman.

While the tragedy of the Civil War and its more than half a million deaths transformed America (and not always for the better), the war itself was a proving ground for the Catholic Church. If she and her faithful were persecuted strangers before the war, they emerged as loyal sons afterward. One might go so far as to say that the heights the U.S. Church would reach in the first half of the twentieth century — culminating in the 1960 presidential election — would not have been possible but for the Civil War.

The issues that broke the back of American society in the lead up to the 1850s are repeating themselves in our time. Questions of religious liberty, social mores, morality, and the roles of church and state are again at the forefront of our minds. What separates us from our antebellum forefathers is that, statistically, the Catholic religion is collapsing from within. We should prepare for a rough ride. If God will raise up men like the converts in Longley’s book, we’ll all be the better for it.

Longley’s book is readable for anyone interested in the Civil War, but it’s not an easy book in that it assumes some familiarity with nineteenth-century U.S. and European history. As such, Longley’s book is perfect for the reader who fears he’s exhausted the intellectual vein of the conflict. Longley adds to our understanding of the war, the Church, and America as it was being transformed. This is no small feat to pack into a mere three hundred pages.



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