The little known and often-surprising history of Catholic Confederates

In Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South Gracjan Kraszewski has produced a fascinating, scholarly book on a little-studied subject.

Detail from a portrait of Lt. Pierre Toutant Gustave Beauregard, (ca. 1845-46), attributed to Alexander Charles Jaume (1813-1858). Beauregard, a Catholic and a graduate of West Point was the Confederacy's first brigadier general. (Wikipedia)

There exists a stereotypical image of the American South as a militantly Protestant and strongly anti-Catholic environment. Gracjan Kraszewski’s fascinating book Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South should do much to change that image, as it shows the integral role that Southern Catholics played in promoting the Confederate cause during the Civil War.

While the large waves of immigration into northern cities ultimately ensured that the majority of Catholics would be in the north, it is often forgotten that there existed a Catholic South prior to a Catholic North. Much of the South had been colonized by the French and Spanish prior to its incorporation into the United States. Several leading Confederates were Catholics including Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory and General Pierre Beauregard who led the attack on Fort Sumter that opened the conflict. Confederate president Jefferson Davis, though a Protestant, had been educated by Dominicans and had a lifelong sympathy for the Church.

Kraszewski states that the ultimate subject of his book is what he calls the ‘confederatization’ of Catholics in the South. The ‘confederatization’ thesis he says, challenges ‘the assertion that Catholics did not assimilate into American society until long after the Civil War and, especially, that they were not integrated members of nineteenth-century Southern society.’ He states:

The Confederatization thesis adds to the full meaning of Americanization, showing that more than one hundred years before Vatican II and JFK, Catholics in the South were fully integrated members of society who, save for their religion, believed the same things as and acted in similar fashion to their well-known Protestant neighbors.

Attitudes of the Southern Bishops

Kraszewski describes in considerable detail the attitudes of the Southern Catholic bishops toward secession, the war and the controversial issue of slavery.

While all the bishops were orientated toward a peaceful solution to the North-South divide and the Catholic Church in America never underwent the kind of splits into Northern and Southern wings that occurred in several Protestant groups, all the bishops accepted secession once it had occurred and most became enthusiastic supporters of the Southern cause. While the bishops were careful not to bring politics into the pulpit, Kraszewski writes:

Bishops would discover that their roles as religious leaders often became inextricably entwined with political issues. Each bishop faced this reality uniquely, and as such the bishops’ responses to secession differed somewhat. Yet all, with one debatable exception, were Confederate supporters.

The most ardent Confederate partisan was Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston, South Carolina. Following South Carolina’s secession, Lynch declared that the state “henceforth not only our Mother but our only Sovereign, who has sole right to our allegiance.” Lynch believed secession justified by four factors: abolitionist agitation, Northern violations of constitutionally guaranteed state sovereignty, the inflammatory and disunion-catalyzing speeches of Northern senators, and, finally, its economic benefits for the South.’ He ordered that a Te Deum be sung following the fall of Fort Sumter. Lynch would later be appointed as a diplomat by Jefferson Davis in which role he would embark on an unsuccessful mission to Rome in an attempt to obtain Vatican recognition for the Confederacy.

What were the bishops’ attitudes toward slavery? It would appear that most of the Southern bishops did not question the existence of slavery as an institution but argued that slaves must be granted certain basic rights. This is the position taken in an 1861 tract written by Augustin Verot, bishop of Savannah, Georgia. Whilst stating that slavery had received ‘the sanction of God’, Verot echoed Pope Gregory XVI’s 1839 declaration that the trade-in slaves was immoral. Kraszewski summarizes the contents of Verot’s tract:

 … slaves held a range of inalienable human rights. A master could not make a claim on a slave’s life or soul, only his labor. Masters could not exploit their slaves sexually. Slave marriages were legitimate and had to be unconditionally respected … Slave families were sacrosanct. “Families ought never to be separated, when once established,” Verot wrote. “It is unreasonable, unchristian, and immoral to separate a husband from his wife and children and to sell the husband North, and the wife South, and the children east and West.” Masters’ other duties included providing slaves with lifelong food and housing, medical care, and the “means of knowing and practicing religion.” “This is a sacred, indispensible, burden of duty of masters,” Verot added, cautioning that “the neglect of which alone, if they had committed no other fault, would expose them to eternal damnation.”

A major controversy of the war involving a Catholic bishop was the refusal of William Henry Elder, bishop of Natchez, Mississippi to offer public prayer for Abraham Lincoln. Following the occupation of Mississippi by the Union army, Special Order No. 31 was issued commanding “all Pastors of Churches to read a prayer expressive of a proper spirit towards the President of the United States.” Elder refused this, saying that it represented a political imposition on the liturgy of the Church and that secular authorities had no right to impose content on religious services. In a letter to President Lincoln, Elder stated:

My resistance [to prayers for the Union] is based simply on the broad ground that our Church Service is a matter to be regulated exclusively by the authorities of the Church… I have never attempted to influence the political opinions or conduct of the people under my care…They have devoted themselves to rendering spiritual services to all who desired them at their hands, without distinction of politics of section or of color.

Elder spent time in prison for his refusal but was subsequently released. Suffice to say his stance made him a hero in the South.

Chaplains, Soldiers and Sister-nurses

Kraszewski spends considerable time describing the work of Catholic chaplains to the Confederate army as well as the spiritual lives of the soldiers. He has selected particular individuals, most of whose names will be unknown, but whose story is followed throughout the book. His descriptions of the interactions of the chaplains and soldiers are often moving. His chapter on the work of the Catholic ‘sister-nurses’ is particularly evocative, especially his descriptions of how they changed the lives of countless soldiers.

Unlike the priests and soldiers, most of whom were strong Confederate partisans, the sister-nurses had little interest in politics. Yet as Kraszewski notes:

While they treated men from both sides without discrimination, they were nominally part of the larger Confederate apparatus. This testifies to the nearly complete Southern Catholic involvement in the Confederate nation, even when that involvement was their unique “participation without politicization”.

The sister-nurses were particularly effective at dispelling anti-Catholic prejudices among many soldiers. One Catholic soldier wrote that he believed ‘the nuns’ presence among non-Catholics was among the best evangelical tools the Church possessed’. Kraszewski writes:

A Protestant soldier, reflecting on his interactions with sister-nurses, wrote, “I am not of your church, and have always been taught to believe it to be nothing but evil; however, actions speak louder than words, and I am free to admit that if Christianity does exist on earth, it has some of its closest followers among the Ladies of your Order.” Another Protestant soldier once “wept aloud” when learning that the sister who had been caring for him was a Catholic, but his prejudices soon vanished and he resolved to take as many books about Catholicism back to the battlefield with him as he could for the purpose of learning about the faith.

The example of the sister-nurses led many who despised Catholicism to subsequently convert to the Faith.

Confederate-Vatican diplomacy

One of the most fascinating chapters in this book deals with relations between the Confederacy and the Vatican. Pope Pius IX’s attitude to the Civil War was one of neutrality. He had some sympathy for the Confederacy but his main concern was for peace as he expressed in a joint letter addressed to both Archbishop Jean-Marie Odin of New Orleans, a Confederate partisan, and Archbishop John Hughes of New York, a leading partisan for the Union.

Nonetheless, the Confederacy made a great effort to obtain recognition from the Vatican. The Confederate government appointed Bishop Lynch as a diplomat with a salary of $1000 per month plus an extra $500 for expenses. Though Pius never gave official recognition to the Confederacy and received Lynch as a bishop rather than as a state representative, he did write a letter to Davis addressing him as ‘Illustrious President’ and acknowledged in speaking to Lynch that the North and South were ‘two nations’. Pius offered to act as an umpire between the two sides and, addressing the issue of slavery, endorsed a gradualist approach to its elimination. Indeed, it appears to have been the slavery issue that posed the main barrier to international recognition of the Confederacy.

Kraszewski does highlight one interesting area where the Confederacy’s foreign missions did lead to some success. This was the mission of Father John Bannon to Ireland. Bannon’s mission was to convince Irish Catholics that the Confederacy was their natural ally. He depicted the South as a remnant of Christian civilization. The North, he said, were the descendants of Cromwell and the Puritan witch-hunters, steeped in anti-Catholic Know-Nothingism. His words fell on receptive ears. According to Kraszewski:

Bannon was well received in Ireland … was invited all over the country to preach and explain the Confederate position. An Irishman who heard Bannon said, “We who were all praying for the North at the opening of the war would willingly fight for the South if we could get there.” …John Martin…of the Young Ireland ’48 movement, wrote, “I am heart and soul a partisan of the Confederates in this war. These sentiments are the sentiments of the great majority of the people of Ireland,” adding, “the South has the right of self-government as clearly as the Belgians, Italians, Poles, or the Irish.”

Kraszewski has produced a fascinating, scholarly book on a little-studied subject. The book contains an interesting collection of photos of the leading Catholic Southerners and useful biographical sketches. A vivid picture is drawn of a wide variety of Catholic Confederates: priests, bishops, soldiers and sister-nurses. With 32 pages of detailed footnotes and a very thorough bibliography, this book would serve as a good introduction to anyone wanting to explore the role of religion in the American Civil War.

Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South
by Gracjan Kraszewski
Kent State University Press, 2020
Hardcover, 312 pages


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About Piers Shepherd 5 Articles
Piers Shepherd is a freelance writer based in London, England. He has had articles published in the Catholic Herald, Christian Order and the Catholic Medical Quarterly among others. He obtained an MA in Theology and Christian Ministry from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and currently works as a researcher for a trust defending traditional marriage and family in the UK.

18 Comments

  1. I read an article awhile back how sisters performed truly virtous acts as nurses helping soldiers on both sides. However regarding priest and bishops looking the other way on slavery is a tradegy. I know this is looking at it from a 2020 perspective, but got to ask the question how in the world that could happen. Someone needs to explain how that evil was cooperated with. Given that they cooperated with slavery it makes it easier to understand the silence on abortion.

    • Okay, I’ll bite. Slavery was, by the time of the War, a two hundred fifty year old institution practiced in both the North and the South. It also was practiced for hundreds of years in the colonies of many other Christian – and explicitly Catholic – nations. Doesn’t make it morally licit, but it perhaps explains the reticence of some clergy still living with the institution to denounce it with the vehemence you expect them to have done. Contrast those facts with the fact that the practice of abortion was never sanctioned in any Christian nation anywhere at any time, ever. In other words, there is no comparison.

      Kudos to CWR for running a review of this book.

    • @Houston is correct. Much more needs to be written on this topic precisely because it is 1) examined politically/ philosophically from 21st century perspective with scant understanding of the realities of slave families in a disrupted civilization and disregard for the more humane “gradualist” approach the Southern bishops urged 2) Southern bishops were not ignorant of Scripture, including Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus. St.Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus back, because he had become a brother in Christ. Paul appealed to Christian brotherhood, not to a moral imperative regarding the condition of slavery. We find in the writings of Confederate bishops the same demands toward slaves that Scripture places on treatment of all people by virtue of their humanity. In biblical times it was common to become a slave voluntarily as a means of sustenance if one had no land or resources. The Prodigal Son notes how well his father’s servants are treated, and offers to become one himself in order to survive. The institution is abhorrent in today’s circumstances, but to understand our forebears it’s critical to approach the topic in full context of the time in which they lived.

  2. Thank you for the excellent review. I am very curious whether there is another side to the story. The official Vatican response to slavery was not accommodation but condemnation, with penalties including excommunication, according to some papal documents. Slavery may well havw been an established institution in the antebellum South, but the popes had been condemning it from the beginning:

    https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/popes-and-slavery-setting-the-record-straight-1119

    Why then, did the southern Bishops sing a different tune? Were these the Biden Catholics of the day? Were therw abolitionist Catholics in the south? The other side of the story, please– it’s there somewhere.

    • In the mid 1800s most Catholics in the north and south were Irish immigrants. The men were often given the lowest paying and most dangerous jobs. Their primary competition were freed blacks in the north and slaves in the south. As most of the bishops were also Irish or sons of immigrants they sided with their ethnic kin. Many of the immigrants and clergy ended up adopting white supremacist ideas as a way to improve their standing in the USA. When Irish immigrants rioted in NYC in 1863, blacks were among the victims.

  3. Thank you for reviewing this book. My diocese, the Diocese of Charleston, SC, just celebrated its 200th anniversary, another example of how Catholicism had roots in the South long before the 20th century. The South in general and the Church in the South is also a lot more diverse that people realize. When I first took up residence in SC, I lived in a small town called Lake City and the Catholic church there had only 40 households. Yet, when we decided to present the petitions at Pentecost in languages spoken in our households, we offered up petitions in English, Spanish, French, Polish, Arabic and two dialects from the Philippines.

  4. Thank you for this.
    Jefferson Davis & his wife were quite sympathetic to Catholics & Catholicism. Their children were students at St. Vincent’s Academy in Savannah:

    “The early history of St. Vincent’s is intertwined with that of Savannah and the South. During the Civil War, eight year-old Maggie Davis, whose father Jefferson Davis was President of the Confederate States of America, became a student at St. Vincent’s. Her brother also came to the convent daily to recite his lessons.”

    https://www.svaga.net/about-us/school-profile-2/#history

  5. Gradual abolitionism was a burst dream bubble when Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens that the Confederacy was conceived to the proposition that all men were *not* created equal, and therefore the Confederacy was too be a permanent slave [gulag] regime. Jeff davis and all of the states secession statements corroborate this notion.

    As for confed bishops pablum affirming slave marriages, etc and abolition incrementalism, this represents the same type of idiot delusion, and spitting on actual church teaching, that making abortion rare displays. In fact I see a straight line from Jeff davis bishops to biden bishops. Or I should say xiden bishops because that appears where we are headed.

    • You haven’t read about Jefferson Davis training his slaves in apprentice type skills because he ,like most people, knew that slavery wouldn’t actually last in the long run? It was an archaic source of labor.
      The South has always been behind the times both for good and for bad.

  6. The South was also welcoming to Jews. The first Jewish US senator if I remember correctly was David Yulee from Florida. The treasurer of the Confederacy was Judah Benjamin and the Confederate army’s first Zquartermaster C.A. Myers was Jewish as well.
    One of the wealthiest men in Louisiana arrived from France as an illiterate 13 year old Jew. He went on to create the largest sugar refinery in the state and was known for his philanthropic work including funding the stained glass windows for a local church.

  7. and yet, today in the United States, more humans, children, are owned as “sex” slaves, than the entire Atlantic slave trade times combined.
    When issues as the national debt, 20 TRILLION dollars of national debt, and the issue of a minute few hoard the nations wealth, we have to admit, the US is a nation of wage and debt slaves.

    • Back up your accusations with facts, sources, and official statistics please. Where, pray tell, are all these sex slaves you mention? What evidence do you have for your assertion? If none, your post constitutes slander, which is a sin. Examine your own heart and mind first before you falsely accuse others.

      • You need to calm down, Athanasius. Lyle is giving an OPINION. And what do you mean by accusing him of slander? Slander by definition is an attempt to harm someone’s good name…and this doesn’t apply here, obviously–although his statistics are faulty. And to provide an answer to your request for stats, according to the US Justice Department: “In 2009, 49,105 human trafficking victims worldwide were identified, a 59 percent increase over the previous reporting year.
        In 2010, an estimated 12.3 million adults and children were in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution around the world; 56 percent of these victims were women and girls.” In the US alone, this consisted a total of 22,326 in 2019, according to the Polaris Project. In contrast, 3.9 million US slaves were emancipated in 1865. A disgusting, reprehensible crime in any century!

  8. I have heard that the Catholic Church didn’t take sides in The Civil War and that Catholic partisans for the South were to be found after its secession.

    A question might be whether The Civil War was partly God’s punishment of the South for its abuse of its slaves. Slavery – in itself – is not completely condemned by the Church, but it’s existence is often a contributing factor to the mistreatment of slaves. Certainly, the natural rights of slaves MUST be respected.

    One way to discharge debts in ancient Israel was to become a “debt slave.” As such, this is further proof that the institution isn’t inherently evil. There are laws in Holy Scripture which speak of the treatment of Hebrew slaves and non-Hebrew slaves.

  9. Northern Yankee here. I was taught that the North was against slavery mostly due to financial logistics. Winters in New England are cold, long, and harsh, and no farming takes place. Slaves would have to be fed, clothed, and housed during the most unproductive time of the year, and it just wasn’t practical nor affordable. It’s also worth noting that it was America that abolished slavery, the first nation in the world to do so. We needn’t apologize for our history.

    • The United States was not the first nation to do so, as Great Britain did it almost 60 years before the United States did, however, we were the first one, and maybe the only one if I recall rightly, to fight a nasty, bloody war over it

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