Catholics & the Civil War: Divided Like the Country Print
Written by Sherry   
Monday, 11 April 2011 15:49

And where were Catholics in the great American struggle? Divided, like the country.

Most Americans perceived abolitionism to be a Protestant phenomenon; few Catholic leaders were active in the movement. In the South, prominent bishops such as John England of Charleston attempted to walk the fine line between Rome’s increasingly vocal opposition to slavery (Pope Gregory XVI issued a ringing condemnation of the slave trade in 1839, which many read as implying denunciation of slavery itself) and the need to demonstrate loyalty to the southern culture of which they were a part.

England’s successor, Bishop Patrick Lynch, exchanged a series of published letters with Archbishop John Hughes of New York in 1861. Both men displayed their fidelity to their respective regions. Hughes was pro-union and supported emancipation. Lynch perceived the conflict to be instigated by radicals in the North, such as the “Black Republicans” who promoted racial equality and the political program of Abraham Lincoln. Bishop Martin Spalding of Louisville was one of the more forthright slavery apologists among the Catholic leadership, publishing a defense of the "peculiar institution" in 1863. In contrast, Bishop James Whelan of Tennessee, refusing to be party to secession, resigned his see and moved north.

African-American Catholics might be expected to be anti-slavery and pro-Union, but they were very few in the North and exerted little influence in the Church or the abolitionist movement. In Louisiana, however, black Catholics helped to form three regiments of Union soldiers. These Afro-Creoles were ministered to by a French-born chaplain, Claude Paschal Maistre, in direct defiance of his superior, New Orleans archbishop Jean-Marie Odin. One of these Louisiana Catholics,Andre Cailloux, was the first black soldier to die in combat.

For more on this fascinating topic, check out Catholic