Religion was ever-present in the Civil War. This was a religious age where “men and women still devoutly, and profoundly, believed in an immanent God who was personally interested in their being and behavior” (Stokesbury 298). One can look to the devout Stonewall Jackson who was baptized Episcopalian but practiced in the Presbyterian church. Indeed, the Rebel Leonidas Polk was an Episcopal bishop in peacetime. Shiloh and Antietam were two of the war’s bloodiest battles that centered around small rural churches. As a teacher in a Jesuit High School, religion in the war is a theme I am trying to better understand, specifically Catholicism’s role in the war.
The 69th New York, known in history as the Irish Brigade of the Army of the Potomac (depicted above in photo and movie) included perhaps some of the most famous Catholic participants in the Civil War. The Confederate Army of the Tennessee had the Second and Tenth Tennessee regiments that also claimed the title “the Irish Brigade.” Larry Daniel writes in his book, Soldiering In The Army of Tennessee, that the Second Tennessee, for example, consisted of 750 Catholics from the “Pinch” District of Memphis (18). Catholic Nuns played a significant role as nurses and caregivers to both sides during the war. I wrote a previous post about an interesting museum exhibit our school group visited that explains the Sisters were some of the first responders to the bloodshed at Gettysburg.
I am currently rereading James L. Stokesbury’s, A Short History of the Civil War, which is one of the texts I use in my Civil War and Reconstruction Course. I was once again surprised to learn William Rosecrans was a devout Catholic “and he kept a spiritual adviser with him” (125). Stokesbury writes that Catholics “were something of a rarity in the generals’ ranks of those days” so I thought it would be interesting to see just how rare it was. I discovered there is a plethora of information out there covering Catholic generals in the war.
First, a little more on William “Old Rosy” Rosecrans. He was an architect, engineer inventor and devout Roman Catholic who converted before the war. Rosecrans understood the importance of religion to his soldiers as well. There is a moving story of how he ensured the right of a Jewish soldier to worship and he seemed to support his soldiers no matter their faith. This blog provides more detail regarding the role his faith during the war including information on his “adviser.”
I was surprised to learn that despite a spotty war record Rosecrans, a Democrat, was even considered to be a vice presidential candidate for Lincoln in 1864. In 1867 he resigned the army and went out west where he was involved in trade relations between the US and Mexico among many other endeavors. He died in California in 1898 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Other Yankee Catholics were Generals Hugh and Charles Ewing, and General Philip Sheridan. Sheridan is an interesting case when you relate his Catholic beliefs with his Native American policy after the Civil War.
James Longstreet was a roommate of Rosecrans in West Point’s Class of 1842. By the end of the war, Longstreet, nicknamed “Old Pete,” was arguably Lee’s best subordinate. But it was Longstreet’s close relationship with U.S. Grant after the war that led him to fall into disfavor with many ex-Confederates still smarting from their defeat. In fact, this blog suggests it was strong reactions from his Episcopalian neighbors that led Longstreet to convert to Catholicism when he lived in New Orleans after the Civil War. He died in 1904 where another Catholic from the Army of Northern Virginia presided over the burial mass. Other Catholic Confederates included General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, General William Hardee, and Admiral Rafael Semmes.
Read this blog for some very interesting facts about the Irish who made up most of the American Catholics at the time. It also explains which Yankee Catholics fought to preserve the Union and which ones fought to end slavery. Furthermore, check out this site which presents Civil War related sites in Ireland! One of the sites includes the childhood home of the Confederate Patrick Cleburne, known as the “Stonewall Jackson of the West.” Cleburne, a protestant who served in the British Army, is an example that just because you were Irish in the Civil War did not mean you were Catholic. I have also seen a mention that The Vatican was the only nation to ever formally exchange ambassadors with the Confederacy which if true, is fascinating.
More possible questions for my students to research…
- What was Longstreet and Rosercrans relationship after the war?
- Which Yankee generals fought to keep the Union together? End Slavery?
- Did any of the Confederates mentioned above hold anti-slave beliefs?
- How far did the Vatican’s support go for the Confederacy or were they neutral?
- Did Northern and Southern Irish fight for political reasons or more allegiance to their regions?
- Did Longstreet’s faith play a role in his firm belief of national reconciliation after the war?