Catholic Confederates: Faith and Duty in the Civil War South by Gracjan Kraszewski; The Kent State University Press; 216 pp., $45.00
Brother Brutus J. Clay, S.J., was a fixture at Loyola University in the early-to-late 1990s. The wiry Southerner with a thick Kentucky accent not only attended to the Jesuit Fathers’ chapel as sacristan, but was involved with the university’s student pro-life group. He cut quite the figure with us undergraduates and we enjoyed both his company and his quintessentially Southern manners and charm.
Little did we, who were enamored of this simple Jesuit brother, know that he was the onetime scion of a branch of the great Clay Family of Kentucky. While the Clay Family were generally Unionists, Brutus’s grandfather defied his family and joined the Confederate Army. Col. Ezekiel Clay was a powerfully built man who achieved renown as an accomplished rider and marksman. After the war, the divided Clay family—like many others—reunited, reconciled, and began to put life back together.
The Clays have deep roots in the South, having come to Virginia within a decade of the establishment of the first English colony in Jamestown in 1607. Ultimately settling in Kentucky, the family bore a traditional frame of mind that could be said to represent “Merrie England,” which was in reality and in its subsequent temperament, atmosphere, and bones, Catholic.
Writing in 1922, G. K. Chesterton commented that, “Before there was any New England in the North, there was something very like Old England in the South. Relatively speaking, there is still.” Perhaps this is why the South was fertile ground for Catholic Confederates during the War between the States.
Gracjan Kraszewski’s study fills a necessary lacuna in Civil War studies and in the religious history of the United States. His scholarly and fascinating volume is one part a study in political loyalties and one part an anecdotal story of religious faith. It is an acknowledgment of the uniquely Catholic contribution to the Confederate cause and a sympathetic history free from the rancor of postmodern identity politics.
One of the great themes of Kraszewski’s book is the thorough “Confederatization” of Catholics in the South, and he profiles several Southern Catholic clerics and laymen to make his case. Their letters and journals provide the prime material for a narrative of the Southern Catholic perspective. While Catholics were undoubtedly in the minority in the predominantly Protestant South, Kraszewski demonstrates through these writings Catholic devotion to the Confederate cause.
The process of Confederatization during the war further solidified the acceptance and integration of Catholics into Southern culture. The mutual respect that Southern Protestants and Catholics generally had prior to and during the Civil War anticipated the events of a hundred years later, when the Second Vatican Council promoted ecumenism among Christian believers.
In a moving scene of mutual assistance and cooperation between Protestants and Catholics on the Civil War battlefield, Kraszewski recounts the recollections of Confederate Catholic chaplain Fr. James Sheeran in the aftermath of Second Manassas:
My old friend, Mr. Miller, accompanied me and displayed the very best dispositions to render all the assistance in his power. He was a Protestant and as such… cared nothing about confession or any other sacrament. Yet he went around among the wounded, inquiring particularly if any of them were Catholics and if so, came and told me.
Significantly, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a Protestant, was educated by Dominican Friars and always held Catholics in high esteem, even sending his own children to be educated in Catholic schools after the war. His correspondence and attempted diplomacy with Pope Pius IX, amply explicated by Kraszewski, showed not only the international diplomatic strategy of the Southern States but also the importance the South placed in achieving recognition by the Holy See.
The Southern States considered recognition by Europe’s “oldest monarchy” to be nothing if not helpful to its cause, despite the fact that at that time Europe was facing a period of revolution and secularization that was overthrowing the old order.
To this end, Catholic clergymen Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston and Fr. John Bannon of St. Louis were appointed to diplomatic posts with the mission of enlisting the support of the pope—though their diplomatic efforts failed to achieve full recognition of the Confederacy.
One of the more compelling aspects of the book was the Southern Catholics’ prioritization of the faith and their spiritual duties over even their political loyalties. Catholic chaplains, in particular, saw their duty as a fourfold task: preparing Confederate soldiers for a good death; preaching; dispensing the Sacraments; and evangelization.
Fr. Bannon embodied this experience. He was reputed to be a spiritual master, able to speak the language of soldiers, earning their trust and producing great fruit in his ministry. He put forth a “special effort to reach men’s souls,” prioritizing giving Holy Communion to soldiers, this constituting his “most important psychological and spiritual duty…preparing a soldier for meeting his God before an impending battle.” In the immediate preamble to battle, Bannon, armed with nothing “except for a Bible and a Crucifix,” blessed countless soldiers. When he saw one fall, he would administer Last Rights and, if the soldier had not been baptized, baptize him if he requested it.
The concern of Southern Catholic priests did not extend just to Confederate soldiers, they had the same spiritual solicitude for Union soldiers. In one vignette, Fr. Louis-Hippolyte Gache came upon a wounded Union colonel “who had been hit in the chest with shot—a brutal mix of various balls and metal objects packed into a bag and fired from a cannon—he did not ask him if he was Catholic. He did not inquire about his politics. The man’s soul was all that mattered.”
Similar to the chaplains, Catholic sister-nurses were heroic examples of the faith. Completely nonpolitical, these sisters patched up bodies as well as souls. Lt. Col Daniel Shipman Troy of the 60th Alabama Regiment commented:
One of the things that impressed me was that the Sisters made no distinction whatever between the most polished gentlemen and the greatest rapscallion in the lot; the measure of their attention was solely the human suffering to be relieved…. a miserable wretch in pain was a person of more consequence to the Sisters than the best of us when comparatively comfortable.
The issue of slavery is squarely taken on by Kraszewski and he notes the generally paternalistic posture and defense of the institution by some Southern Catholic bishops—in particular, Bishops Lynch of Charleston and Bishop Verot of Savannah. This was despite the unequivocal condemnation of the African slave trade by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839, previous papal statements on the issue, and Pius IX’s refusal to countenance the legitimacy of slavery in the South. Southern prelates minimized, or in some cases ignored, the chief shepherd of Christendom’s consistent message condemning the South’s peculiar institution. This is an instance—especially in light of these teachings—where, perhaps, Confederatization came before the faith.
In addressing this complex issue, Kraszewski shows a careful hand as a historian. He brings us to the 19th century and offers a balanced view of Catholic history in the South. He is critical where these priests stray from the teachings of the popes and honest where they were good priests who saw in the black slave—as they did in all of their people—a man made in the image and likeness of God, deserving of respect, honor, and reverence.
Kraszewski’s book is an excellent contribution to Civil War literature and historiography. In opposition to those moderns who would paint with too large a brush and condemn all who supported the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy, his contribution is one that shows the humanity, compassion, and faith of a people whose tradition and history were deeply rooted in “Merrie England.” That England was the true England; the original, medieval, Catholic England that gave us the Magna Carta and the independence of free men.
Contra Puritan New England, and the social contractarians, it was the South—despite the stain of chattel slavery—that best approximated and carried on those political traditions that were the result of the capital that Catholic England established, and which were the fertile ground for the Catholic contribution to the Confederacy.