The American Civil War has always been one of the times in history that I have had a keen and vested interest in. Being raised just outside of Gettysburg near the small town of Cashtown I am well aware of the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg. As a teen I would drive through the battlefield on my way to school or work and often wondered about what the men who fought there thought as they trod through the open fields, many to never return to their families. I was thrilled to say the least when I heard Father Charles Connor had written a follow-up to his book Pioneer Priests and Makeshift Altars: A History of Catholicism in the Thirteen Colonies that tied both the Civil War and the Catholic faith together. Faith and Fury: The Rise of Catholicism During the Civil War is a fascinating look into this period of time.
Father Connor opens up the book by looking at a number of things that lead up to the war. He takes a look at the reasons the war came to be but more specifically why and how the Catholic Church became involved. As with the family divides that occurred, there was division amongst the hierarchy of the Church as well. Rome did not intervene and choose a side, rather they left the matter to the local Bishops. Some Bishops sided with the North and others with the South. The main issue being states rights. One very important point must be made here. At no time did the Church throughout the conflict sway from her teachings and moral beliefs.
Another fascinating topic covered by Father Connor is one that impacted the United States in the years leading up to and after the war. In the early years of this fledgling country’s history there was a very deep rooted and far reaching anti-Catholic sentiment. Catholic involvement in the war Father Connor states was another “moment in the process of assimilation into American life.” Unfortunately this anti-Catholic theme reared its ugly head once more post war after the assassination of President Lincoln. It did not help that John Wilkes Booth and his accomplishes laid out the plan for their attempt in a Catholic boarding house. Further exasperating matters was the fact that when John Wilkes Booth fled to receive medical attention he received it from a Catholic as well.
The book covers some shining moments of valor on the battlefield that Catholics can be proud of and will take special interest in. There is the infamous Irish Brigade who played a critical role during the Battle of Gettysburg. There was Catholic convert General James Longstreet and courageous chaplains like Father William Corbi who granted soldiers absolution prior to going into battle on the fields of Gettysburg. There were other Catholics as well lined up on both sides of the battlefield and Father Connor gives us a glimpse at a number of them.
This book is certainly about the Civil War. Spanning from 1828 to 1877 Father Connor does an exemplary job covering it all. This book is also about much more. It’s about the Catholic faithful, immigrant families, who were struggling for an identity since they arrived upon the shores of the modern-day Promised Land. A contingent of faithful people who were subjected to a deeply seeded anti-Catholic hatred. And yet, these people still had a deep sense of patriotism for their new home. This book is about people rather than events. It is about how the Catholic faithful, regardless whether North or South, were able to see past all of this and show they did indeed belong here as a part of the great experiment…..these United States. Thanks be to God they did.
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