Up From Unionism by Jerry Salyer

The moment I learned of the existence of Catholic Confederates:  Faith and Duty in the Civil War South, I set about acquiring my own copy.  For the book in question deals with an important and fascinating subject which has been mostly “memory-holed” by Catholic pop media  which is more interested in celebrating the ostensibly “Catholic” side of Mohatmas Ghandi than in recalling those of our forebears who stood on “the wrong side of history.”  While the young historian Gracjan Kraszewski disappoints in certain key respects – more on that later – his book is surely a “keeper,” replete as it is with a wealth of edifying details.  

Kraszewski's contention is that antebellum Catholics were much more integrated into the 19th Century South than modern-day Catholics (and modern-day Protestant Southerners) might think.  Moreover, when war with the North came, explains Kraszewski, these Catholics became more integrated still, as they underwent “Confederatization” – a process whereby hearty devotion to the Southern cause became fused with an earnestly Catholic spirit of piety.  Whatever we make of his thesis, Kraszewski is to be commended for his forthright delivery of startling, politically-inconvenient information, information which corresponds to a number of embarrassing and grotesque gaps in the American Catholic historical imagination.  

For instance, it is well-documented if not widely advertised that the North rather than the South was a hotbed of religious intolerance prior to the war, and that Union victory gave leverage to revolutionary and anti-Catholic sentiments.  A wildly puritanical strain of Protestantism has been present in New England from the beginning, and only by acknowledging this can we understand the mindset of Catholic Southerners before, during, and immediately after the War Between the States.  “American anti-Catholicism was often a Northern phenomenon,” Kraszewksi points out, citing established scholarship.

It was a Northerner, conqueror of the South Ulysses S. Grant, who as president in 1875 denounced public funding for “sectarian” and “superstitious” private schools, a not too subtle attack against Catholic education.  Conspicuous northern anti-Catholicism led the bishops at the 1884 third Plenary Council to all but demand Catholic parents send children to parochial schools.  This Catholic-Protestant pedagogical animus was often found in Northern cities.  The rabidly anti-Catholic American Protective Agency, founded in 1887, was established in the North, in Clinton Iowa.  The organization would grow strong across the Midwest, but due to the impression that it was a “Republican tool,” it made “little headway in the South,” with Southerners being “generally apathetic towards anti-Catholicism.”

Kraszewski also explores the connection between Jefferson Davis and Blessed Pius IX:  “It is true Pius had some sympathy for the Confederate cause.  Was this because he saw in the Northern United States the same liberal-egalitarian values of the Italian Republicans whom he bitterly opposed during the Risorgimento?”  This question may be answered with “a fairly certain yes,” concedes Krasziewski.  (Here I have to observe that it would be grimly amusing to survey American clergy and diocesan educrats, to see what percentage of them would have the slightest idea of what Krasziewski is talking about.)

While I daresay Pius IX's sympathies for the Confederacy is old hat in our circles, the various anecdotes in the chapter entitled “Healing” cover less familiar ground.  According to Krasziewski, the apolitical sister-nurses who served in Confederate field hospitals exemplified the Faith at its best, and often brought out the best in others.  In one passage, Krasziewski considers a curiously touching letter by one Father Louis-Hippolyte Gache, wherein the chaplain related a late night campfire discussion conducted by a squad of Texans.  For whatever reason the conversation turned to religion: 

As all five men were Protestants, “it wasn't long before someone added a dash of anti-Catholic seasoning.”  But then, one of these five cried out for the discussion to end immediately.  “Stop friends, stop!  I don't know what Catholics are, what they believe, nor what they do,” this man explained, “but since I was attended, in my sickness, by the Daughters of Charity at Richmond, I swore never to allow anyone to speak against their church in my presence.  Please do not oblige me to go further to fulfill my oath.”  Gache noted, humorously, that the “young theologians, who expected to hear anything but a warning like that, stopped short and changed the subject.”

Having given Kraszewski his due, I cannot resist gripping his thesis from the other end.  Whenever we reflect upon the “Confederatization” of Catholics in Dixie, we must also keep in mind the extent to which we who live in the aftermath of Appomattox have all been “Unionized.”  Yes, it is a cliché that the winners get to write the history books – but then, clichés arise for a reason.  And regarding the controversies preceding the war, the winning side got to impose an oversimplified, one-sided narrative, and long before they have had a chance to think critically about said narrative most Americans have had it firmly and indelibly impressed upon their moral imaginations.  I submit my “Unionization” theory to explain why even the relatively open-minded Kraszewski is unable to admit that the Christian tradition's response to servitude is a little more complicated and nuanced than that of, say, Frederick Douglass.  For especially relevant instances of this response, we may look to Bishop Martin J. Spalding's Dissertation On The American Civil War and Bishop Augustin Verot's Slavery & Abolitionism.   

Having distinguished himself by leading Louisville's Catholics during the “Bloody Monday” Know-Nothing riots of 1855, Spalding published his Dissertation in serial form through the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano, and clearly operated under the now-unthinkable assumption that slavery is only one issue among many, that it does not automatically trump every other social, legal, or religious concern.  In addition to a history of the tariff controversy – “The inhabitants of the South have always accused those of the North of wanting to get rich at their expense” – Spalding accorded space to the Southern conviction that a Union “depending for its permanency on the free consent of the component states” could “become absolute and tyrannical instead of remaining constitutional” if held together by federal coercion. 

Nor should talk of tariffs and the Constitution be taken for an attempt to dodge the slavery question.  While Spalding endorsed the prohibition of the slave trade and acknowledged gradual emancipation as desirable, he also insisted that the abolitionists themselves were to blame for having made the thorny problem of emancipation even trickier than necessary:

A strong reaction began to show itself in the border states of the South, where before this fanatical agitation some wise and moderate men had thought seriously of taking opportune measures for a gradual emancipation of the slaves, in which the interests of the slave and the master, and at the same time the public welfare, could be combined with wise prudence; but from that period on hardly anyone dared any more to defend the project of emancipation thus ruined by the fanatics. These miserable blind men did not even touch the main practical difficulty of emancipation, which is What to do with the freed Negroes? How to prevent their liberation from being for them an evil rather than a good? This is the truly difficult problem, a great difficulty which is not even considered by our abolitionists. 

This “great difficulty” has not been considered by Kraszewski, either.  So he cannot possibly do justice to Spalding's French-born colleague Bishop Verot, who dealt not with the relatively secondary question of violent versus gradual emancipation, but with the essential nature of the peculiar institution itself.  “Per Verot, slaves were spiritually equal before God,” Kraszewski admits, before feeling obliged to add that “the glaring hypocrisy is that slaves were to be denied their fundamental right to freedom.”  Dedicated scholar or no, Kraszewski does not so much as touch with a ten-foot pole Verot's meticulous Scriptural, natural law, and canon law arguments against abolitionism. 

Thus the reader is left to wonder whether the Apostle Paul was likewise guilty of “glaring hypocrisy” for issuing injunctions like “Servants, obey in all things your masters,” (Colossians 3:22).  We also must figure out for ourselves how Verot might have misread the fourth century Council of Gangres, which decreed that  “If any one teaches the servant of another, under the plea of religion, to condemn his master, and to quit his service, instead of teaching him to serve his master in good faith and with all respect, let him be anathema.”  Whatever we make of Verot's position with respect to an institution taken for granted in the New Testament as well as the Old, to make out as if he were self-evidently wrong is preposterous.

Indeed, far from being hypocritical, when it comes to this touchy topic the pro-Confederate Verot was far more reflective than most commentators then or now.  His pamphlet really is an earnest, thought-provoking homily, not propaganda.  Even if in the abstract “the legitimacy of Slavery must appear evident to everybody,” he concluded, 

A man, by being a slave, does not cease to be a man, retaining all the properties, qualities, attributes, duties, rights and responsibilities attached to human nature, or to a being endowed with reason and understanding, and made to the image and likeness of God.  A master has not over a slave the same rights which he has over an animal, and whoever would view his slaves merely as beasts, would have virtually abjured human nature, and would deserve to be expelled from human society.

In short, Verot warned his countrymen, “the Almighty, in his justice and his severity, may sweep Slavery out of the land, not because Slavery is bad in itself, but because men will abuse it through wanton malice.”  

Did antebellum Southerners view slaves merely as beasts?  I don't doubt some of them did.  On the other hand, the historical record and Kraszewski's own scholarship demonstrates that many of them didn't.  However things were back then, let us all recognize that nowadays neither academia nor the mass media nor the conservative establishment will permit the question to be discussed with anything like candor, charity, or for that matter simple honesty.


The Fleming Foundation

1 Response

  1. Robert Reavis says:

    Mr. Salyer,
    You are a brave soul to bring up the subject of the South and slavery. I doubt it can even be spoken about in a world that prides itself on being open to every discussion under the sun but actually allowing a very few subjects to be freely explored. I have often wondered how various civilizations actually treated slaves after reading The Servile State by Hlaire Belloc so many years ago. We have the Old Testament account of the Egyptians , we have some knowledge of the Greeks and Romans and the early Christians. And of course for those who care to look, how the “wage slave” mentioned by Belloc, is treated today in obscure places around the world or even in some instances here at home but the subject itself is rarely permitted for serious study or reflection. The only purpose the subject is allowed to serve today is to spread hate and discontent especially towards Southerners and their brief history in the world, while falsely reporting the sanctity and virtues of their detractors both living and dead. As you suggest here the reality is much more serious and tragic than the cartoon caricatures we are allowed to ponder.