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"Let Us Hear No More 'Nativism'": The Catholic Press in the Mexican and Civil Wars

From: Civil War History
Volume 60, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 6-31 | 10.1353/cwh.2014.0020

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Civil War scholars have often sought new insights into the United States' most deadly conflict by comparing it to other wars. Charles Reagan Wilson, for example, compared the religious dimensions of the American conflict to the English and Spanish Civil Wars. Despite many important contributions in the last decade to the study of religion during the American Civil War, surprisingly little work has been done since Wilson's essay to understand whether or not particular religious themes and issues during the war were unique to it or were similar to those of other American conflicts. For example, though military historians have long understood the connections and parallels between the Mexican War and American Civil War, the growing field of Civil War religious history has yet to compare these wars in any substantial way.

Currently, scholarship on religion during the Mexican War lags well behind that on religion during the Civil War. Much of the published historical scholarship that mentions religion in the Mexican War is largely relegated to such topics as the Irish American deserters in the Mexican army known as the San Patricios, the Mormon Battalion, and allusions to evangelical influences on wartime antislavery rhetoric. While recent works by Tyler V. Johnson and John C. Pinheiro have provided welcome updates to older dissertations on Catholicism and Protestant anti-Catholicism during the war, there is still a lot of room for further inquiry into religion during the conflict with Mexico. Drawing religious connections between the two conflicts can help Mexican War scholars see how religious themes in the war with Mexico were related to and influenced future developments in American religious history.

Such a comparative study is especially valuable for examining Roman Catholic Americans because both conflicts followed periods of substantial anti-Catholic nativism in American politics. During both, some Catholic newspaper editors tried to use examples of Catholic patriotism and military service to attack nativism in American society and politics. Thus, after the Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, Patrick Donahoe, the publisher of the largest Catholic newspaper in the nation declared, "Let us hear no more 'nativism,' for it is now dead, disgraced, and offensive, while Irish Catholic patriotism and bravery are true to the nation and indispensable to it in every point of consideration."

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Patrick Donahoe patriotically supported both the Mexican and Civil Wars, the latter despite his fierce opposition to abolitionism. His newspaper, the Boston Pilot, was a widely read and influential Catholic newspaper. Image originally published in James Bernard Cullen: The Story of the Irish in Boston (Boston: J. B. Cullen, 1889).

Closely examining Catholic newspapers published throughout the United States provides a good means of understanding Catholics' experiences in both mid-nineteenth century conflicts. While not claiming entirely to represent the diverse viewpoints of Catholic Americans, when taken together these lay and clerical editors represented a wide range of Catholic opinion during the midnineteenth century. Additionally, this study draws upon the most important Catholic newspapers from across the United States and from different ethnic groups (Irish, German, French, and "Anglo-Saxon" Americans) to present as comprehensive as possible a picture of American Catholicism during both conflicts. All but one of the newspapers selected were printed during both conflicts, which provides a sense of continuity between the 1840s and 1860s.

Ultimately, the course of each war made many Catholic editors and leaders apathetic or even outright opposed to the United States' war effort. Irish American deserters serving in the Mexican army during the conflict with Mexico and Irish Catholics' large-scale participation in the New York City Draft Riots in 1863 enraged non-Catholic Americans. Acrimonious debates between pro-war and pro-peace Catholic editors in the North badly damaged both church unity and efforts to forge a patriotic identity for Catholicism in that part of the nation. Anti-Catholic nativism thus remained a viable force in the United States after each war. Angered by negative assessments of their loyalty and the resurgence of anti-Catholicism at the end of each conflict, Catholic leaders rejected assimilation and instead helped build a separate Catholic subculture to keep their community apart from a seemingly unappreciative and hostile society. The course of both...

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