- Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America by William B. Kurtz
American Catholicism and the Civil War each have a robust historiography, however these are historiographies that rarely intersect. William B. Kurtz’s Excommunicated by the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America is one of the few books that tells the story of American Catholics during the Civil War. Beginning with the Mexican-American War and concluding with Reconstruction, Kurtz’s work focuses on the Border States and the North and utilizes Catholic newspapers, the writings of the clergy and elite lay Catholics, and the ways in which Catholics remembered the war. Although the Civil War provided an auspicious opportunity for American Catholics to prove their patriotism, Excommunicated by the Union shows that the war alienated many Catholics and played a role in the creation of what other scholars like Martin Marty call the “Catholic cocoon.” Historians have long connected nativism in general and anti-Catholic nativism specifically with the creation of Catholic and ethnic subcultures, but Kurtz’s work further shows that this was not inevitable. He explains, “pro-war Catholic leaders and soldiers were unable to convince other Americans that their religion posed no threat to America’s republican government and institutions” (8). This post-war [End Page 96] withdrawal was further exacerbated by the success of conservative bishops in the late-nineteenth-century Americanist controversy.
Kurtz’s monograph is evenly paced and follows a clear chronology that allows him to build his argument. He begins with Catholic patriotism and nativism during the Mexican-American War, which allows him to introduce Catholic distrust of the Republican Party. Part of their unease came from nineteenth-century Catholicism’s preference for “stability over reform” (29). Despite that distrust, Kurtz shows readers how northern Catholics supported the war in its early years. Chapters three and four examine Catholic soldiers and chaplains as well as the nursing efforts of Catholic nuns. As the author pushes back on the assumption that all Catholics were anti-war and instead reveals their patriotism, he also reiterates that many northern and border-state Catholics, like their Protestant neighbors, believed that whites were the superior race. It is complicated terrain that Kurtz navigates well. His exploration of Catholic soldiers’ reasons for serving and the section on the nursing activities of nuns are key places where Excommunicated from the Union really shines. The voices, experiences, and perspectives of these previously overlooked Catholics prompt important historiographical questions that reinforce Kurtz’s argument. From there the book moves onto issues of division: first slavery and then increasing opposition to the war. As the casualty count and financial cost of war rose, more and more Catholics expressed their concern over emancipation and the utility of war. The role of the New York draft riot and Pope Pius IX’s letters for peace loom large here. Those who continued to support the Union’s cause increasingly worried that their Protestant neighbors would further suspect their patriotism and loyalty. The final two chapters explore anti-Catholicism after the war and Catholic remembrance during Reconstruction. Familiar nativist tropes returned and did so with allusions to the Confederate rebellion. Catholic veterans offered important counter-narratives but few other than fellow Catholics were interested in their stories.
Excommunicated by the Union fills a significant historiographic gap by exploring American Catholicism during the Civil War. As such, Kurtz brings together two rich historiographies and offers a fascinating narrative of their intersection. Hopefully another historian will heed a similar call for the story of Confederate Catholics. At the time of the Civil War, the majority of American Catholics were in the North or border states, but hearing southern voices alongside Kurtz’s subjects would enrich this text further. This book is a must for college libraries and would do well in a graduate course on American Catholicism or the Civil War. Due to its narrow focus, assigning the full text for an undergraduate course is unlikely...