- Pure Heart: The Faith of a Father and Son in the War for a More Perfect Union by William F. Quigley Jr.
Pure Heart attempts to tell the story of a family during the Civil War. The Reverend Benjamin Dorr presided over Philadelphia’s Christ Church, also known as “the Nation’s Church” because the congregation included famous and important people. His son William, a lawyer, joined the Union Army, and after surviving Gettysburg, was killed in action a year later at Spotsylvania. William F. Quigley, a history teacher at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield, Massachusetts, bases his book on a series of letters between the pair. He intends it to show the tensions within Northern society during the war. Specifically, he seeks to identify from their relationship “the spirit that might have restrained war fever” in the country (xxv). The experiences of both the father at home and his son on the battlefield provide a lens through which to see how the war affected them. The result, however, is mixed. Resorting mostly on narrative, the book has little argument or analysis for its entire length.
Quigley begins with the responses of Dorr’s congregation to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The event divided his flock, with many Southern-born members threatening the more moderate or pro-Lincoln remainder. The reverend tried to maintain order by assuming a neutral and anti-abolitionist stance, with some success. Strife renewed, however, after the election of Abraham Lincoln. The author covers many topics in these early chapters, including details about Dorr’s early life and experiences, class relations in Philadelphia, and sketches about his famous congregants. For example, he mentions the teenage daughter of Robert Tyler, a Southern sympathizer, who raised the Confederate flag for the first time in February 1861. As before, Quigley portrays Dorr as the man trying to keep order in the middle of a storm. While states seceded, his sermons maintained a Unionist sentiment that did not threaten slavery. The Nation’s Church, he concludes, endured the same divisions as the nation itself.
The next few chapters mix Reverend Dorr’s experiences with his son’s. William joined the 121st Pennsylvania Volunteers in mid-1862, and saw the war’s ordeals firsthand. Surviving Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg, the young officer wrote to his father about camp life, his soldiers, and their service in the Eastern Theater. Quigley treats the reader with long and vivid descriptions of Dorr and his regiment in action. He also engages in the course of emancipation both at home and among the troops. Reverend Dorr urged restraint and humility at first to his worshippers, but underwent a conversion, after the Emancipation Proclamation, to ending slavery. His congregation [End Page 86] further divided on the issue. When Captain Dorr died leading his men in 1864, his father grieved much as the nation did. The author compared his sermons to Lincoln’s own sentiments at the time, and compares them to the immortal words of his Second Inaugural Address. The epilogue covers the reverend’s own passing in 1869 and the postwar lives of other figures in the book.
Despite superb research and fluid writing, the question of “so what?” hangs over the whole book. Quigley’s chapters engage a wide range of primary and secondary sources. He touches on religious, military, political, and social history in engaging detail. Yet, the book lacks an overarching thesis that ties them together. If seen as a composite biography of the Dorrs, then Pure Heart offers scholars and the public a vivid account of elite Philadelphians’ divisions during the Civil War. As anything else, however, it offers little new to the study of that conflict. Quigley fails to find the “spirit” of moderation in his subjects. The result is a nicely written but aimless book that merely synthesizes what others have covered elsewhere. General readers may forgive these shortcomings, but historians will lament its lack of focus.