Between Rome and Richmond: Student Explores the Southern Catholic War Experience

When Northern abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe describes Southern slave driver Simon Legree in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she paints him as one of the cruelest characters in all American fiction – a brutish, cold and merciless torturer of a trapped and helpless people. Opposite the unwavering, individualist Protestant faith of protagonist Uncle Tom, Stowe also makes several implications that Legree’s heritage is Irish – and Catholic.

Subtle appositions like that are what intrigue Nicole Penn, an undergraduate history and foreign affairs major, who spent her summer investigating the scarcely discussed experience of Southern Catholics during the Civil War. A recipient of a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award, which funds selected student research projects, Penn is studying the ways in which the Catholic Church dealt with rampant nationalism, abolitionism and the slavery question during America’s divided years.

The onset of war split most Protestant denominations into Northern and Southern contingents. But the Catholic Church in America – led by a far-away pope – stayed together, Penn said, though individual parishes tended to support the politics of their states.

“There was already a lot of struggle with the acceptance of Catholics in American society because they were viewed as these ‘papists’ trying to convert everyone, beholden to the pope,” she said, explaining that Northern abolitionists like Stowe scorned Catholic ideals and perceived them as belonging to the South – though many Catholics fought for the Union.  

While a recent dissertation from U.Va. Ph.D. student Will Kurtz explored the experience of Northern Catholics during the Civil War, little research is available on Catholics of the Confederacy. That  prompted Penn, an aspiring history professor and Southern Catholic herself, to explore the way that Southern Catholics remained loyal to the higher mission of the church while still aligning their views on slavery and homeland loyalty with their religious identity.

Southern values, Penn argues, did indeed align more closely with Catholic morals. Both shared a notion of hierarchy and cultures shrouded in tradition. Southern Catholics also could reconcile slavery with their beliefs, she said.

“Southern Catholics believed slavery was morally permissible, as long as [slaves] were treated humanely,” Penn said. “I came across a letter written after the war from a Catholic immigrant, arguing that the Catholic way of approaching slavery helped eliminate slavery much more than radical abolitionism. In gradually teaching people to be kind toward their slaves, you create an atmosphere of integration, rather than trying to install abolitionism, which is going to be really disruptive to a society that has been dependent on slavery for so many years, and will create a lot of resentment.”

American society grew more accepting of Catholicism throughout the war, as soldiers witnessed priests and nuns blessing and tending to soldiers regardless of their uniform color. But many Northerners continued to view Catholicism as a danger because of the pope, who infamously addressed a letter to “President” Jefferson Davis after receiving a Confederate envoy seeking support in Rome.

“One of the interesting things [Southern Catholics] said was that you can’t base enslavement off of race, because we are all descended from Adam and Eve,” Penn said. “In their minds, slavery was something that could be useful when someone has no recourse and they want to be cared for by another person in exchange for labor. That’s the ideal they were striving for. It’s very interesting, and very nuanced.”

While that’s not an ideal that would be accepted today, understanding the dialogue surrounding the issue of slavery gives us a fuller picture of American history beyond a black/white dichotomy of good and evil people, Penn said. Southern Catholics, like any religious group, sought to do the morally right thing for their societies.

“I think people often forget to view wars through a religious lens,” she said. “We’re in a country that through most of its history was a very religious country, but filled with many different faiths.”

Penn’s Harrison Grant funded her travel to the University of Notre Dame, where she dug up many of the primary sources used in her research project. She is currently poring over a compilation of Southern newspapers, letters from student-soldiers from Georgetown University, and journals and recollections written by priests and lay people. 

Penn is aiming to turn this summer research, conducted under the supervision of history and religious studies professor Gerald Fogarty, into a 90-page distinguished majors thesis.

"Also a leader of the piccolo section of the Cavalier Marching Band, vice president of service in Kappa Kappa Psi fraternity, and a member of the Burke Society and the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, Penn plans to apply to Ph.D. history programs this fall.

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