‘The Prayer of the South’

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"On the 17th day of April, 1861, Virginia issued the proclamation of secession, and the clouds which long since had gathered black and blacker over this country broke; the pen was declared useless, and it was left to the sword to settle the issues and contentions agitating the political parties of these States," wrote Charles T. Loehr, secretary of the Old First Virginia Infantry Association in his post-war recollection, 1884 War History of the Old First Virginia Infantry Regiment, Army of Northern Virginia.
Today, the Civil War lives in reenactments, books, documentaries and museum exhibits. Some may remember it through single artifacts - a cannon, the hoop skirt - or dates on a timeline. But when it ended 150 years ago with the April 9 surrender at Appomattox Court House, the Civil War was a conflict that haunted Americans on a daily basis. In his book, Commonwealth Catholicism, Father Gerald P. Fogarty, a professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, claims that Virginia may have been the state most impacted by the Civil War. The War Between the States affected everyone - black and white, immigrant and native-born, Christian and non-Christian. In that respect, Virginia Catholics were no different. Yet their history is their own.
A land of "anti-Papist" sentiments
Maryland was historically established as Mary's Land, the land of the Catholics, home to the first Catholic Mass in the English colonies. Virginia, founded by the English with the Jamestown colony as testament, was the land of Protestants. According to the Museum of Virginia Catholic History in Richmond, it was not until Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom was passed in 1786 that Catholics were "free to worship openly in the Old Dominion."
From there, it took about a decade for formal Catholic communities to emerge in Virginia. Established in 1795, St. Mary Church in Alexandria was the first Catholic parish in the state. As late as 1822, when Norfolk-based Bishop Patrick Kelly returned to his home in Ireland for lack of financial support, Richmond lacked an organized Catholic community.
As border states, many everyday Virginians and Marylanders were torn between the Union and the Confederacy, but the matter of religious identity was cut and dried. Though Puritans took over Maryland and created anti-Catholic laws in the 1650s, those laws were abolished in the 1830s. Maryland never returned to being a Catholic-majority state but Irish Catholic immigrants settled there during the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s. Far fewer settled in Virginia, where Catholics remained a distinct, sometimes hated, minority.
The fighting Irish in Maryland and Virginia
According to Maryland State Archives' documents for grade school history classes, more than 200,000 Irish had immigrated to Maryland by 1850. As a popular point of entry for European immigrants, Baltimore especially saw an increase in its Irish population, third only to New York and Boston. This influx was unwelcome by self-proclaimed "nativists" - those who used their American birth as a point of moral superiority.
The State Archives' lesson plan entitled, "Irish Immigrants in Baltimore," points out the discrimination Irish immigrants endured for bringing few skills valued by the American workforce. Because of this, "they were viewed as inferior people." Virginia would not witness a spike in its Irish population until after the Civil War, when many Irish immigrants headed there to work in coal mines. One could argue that, in Maryland, the Irish were looked down upon for being Irish; in Virginia, they were looked down upon for being Irish and Catholic.
On both the Union and Confederate sides, many Irish Catholics saw the Civil War as an opportunity to prove their willingness to conform to an American identity. They wanted to counter the stereotypes portrayed not only in everyday talk but in print. Widely circulated magazines, like Punch and Harper's Weekly, published cartoons negatively portraying Irish Catholics before and after the war. In a 2012 email made public by The Cagle Post, California art instructor, Michael Dooley, described 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast's depictions of the Irish "as a bunch of drunken, violent apes."
But not everyone agrees with the argument that Irish - or any immigrant identity - played a distinct role in the Union or Confederate efforts.
"I don't think the ethnic differences among Catholics had much impact on Catholic participation in the war (in the Confederacy)," said George C. Rable, a professor in Southern history at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. "Some Confederates claimed they were much more tolerant of Catholicism than northerners (they often referred to Know Nothingism)."
In the South, "Catholics tended to uphold both slavery and the Confederacy," said Rable. In the North, Catholics railed against them both.
Regardless of their reasons for fighting, conscious or subconscious, Irish Catholics were the single largest Catholic group represented in the military at the time, whether in Virginia, Maryland or elsewhere.
In his book, Father Fogarty writes, "Virginia probably never before had a greater percentage of Catholics, as regiments from the more Catholic states of Louisiana and Alabama moved north to the theater of war and as Union troops occupied Northern and later Western Virginia."
Catholics in the Museum of the Confederacy
At the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Catholics make a minimal appearance in the collections. Among a collection of 15,000 documents and 500 flags, there are two artifacts with an obvious Catholic association.
In researching for the museum magazine's fall 2014 edition, John Coski, historian and vice president of research and publications, found a single Catholic Bible. It belonged to Tucker Randolph, brother of Norman V. Randolph, and brother-in-law of Janet Weaver Randolph, "who were a rare FFV (First Families of Virginia) Catholic family." Pope Pius IX's 1863 letter to Jefferson Davis-"the Honorable President of the Confederate States of America" - is on display in the collection "Knickkackery: Curiosities from the Museum's Vaults." What it lacks is the letter that Davis first sent the pope, in which he expresses "deep grief … for the ruin and devastation caused by the war."
"I am deeply sensible of the Christian charity which has impelled you to this reiterated appeal to the clergy," Davis writes. "It is for this reason that I feel it my duty to express personally, and in the name of the Confederate States, our gratitude for such sentiments of Christian good feeling and love."
As Michael P. Foley points out in his book, Why do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?, the pope's response to this letter held no legal weight, yet it pushed Congress to cut diplomatic ties with the Vatican shortly after the war.
Two Virginia Irish-Americans
The Museum of Virginia Catholic History, nestled by the crypt in the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, currently has an exhibit about Catholic Virginians entitled "The Prayer of the South" after a poem by Civil War-era priest, Father John Teeling of Richmond.
Curated by Richmond's diocesan archivist, Edie Jeter, the exhibit focuses largely on James Henry Dooley and Bishop John McGill, the third bishop of the Richmond Diocese. (Due to its Catholic minority, Virginia Catholics had previously been administered by the Archbishop of Baltimore.)
The son of Irish immigrants, Dooley was a lawyer, businessman and philanthropist today best known for his 100-acre estate, Maymont, which is now a public park in Richmond. He grew up attending St. Peter's Church, a largely Irish-American church then the seat of the Richmond Diocese. It was the same parish that Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, the only Catholic in Jefferson Davis'cabinet, attended.
After about two years of service, Dooley's time in the First Virginia Infantry - a regiment proud of its Irish identity - ended. He was wounded at the Battle of Williamsburg in 1862, briefly imprisoned and then sent home to work in the Confederate Ordnance Department.
Bishop McGill, who also was born to Irish parents, served a much more prominent role during the war. When he became the bishop in 1850, the diocese had, according to Richard Henry Clark's Lives of the Deceased Bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States, 7,000 Catholics, eight priests and 10 churches. In his 1917 essay, "Catholicity in Virginia during the Episcopate of Bishop McGill," Joseph Magri describes Bishop McGill as "a fearless leader of Catholic thought, a veritable intellectual giant" with "strength of character and tenacity of purpose."
One of the bishop's main concerns during the war was providing for the soldiers so they could worship in the field. This meant recruiting chaplains and preparing reading materials at a time when both men and paper were scarce. One effort was to write and print the Catholic Devotional for Confederate Soldiers, a book he noted "may not contain all that some may (desire but it is an) aid for the most essential practices of Christian life."
"In Richmond, everybody knows about (Mr. and Mrs. James Dooley) because of Maymont," said Jeter, but his religious identity is not widely discussed.
"The war would not have been the same without the Irish Catholics," she said, nodding to Bishop McGill.
"The Prayer of the South" will be on display through at least the end of the month as the museum prepares for its summer renovation, which is scheduled for mid-June.
"It made sense to have the exhibit now," said Jeter. "We wanted to be part of the Sesquicentennial programs taking place across the state, and have a chance to tell Virginia's Catholic story."
Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.
Find out more
To learn more about the Museum of Virginia Catholic History, go to richmonddiocese.org/archives. To learn more about Civil War events around the state, go to virginiacivilwar.org. For more information about Catholic destinations in Richmond, read the travel story at bit.ly/CatholicRichmond.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015