Review of Max Longley’s For the Union and the Catholic Church

Review of Max Longley, For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (2015) Publisher: McFarland 800-253-2187

Max_Longley_Union_and_Catholic_ChurchMax Longley’s For the Union and the Catholic Church, is a good read for anyone wanting to learn more about how four mid-19th century Catholic converts dealt with nativism, slavery, and the American Civil War. Longley’s study of these four male converts, Bishop Sylvester Rosecrans, his brother Major General William S. Rosecrans, famous editor Orestes Brownson, and a former slave who became a Boston priest, Father James A. Healy, utilizes the best recent scholarly research written on Catholics during this period in combination with his own original research. Longley, a convert to Catholicism himself, should particularly be commended for his inclusion of Fr. Healy, the first African-American priest in U.S. history, and a figure that is often left out of scholarship on Catholics during the war. It is very good to see that historians in and outside of academia are starting to address more fully the subject of Catholicism during the American Civil War.

Longley’s four converts were unusual from other northerners because of their Catholic faith. They were also atypical of other Catholics from the period who were raised in the Roman Catholic faith and who were also largely born-abroad in Germany, Ireland, or other European Catholic countries. Many of these foreign-born Catholics, despite initial their support for the war, grew to resent the war’s high casualties and President Abraham Lincoln’s policies on slavery, conscription, and civil liberties. Longley’s quartet, by contrast, were all ardently pro-war Unionists who hated slavery and supported emancipation. Although these attributes made them quite different from most Catholic northerners, Longley does place his four converts in context with other prominent anti-war Catholics. He did an excellent job of mining contemporary Catholic newspapers for relevant quotations to support his argument

About half of Longley’s book actually focuses on the pre-war period rather than the conflict itself, exploring how the four men came to Catholicism during a period of intense anti-Catholic nativism. There are some issues with the editing of the book, for example on page 114 where Rosecrans applies to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1863 (actually 1853) for permission to leave the army. Longley clearly did a lot of research into the writings of Brownson and biographical studies of all four men, providing detailed summaries of articles, letters, and other sources that sometimes digress from the argument he is making on a particular subject like emancipation. Still, his digressions often contain useful information that other historians will be grateful to him for compiling within the confines of a single book. In particular, other historians will appreciate his thorough and very helpful exploration of the background and motivations of his four subjects.

Longley’s book concludes with a brief description of the post-war careers of each of the men that could easily have been much longer and dealt more directly with the issue of how the war affected the anti-Catholic nativism he described so thoroughly in the first half of the book. His conclusion is much more focused on slavery than whether or not Catholics found greater acceptance after the war. Still, Longley should be commended for doing a good job of synthesizing so many previous studies with his own original research into a thorough examination of four interesting if unusual male Catholic converts during the era of the American Civil War.