Excommunicated from the Union: By the Numbers

Concept Cover Art for Excommunicated from the Union (2015), by William Kurtz.
My book may not be filled with big data, but there will be some helpful tables in the appendix.

Big data is one of those buzz words particularly popular with digital humanists these days. It also defines an approach that is not necessarily relevant for all historical research projects. For example, my forthcoming book’s argument that the American Civil War alienated most Catholics relies much more on first-hand accounts and newspaper editors’ opinions than on tables or charts.

Still, in the course of my research, I did gather a significant amount of data that I organized into spreadsheet form. I used this file in order to map the location of dioceses and key figures from my book as well as to get a sense of the relative size of the Catholic Church in the Union vs. the Confederacy. Relying heavily on information gathered for the Catholic Laity’s Directory for 1861, I was able to make some new stats-based claims about the Catholic experience of the Civil War.

In honor of Amazon.com recently revealing that Excommunicated from the Union (Fordham University Press) will be released on December 1, here are ten of my book’s most important stats. They will give you some sense of why my book focuses only the states that remained in the Union in 1861, a rough idea of how many Catholics participated in the war, what they thought about the draft and emancipation, and why I argue that the hierarchy did such a poor job of providing for soldiers’ religious needs.


3.1 Million Catholics Lived in the U.S. in 1860
-This is an approximation because the U.S. Census does not record religion. This figure comes from an older study by Gerald Shaughnessy, Has the Immigrant Kept the Faith? (1925). It is an approximation, certainly, but the best that historians have available to them. The overall U.S. population at this time was 31 million, meaning Shaughnessy  estimated that Catholics were ten percent of the overall population. Although clearly in the minority, their numbers would only continue to grow in the coming decades as Catholicism cemented its place as the largest denomination in the United States.

90% of All Catholic Americans Resided in the Union States
-While not all diocese reported the total number of Catholics in their territory for the 1861 Laity’s Directory, they all did at least report the number of churches and priests. Assuming that church leaders would have attempted to allocate these resources according to the distribution of the Catholic population at the time, I argue that the numbers of churches and priests in a particular diocese reflects the relative size of the Catholic population served in that diocese. Roughly ninety percent of all priests and churches were located outside of the states comprising the Confederacy, thus a similar percentage of Catholics probably lived in the loyal states too.

200,000 Catholics Served in the Union Army
-Yet another approximation because the Union Army did not track religious affiliation of its recruits or conscripts. This number is based on an estimate made by renowned Civil War historian James McPherson, which was then adopted by Randall M. Miller, a leading scholar of Catholics during the war. Because just over 2 million men served in the Union Army from 1861-1865, this figure means that about ten percent of the army was Catholic, or roughly the same percentage of Catholics as lived in the United States during this period.

2:1 The Ratio of Irish Brigade Soldiers Killed by Battle Wounds vs. Disease
-Throughout both armies, disease killed twice as many men as did wounds received on the battlefield. However, in the mostly Catholic Irish Brigade, the ratio was reversed. Indeed, by the time the unit fought on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, only a few hundred of its men were present for duty. While Catholics were certainly proud of the brigade’s reputation for hard-fighting on behalf of the Union cause, they eventually became appalled at such horrible casualties. Some began to question whether saving the Union was worth such a high cost. Many were shocked that, despite the heroics and sacrifices of the men of the Irish Brigade, nativists and anti-Catholics still continued to question their loyalty.

53 Priests Served as Chaplains
-During the Mexican War, only two or three American priests served with U.S. forces. Like other denominations, the Catholic Church made a greater effort to send its clergy to minister to the spiritual needs of American soldiers during the 1860s. During the Civil War, over fifty priests served officially as Union chaplains, either as members of a regiment (ex. Rev. William Corby of the 88th NY) or on assignment at hospitals (ex. Edward McGylnn, of the Central Park Hospital, NY). In my research, I came across evidence of additional priests who served unofficially and temporarily during the war.

3,774 Catholic Soldiers for Every Official Chaplain
-Devout Catholic soldiers, especially those serving in one of the hundreds of northern regiments without a priest, had a difficult time finding Catholic clergy during the war. Certainly there was a general shortage of clergy across the U.S. before the war. However, the number of parishioners a priest back at home was responsible for was much smaller (1,337 Catholic lay people for every priest) than the number of soldiers a chaplain had to account for. The hierarchy as a whole never came up with a plan to deal with this problem.

600-700 Nuns Served as Military Nurses
-Nuns from both the North and South turned out in large numbers to act as nurses in Union and Confederate hospitals during the war. They provided physical and spiritual comfort to ailing soldiers regardless of their politics, race, or creed. While they could not provide Catholic sacraments themselves, nuns probably did just as much if not more to help sustain the faith of Catholic soldiers under their care than did the much smaller group of priests serving as chaplains.  Archivists working in the records of the female religious communities are still uncovering the names of additional women who helped heal the sick during the war.

20% of all U.S. Nuns Served as Nurses
-While nuns may have represented only 1/6 of all female nurses, one-fifth of all of the nuns who lived in the U.S. during the 1860s volunteered in Union or Confederate hospitals. No other single group of women can claim such a large percentage. Despite this impressive fact, nuns were left out of Battle Cry of Freedom and  most leading gender historians of the war hardly mention them at all.

$300 Commutation Fee to Avoid the Draft
-Men who did not want to serve in the U.S. military could pay a fee of three-hundred dollars to be exempted from the draft. Unfortunately, such as sum was generally well beyond the means of working-class Americans, a group that included most Catholics. To make matters worse, the U.S. conscription law did not exempt clergymen, meaning that a number of Catholic priests and religious brothers were drafted into service. Parishioners and dioceses alike generally found the money to release these men from service, but Catholic opponents of the war used the lack of a religious exemption as an example of the apparent anti-Catholic animus of the Republicans and abolitionists. Anger over the draft played a large role in the New York City Draft riots in 1863, an event that came to symbolize Catholics’ lackluster patriotism in the eyes of many northerners.

3 Catholic Newspapers Publicly Supported Emancipation
-Whereas the Protestant religious press in the North generally embraced the cause of emancipation during the war, only three Catholic editors did so publicly. Of about a dozen Catholic newspapers surveyed in my study, only Brownson’s Quarterly Review, The Catholic Telegraph, and Der Wahrheit’s Freund advocated both the defense of the Union and the eradication of slavery. Most Catholic newspapermen attempted to avoid the slavery issue altogether. Some periodicals such as The New York Freeman’s Journal, The Boston Pilot, and The Catholic Mirror, however, were outspoken opponents of abolitionism. Contemporaries such as the anti-slavery Republican Horace Greeley recognized this fact, and used it to attack Catholic northerners for being unpatriotic and pro-slavery. Catholics’ well-known opposition to abolitionism, like their hatred for the draft, made it very easy for post-war critics to paint them as traitors. As a result of such criticism, Catholics in the post-war nation increasingly came to rely on their own separate institutions to safeguard themselves and their faith from relentlessly hostile outside forces.