Remember the Catholic Ladies

Ellen Ewing Sherman, devout Catholic and staunch Northern patriot (wikicommons).
Ellen Ewing Sherman, devout Catholic and staunch Northern patriot (wikicommons).

On March 31, 1776, with her husband John off attending the Second Continental Congress, Abigail Adams famously asked him to “remember the ladies” as he and the other men present were beginning to struggle with creating a new government for the American colonies.

Until interest in social and gender history took hold in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, academic historians had themselves ignored Adams’s request and seemingly forgotten to include the vital role of women in American history. Recently at a panel discussion at the AHA, Dr. Judith Giesberg cited James McPherson’s Battle Cry of FreedomĀ (1988) and Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber’sĀ Divided Houses (1992) as inspirations for her own work in the gender history of the North’s Civil War.

Thanks to historians like Giesberg, scholarship on women in the war has come a long way toward understanding the role of elite white Protestant women on both sides and the lives of slave women during the Civil War era. However, there are still groups who are largely left out of histories of women during the Civil War. In my research into the Catholic experience of the war, it has become clear that they, and other largely immigrant groups, have been given short shrift by gender, Civil War, and American Catholic scholars like. To be sure, Sister Dennis Maher, Sr. Betty Ann McNeil, and others have published several excellent studies of the over 600 nuns who served as nurses during the war. But what about the majority of women, who were members of the laity. Were they to be left out of the narrative of the war because they for reasons of ethnicity, class, or religion did not support the war or join organizations like the U.S. Sanitary Commission?

In my own research, I found that myself struggling to recover the voices of Catholic women through the lack of a well-developed secondary literature to help point the way and through a lack extant sources in major Catholic and governmental archives across the United States. Given the paucity of sources that seem to remain, it may be very hard to recover their experiences of the conflict and their opinions of the war, conscription, or slavery.

Thus I presented my findings, difficulties, and proposed solutions at the American Catholic Historical Association on January 2nd. You can read the paper in full linked to the bottom of this post. In short, I made four key points.

  1. Civil War and gender scholars have neglected Catholic women in their scholarship.
  2. Catholic scholars have focused their attention on nuns because they were praiseworthy for their devotion to the troops and primary sources related to their experiences are more readily available.
  3. Lay Catholic women’s sources are hard to come by, but their class had a major influence on whether they supported or opposed the war.
  4. Integrating Catholic women back into the narrative of the Civil War, much less the 19th century, requires a concerted and collaborative effort by a group of historians using either traditional or digital methods.

Here was some of the discussion that ensued:

  • Audience members asked how a digital resource of Catholic women would be funded and organized.
  • A professor from Rutgers suggested that further research would depend on identifying women as Catholic first before turning to public resources such as pension records because those records didn’t record religion. While Irish-Catholic women might be found by doing surname analysis, I noted it would be harder to do this for German Catholic women.
  • Another audience member suggested looking at speeches directed at Catholic women and printed in newspapers as possible source.
  • Dr. Gerald Fogarty, agreed with me that Catholics were understudied in general scholarship of the war, noting that only once were they referred to in Ken Burns’s multi-hour documentary of the conflict.
  • Dr. Mary Henold, our commentator and chair, suggested that in fact similarities among women of the same class across the religious divide were more important than the differences. She suggested further research into the women who contributed to sanitary fairs and looking for women who served as nurses.
  • Dr. Luis Dinnella-Borrego suggested looking into Catholic women who served as soldiers during the conflict, citing the example of a Cuban American woman who claimed to have fought for the Confederacy.

All of these were useful suggestions and feedback. With regards to the first, I responded that we could potentially piggy-back off of another digital project devoted to the nineteenth century and convince them to make Catholic women a special priority for inclusion. Dr. Henold then revealed that she is doing just that for 20th century American history in a very successful digital database, Women and Social Movements in the United States. That was very exciting news to hear, and one hopes that other DH projects will also be willing to do the same.

I also suggested that, with a core group of academic scholars dedicated to helping oversee a Catholic women’s digital history project, we could seek the support of a leading Catholic research institution for hosting and technical support. With my own extensive experience in publishing primary documents online through Founders Online, and helping to research entries for an ever-growing database of men and women from America’s Founding Era, I believe that a collaboration of scholars and digital humanists could help create a useful resource for scholars of American and Catholic history alike, so that this important but overlooked group of women can also be finally incorporated into the larger narrative of U.S. history.

If anyone is interested in contributing to the this project, or perhaps has any insights into finding primary sources on Catholic women during this period, please feel free to contact me. I would be grateful for any and all suggestions and feedback.


Maria Monk, “Bridget,” or Just Plain Invisible? Catholic Lay and Religious Women in the Era of the American Civil War, William B. Kurtz, University of Virginia, given at American Catholic Historical Association Conference, New York City, January 2, 2015 (.pdf)