William B. KURTZ. Excommunicated from the Union: How the Civil War Created a Separate Catholic America. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016. pp. 236. $35.00 pb. ISBN 978-0-8232-6886-3. Reviewed by Karen TEEL, University of San Diego, 5998 Alcalá Park, San Diego, CA 92110.
During the nineteenth century, most white Catholics in the United States were of Irish heritage, and Irish Catholic experiences and attitudes often have been presented as representative of all white Catholics in that era. In Excommunicated from the Union, Civil War historian William B. Kurtz broadens and complicates this picture. Kurtz highlights the efforts of US- and German-born Catholics to establish their identities as true Americans, to serve their nation with honor, and to combat anti-Catholic nativist sentiment before, during, and after the Civil War. Ultimately, he shows that Catholics’ participation in the Union cause did not lead to their acceptance in mainstream US culture, as many hoped it would.
The study proceeds logically. Kurtz prepares the reader for his central argument about the Civil War by detailing anti-Mexican and anti-Catholic attitudes honed during the Mexican War. Separate chapters discuss the experiences of Catholic soldiers and of Catholic priests and nuns in the Civil War, as well as how the Catholic Church split over the question of slavery. Kurtz argues that many Catholics opposed the war not simply because of anti-black bias, of which Irish American Catholics are often accused, but because they were politically conservative supporters of national unity. Although they were not necessarily proslavery, he explains, they considered active abolitionism, which was endorsed by only a tiny minority of citizens, to be fanatical and socially disruptive. After the Civil War, anti-Catholicism continued virtually unabated, despite the fact that many Catholics had fought to keep the Union together. Kurtz concludes by chronicling Catholics’ memorialization of their own war participation as an effort to preserve the Union. Ultimately, he argues convincingly that when Catholics’ war service failed to integrate them into the larger US body politic, an already existing tendency toward an insular Catholic subculture was exacerbated, contributing to the development of “a separate Catholic America.”
Excommunicated from the Union is a welcome beginning toward filling a gap in the study of nineteenth-century US Catholicism, which has emphasized Irish Catholics almost exclusively. As such, the work raises vital questions for further research. I will mention two. First, extending Kurtz’s line of questioning has the potential to contribute to the ongoing illumination, currently being pursued by scholars in many fields, of the history of racism and white supremacy. Kurtz demonstrates that the story of Catholic opposition to the Civil War is more complicated than the common narrative that white (Irish) Catholics adopted the antiblack racism of dominant US culture. In crafting additional strands to this narrative, Kurtz largely sets aside the issue of racism, implying that the white Catholics he is describing were concerned more with their own social acceptance than with subjugating African Americans. In fact, by emphasizing that many abolitionists were also anti-Catholic, he suggests that it was only natural for white Catholics to oppose them. Perhaps so. Still, insofar as these Catholics sought acceptance within a white supremacist society by endorsing or failing to oppose that society’s efforts to keep black people down, we cannot ignore antiblack racism. Second, just as the US Catholic Church was never exclusively Irish, neither was it ever exclusively white. Therefore, also clearly needed are studies of this caliber that consider the histories of nonwhite US Catholics. What, for example, were black Catholics’ experiences before, during, and after the Civil War, both within the Church and in US society more generally? Not only would such studies be valuable on their own, but they could also add dimension to and correct our portraits of white Catholics. These are some of the further avenues of inquiry rendered visible and urgent by Kurtz’s carefully nuanced account.
Kurtz’s well-organized study is meticulously researched, and he translates his findings into accessible prose. The book, or individual chapters, could be assigned in courses—especially at the graduate level—on the Civil War, nineteenth-century politics, or US Catholic history. Excommunicated from the Union is a valuable scholarly contribution that offers detailed evidence and provocative insights on all these topics.