Becoming American: Catholics, Jews, and Mormons during the American Civil War

Sarah K Nytroe. Civil War: People and Perspectives. Editor: Lisa Tendrich Frank. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

On March 4, 1865, following his second inauguration as president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln stood before a crowd of thousands who had gathered near the east side of the Capitol building to watch the ceremony, having braved morning rains and muddy streets to attend. Four years into the conflict that had torn the country apart, and just over a month before the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln used his second inaugural address to reflect upon the Civil War since it began in 1861. Although embroiled in a conflict that emphasized their differences, Lincoln pointed out that the two sections were similar in certain ways. Neither the North nor the South, Lincoln said, had anticipated the length or magnitude of the war. Moreover, the North and the South studied the same Bible, prayed to the same God, and implored Him in their struggle against the other. Lincoln considered further that in the continued appeals to God and religion throughout the war, neither the North nor the South could know what God intended.

It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. (White 2002, 18-19)

Pondering the Almighty’s purposes, Lincoln suggested that slavery was an offense committed by the nation and that God may have intended the war to wipe away the sins of the nation. If that was the case, and God willed the conflict to continue, it was only right to carry on the fight and “bind up the nation’s wounds” (White 2002, 18-19). Lincoln’s references to the divine would have resonated not only with the thousands of civilians and soldiers who attended the inauguration, but also with the general population of the North and South. During the antebellum period, a majority of Northerners and Southerners possessed a worldview shaped by their religious beliefs. This belief was heightened by religious revivals, and it informed social and political movements and debates, including reform efforts of temperance and abolition, slavery, and the split between the Northern and Southern factions of the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches. The preoccupation with religion spilled over into the Civil War as Northerners and Southerners of all religious backgrounds appropriated religion to provide justification, explanation, and inspiration for the war. Religion pervaded the daily experiences of both the soldiers on the battlefield and in the daily life of civilians on the home front.

Protestant Christianity dominated the religious scene in the antebellum period, with Methodism as the largest religious denomination, followed by Baptist and Presbyterianism. The Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches had large membership numbers and church leaders who shaped their religious denominations, respectively, but also influenced society culturally and politically. During the antebellum period, however, several religious minorities experienced increased denominational growth and presence on the American religious scene, albeit sometimes an unwelcome presence. For American Catholics, their minority status was primarily defined by their social and cultural differences from the Protestant majority. For Jews and Mormons their minority status was primarily defined by their limited numbers, although social and cultural differences heightened that status. From the 1830s through the 1850s, Catholics and Jews migrated to the United States in growing numbers, while the emergence of Mormonism offered another religious alternative to that of the Protestant establishment. In the decades preceding the Civil War, with smaller membership numbers and limited institutional presence, these religious minorities focused on establishing themselves both institutionally and religiously, while often facing prejudice and animosity from the religious majority. Perceived as outsiders and foreigners, Catholics, Jews, and Mormons all faced negative public perception and prejudice. The circumstances of the war provided Catholic, Jewish, and Mormon religious communities with the space to address their supposedly tenuous relationship with the nation by addressing issues of loyalty and to shore up their institutional presence in the United States by addressing the spiritual needs of their flock in the army and on the home front.

The Relationship between Politics and Religion

Politics and religion intersected frequently during the Civil War. Early in the war, Secretary of State William H. Seward approached Catholic Archbishop John Hughes and sought Hughes’s assistance in advocating the Union cause in Europe. As the first archbishop of New York, a city that possessed the largest Catholic population in the United States, Hughes not only held a strong influence among the Catholics of the city and with the American Catholic hierarchy, but also had been keeping papal officials abreast of the growing conflict in the United States. Although Hughes, and most Catholics, did not support abolitionism, a movement he believed needed “a strait jacket and the humane protection of a lunatic asylum,” he remained a stalwart supporter of the Union cause (Blied 1945, 32). He made sure the American flag was displayed from the city’s cathedral and supported the draft. Hughes accepted Seward’s request and set sail for Europe, making stops in France and in Rome in late 1861 and early 1862. In his discussions with ambassadors, as well as government and church officials in France, Hughes touched upon a variety of issues, including slavery, tariffs, and the blockade. His aim was political—bend European opinion in favor of the Union and gain assurance that the pope would not recognize the Confederacy diplomatically. When he finally arrived in Rome in May 1862, he spoke with papal officials and other clerics about the war. Hughes’s diplomatic efforts in Europe, as a representative of the Catholic Church in the United States, were potentially beneficial for two parties. On the one hand, the federal government wanted to gain the support of foreign opinion, whether with of Great Britain, France, or the papacy, and to keep foreign opinion from favoring the Confederacy. On the other hand, Hughes believed that his selection by Seward paid a compliment to American Catholics and their ability to actively support the nation.

As illustrated by Hughes’s advocacy of the Union during the war both at home and abroad, and the activity of American Catholics in the war, the Civil War served as a period of transition in the relationship between American Catholics and the nation. In the antebellum period, Irish and German Catholics migrated to the United States, primarily to the North, and did so in significant numbers, enough to cause anxiety on the part of the Protestant majority. The 1830s through the 1850s witnessed many instances of prejudice toward Catholicism and Catholics in the United States. This prejudice was primarily rhetorical, but it also could erupt into violence. Nativists questioned the ability of immigrants to integrate fully into American society and feared the dual allegiance of Catholics to both their country and the papacy. With the rise of the Republican Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, Irish Catholics, in particular, were wary of associating with a party that they saw as tainted with anti-Catholicism, abolitionism, and pro-Protestantism. The actions of Catholic soldiers, chaplains and religious women, and the hierarchy went far to displace apprehensions about the ability of Catholics to be both Catholic and American.

Catholicism and the War

As an institution, the Catholic Church in the United States did not provide a church position on the war. However, individual bishops, Catholic newspapers, and prominent laity in both the North and the South offered their opinions about the war and the proper role of Catholics and the Church in the war. Unlike such Protestant churches as the Methodists and Baptists, which split across sectional lines over the issue of slavery in the 1850s, the bishops and archbishops actively affirmed the unity of the Catholic Church, while simultaneously supporting differing political positions on the war. Some bishops sought to avoid political participation at all levels. Bishop Martin Spalding of Louisville, Kentucky, for example, chose not to vote. He wanted his parishioners, however, to form their own opinions, and he maintained a private correspondence regarding the war with his colleague, Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, Ohio. Other bishops chose to use the pulpit and their position of religious authority in a more public manner. Several bishops chose to display the American flag from their cathedrals, including Hughes and Purcell, along with Bishops Michael Domenec (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), John Martin Henni (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), and James Wood (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick of St. Louis, Missouri, however, taking a pro-Southern stand, refused to display the American flag from his cathedral. Finally, like his counterpart Archbishop Hughes in New York City, Bishop Patrick Lynch of Charleston, South Carolina, traveled to Europe in 1864 at the request of Confederate officials to cultivate the support of European governments and the papacy. More often than not, the geographic residency of the Catholic hierarchy and their parishioners, like their Protestant counterparts, determined which side they supported during the war.

Catholic loyalty was most clearly addressed when Catholics enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies. In Massachusetts, Irish regiments were formed, including the Ninth and Twenty-Eighth Massachusetts, and the First Missouri Confederate Brigade included a large number of Irish Catholics. Those Irish who enlisted in the Union Army articulated carefully that they fought in the war to uphold the constitution and the Union; they did not fight to end slavery. The ability to fight hard and well gained some Irish regiments a positive reputation, which often translated into eased anti-Catholic prejudice at home. When the objectives of the war shifted with the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, the passing of a conscription law in 1863, and the recruiting of African Americans into the Union Army, Irish Catholics grew disenchanted with the federal government. In July 1863, anger among Irish Catholics erupted in violent riots, specifically in New York City in the wake of the draft law, and prompted fears that violence would take place in other cities with large Irish populations. In New York City, Hughes invited rioters to his home and attempted to calm them down and deter them from further rioting. In Boston the attack of a policeman by two women prompted Catholic priests to patrol the parish neighborhoods to ensure that the laity stayed out of trouble.

The hierarchy was concerned about two particular issues when it came to Catholics who served in the armies: (1) their conduct on the battlefield and how that conduct reflected upon Catholics in general, and (2) their spiritual state while on the battlefield and living among Protestants. To tackle both of these issues, Catholic chaplains provided a much-needed moral and spiritual role. The number of Catholic chaplains was minimal, with only 40 priests serving in a Union Army that had 400 chaplains. The number of Catholic chaplains in the Confederate Army was even smaller. Military chaplaincy was a work in progress throughout the war for both the Union and Confederate armies. Although the Union Army continually clarified the role and status of chaplains over the course of the war, the Confederacy initially did not provide an official order to meet the religious needs of the troops. Irish regiments often had access to their own chaplains, but many Catholic soldiers had limited access to a Catholic priest. Moreover, the sparse distribution of priests in the North and South, in general, placed greater strains on the Church to meet the religious and spiritual needs on both the home front and the battle front. Because a priest’s primary duty lay with his parish, many chaplains served only briefly before being called back by their bishop.

Addressing the spiritual and moral needs of Catholic soldiers proved to be a challenge for chaplains because of the chaos and instability of military life. Accompanying soldiers who were always on the move, chaplains needed to improvise the tools they used to celebrate the Mass, often using whatever was at their disposal. In addition to the Catholic chaplain’s role in the most important ceremony of the Catholic faith in the Mass, they heard confessions—in large numbers on the eve of battles—and administered last rites to soldiers in hospitals or on the battlefield. The presence of a chaplain also provided a moral center within a regiment to temper the rowdiness, drinking, and carousing that took place in the camps.

The chaplaincy service of Father John Bannon demonstrates the centrality and difficulty of being a chaplain during the war. Bannon, an Irish immigrant during the early 1850s and a parish priest in St. Louis, Missouri, served as the chaplain to the St. Louis militia before the war. When the war began, Bannon fully immersed himself in the duties of a chaplain with the 1st Missouri Confederate Brigade from 1861 to 1863. Interpreting the war through a religious lens, Bannon believed that Northern aggression threatened a religious way of life, and he supported Southern self-determination. Bannon continually offered his religious services, hearing confessions on the eve of battles, offering the Mass, and advancing with the army when they went into battle. Moreover, while serving with the brigade, Bannon earned a reputation as the “fighting chaplain” for aiding the artillery during dire situations in battle.

Many chaplains remained behind the lines during battles, opting to stay at a military hospitals. Recognizing that this latter option often contributed to negative images of chaplains, Bannon placed himself directly in the line of fire and danger to offer religious and moral support to his men from beginning to end. Bannon entered into a battle carrying only a crucifix and a Bible, and with only a red cloth cross on his arm to indicate his status as a chaplain. When downtime was available, Bannon continued to carry out his priestly functions, often tending to the religious needs of local civilian communities. This dedication became most apparent during the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, by the Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant during the spring and summer of 1863. Bannon worked with the city’s parish priest to serve the 700 Catholics who lived there. In addition, he worked at the hospital full time and visited the breastworks where the troops were stationed on a daily basis. Bannon’s wartime activities became political when he undertook a diplomatic mission for the Confederacy to the Vatican and traveled to Ireland to temper the exodus of Irish to the North and the Union Army. Although Bannon may have been the exception rather than the rule, his ardent support of the Confederacy and his devotion to his religious responsibilities illustrate the compelling presence of Catholics during the war.

Much like chaplains and the fighting ability of Catholic soldiers, the activities of Catholic Women’s Religious Orders and the contact between these women and soldiers helped to break down anti-Catholic prejudice existing in both the North and the South. Women religious provided a necessary service during the war in their capacity as nurses. Antebellum anti-Catholic literature often focused on women religious, publishing stories of rampant sexuality or targeting them for their vows of celibacy. However, their ability to tackle the demanding tasks of providing medical care and administering hospitals on a daily basis, and the daily contact they had with doctors and soldiers altered opinions about these Catholic women. Nearly 3,200 women worked as nurses during the war, and more than 600 of those women were Catholic sisters from a variety of religious communities in both the North and the South. Upon entering a religious community, Catholic sisters took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, all of which made them desirable for the demanding and chaotic work of taking care of the wounded and dying and for helping to run the hospitals. Requests for their services came from several arenas, including government officials of the Union and the Confederacy, bishops, and doctors, and they often came without warning. These women demonstrated a willingness to go where their services were needed by not only working as nurses in hospitals, but also by tending to the wounded on the battlefield, visiting prison camps, and aiding the wounded on transport ships. Women religious from the Sisters of the Holy Cross of Notre Dame remained in the service of the transport ship, the Red Rover. In dangerous conditions and cramped quarters, these women ministered to the needs of nearly 2,400 patients on the transport ship that traveled back and forth on the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tennessee, and Mound City, Illinois, over the course of the war.

United institutionally, individual Catholic archbishops, bishops, and laypersons presented a diversity of viewpoints on the war and the proper role of Catholics in the war. Amid this diversity of opinion between Catholics of the North and the South, the patriotic and diplomatic work undertaken by the Catholic hierarchy, the taking up of arms by Irish and other Catholics, the spiritual and moral support offered by chaplains, and the tending to the wounded by Catholic sisters all altered the negative perceptions of and prejudice toward Catholics in the United States.

Judaism and the War

The Civil War also influenced the experiences of American Jews. A noted foot specialist and British immigrant, Isachar Zacharie settled in Washington, D.C., in 1862. Some of Washington’s top federal authorities and politicians sought out Zacharie’s medical expertise for treatment, including Abraham Lincoln. In the process of treating Lincoln, Zacharie became a close friend and confidant, and became the trusted recipient of important political and military information from Lincoln and other federal officials in the capital. In January 1863, the doctor traveled to New Orleans on an assignment to assess public opinion toward the commander of the Department of the Gulf, General Nathaniel P. Banks. As in the instances when he lent a learned and willing ear to federal officials during medical treatment, Zacharie did the same with residents in New Orleans as an intermediary between the military government and the civilian population. Shortly after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, Lincoln enlisted Zacharie to explore peace talks with the Confederacy. As illustrated with the political experience of Zacharie, some Jews found themselves interacting with the highest officials of a government at war. At the same time, however, the experience of Jews during the war, both in the North and the South, was shaped by long-held stereotypes against Jews, the challenge of addressing questions of their loyalty, and access to equitable treatment before the law religiously and ethnically.

Approximately 150,000 Jews lived in the United States on the eve of the Civil War, with 25,000 of them residing in the South. The decade leading up to the war witnessed a significant jump in the Jewish population because of immigration, with Jewish communities in major Northern cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, and in Southern cities like Memphis, Nashville, Mobile, New Orleans, Richmond, and Charleston. New York City was home to 15 congregations alone, Louisiana was home to approximately 8,000 Jews, and New Orleans possessed the largest Jewish community in the South at the beginning of the war. The Jews immigrating to the United States in the 1850s were primarily Ashkenazi, from areas of Eastern and Central Europe, and they quickly outnumbered the Sephardic Jews who had immigrated in the early 19th century and who were descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Sephardic Jews assimilated into American society much more readily than their Ashkenazi counterparts, through intermarriage and a tendency to drift away from the faith. Although these different national origins, periods of immigration, and approaches to Judaism had a profound effect on the experience of Jews within their own communities, the public of the North and South viewed Jews as a whole.

When the war started, Jews living in the North and South faced the challenge of breaking down the stereotype that foreigners were incapable of demonstrating patriotism. In particular, the stereotype of the “wandering Jew” suggested that Jews were citizens of no country, were cowards, and were disloyal. Although accused in both the North and the South of avoiding military service and deemed untrustworthy, Jews enlisted in both armies. Moreover, Jewish companies were organized in Chicago, Illinois; Syracuse, New York; and in West Point and Macon, Georgia. As much as the organization of Jewish specific regiments could demonstrate Jewish patriotism, the limited number of these kinds of regiments pointed to a desire on the part of Jews to avoid segregating themselves. Many fought for some of the same reasons as did their Protestant and Catholic counterparts in the Union and Confederate armies—that is, for liberty and freedom, defense of home, and duty and obedience to the established government, which had been a strong influence in Jewish tradition.

As with Catholic soldiers, meeting the needs of Jewish soldiers on the battlefield proved to be a difficult task on the practical level. Often without the guidance of a rabbi or a Jewish religious leader on the battlefield, soldiers were left on their own to follow Jewish religious practices and observances. In the absence of a rabbi, soldiers sought each other out for religious practice, while others attended Christian services because some kind of religious service was deemed to be better than none at all. When soldiers were camped near a city with a synagogue or Jewish community, they attended the local services, but while in the field, soldiers found it difficult to keep track of the dates during which they needed to observe the High Holidays and festivals. Other Jewish soldiers sought furloughs during High Holidays and festivals to attend religious services. In addition, soldiers found it difficult to gain access to the kosher foods, like unleavened bread, necessary for religious observances like Passover.

Meeting the spiritual needs of Jewish soldiers in the Union Army became a heated issue within the Northern Jewish community when the federal government did not recognize Jewish chaplains. As the military began mobilizing at the beginning of the war, the position of the chaplain was created to conduct religious services and meet the spiritual needs of soldiers. The first general order regarding the chaplaincy stated that a chaplain needed to come from a Christian denomination and be an ordained minister. The provisions of the order automatically denied Jewish soldiers equal access to leaders of their faith and the satisfaction of their spiritual needs on two levels. First, the phrasing excluded rabbis from obtaining a chaplaincy position in the army because it referred to Christians only, and second, only a limited number of rabbis were officially ordained in the United States in the mid-19th century. It took the visit of a worker with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to a military camp in Virginia in September 1861 to spark a challenge to and a debate over the government’s policy toward wartime chaplains.

Michael Allen, a member of a Pennsylvania regiment and the most educated Jew in the regiment, was the target of the YMCA worker’s complaint to the army. Allen was not an officially ordained rabbi and, even though a large number of the men were Jews, his regiment was not specifically Jewish. Allen was forced to resign his position as chaplain. Subsequently, the commander of the regiment, Colonel Max Friedman, and his officers chose an officially ordained rabbi to be their chaplain. Arnold Fischel, who had not enlisted as a soldier, was selected from a synagogue in New York City. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, remaining within the law and the dictates of the general order on chaplains, rejected the application. The rejection, however, only served to agitate the Northern Jewish community, including religious leaders and the Jewish press, to pressure the federal government to change its policy on chaplains to afford Jewish soldiers equal access to their religious leaders while they served. The Jewish press circulated a parade of stories and editorials that examined the legal and ethical components of the issue, and many secular newspapers of major cities provided editorial support to the Jewish position. Meanwhile, petitions of appeal were lobbied before Congress and the president by the rejected chaplaincy applicant, Fischel, under the direction of the Board of Delegates of American Israelites. Less than a year after the incident in the camp in Virginia, Congress responded to Lincoln’s changes to the chaplaincy laws. By July 1862, the language of the law was altered to include chaplains of some kind of denomination, not only Christian denominations.

Debate over the issue of wartime chaplains was not the only instance in which Jewish concerns regarding equal treatment before the law came to national attention. Although the issue of chaplaincy stemmed from the spiritual needs of soldiers on the battlefield, the second issue focusing on Jews as a class stemmed from the social and economic positions of Jewish civilians. Many Jews living in the North and South took up occupations in or ownership of small businesses and other economic enterprises like clerks, peddlers, merchants, or shopkeepers. In these positions, Jews were often stereotyped as thieves and people lacking in scruples. With the prolongation of the war and the downturn of the economy, Jews became easily targeted as the source of the sour economy and increasingly became the subject of anti-Semitism in both the Northern and Southern press. In the Northern press, Jews were labeled as subversive elements who supplied the South with the goods needed to fight a war. In the Southern press, where the economic troubles hit hardest, Jews were blamed for inflated prices and the shortage of goods. Once again, however, the issue of equality before the law came to the attention of the federal government with release of General Order Number 11 in December 1862.

By then, speculation and profiteering, particularly in cotton, was looked down upon by military commanders. Union military commanders Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman saw speculators who sold cotton for gold as dangerous to their military aims, especially if that gold could be used to purchase arms for the Confederate Army. In December, Grant issued General Order Number 11, stating that as a class Jews had violated the trade regulations set down by the Treasury Department and, therefore, were expelled from the Department of the Mississippi. They had 24 hours to obey the order.

Many Jews responded with anger and shock over the order, but also with an appeal to change the process of American law. Although Jews believed that individuals should definitely be tried for breaking the law, they did not feel that there was room within American law to assign communal responsibility for violating the law.

Cesar Kaskel, a Jew from Paducah, Kentucky, with friends who were subject to Grant’s order, quickly traveled to Washington, D.C., to petition the administration for a recall of the order. As he was passing through Cincinnati, Ohio, Kaskel gained the assistance of Rabbi Isaac Wise, and the two were able to gather together petitions and protests to present to the president. The cooperation of Northern Jews with Kaskel in support of Southern Jews succeeded in gaining the repeal of the order. With no knowledge of Grant’s action, Lincoln repealed General Order Number 11 in early January 1863.

The origins of the controversies over chaplaincy and the class status of Jews in American society, coupled with the agitation of the Jewish community and sometimes the larger public at a political level for equal treatment before the law, demonstrated the precarious position of Jews during the Civil War as a religious minority and as a community with long-established stereotypes. At the same time, however, the experience of Jews during the war as soldiers, civilians, and religious leaders illustrated their desire to undermine those stereotypes and to be seen not only as Jews but also as Americans.

Mormonism and the War

American Mormons faced stereotypes and prejudices despite their involvement in the war efforts. It was a momentous occasion one fall day in 1861, when the completed transcontinental telegraph lines linked the war-torn East with the developing Western territories. In the throes of war, the completion of the telegraph assumed added significance for a federal government that needed to maintain control over the lines of communication between the East and the West. With the transcontinental telegraph line passing through the territory of Utah and Salt Lake City, the first message sent East was penned by Brigham Young, the religious leader of the Mormon Church and de facto political leader of the territory. Young sent a brief, but politically important, message affirming the status of Utah in relation to the Union. In the years leading up to the war and during the war, Young and other Mormon leaders continually made questionable statements about the fate of the nation, which left federal authorities in Washington wary of Young and the Mormon population. The telegraphed message, however, stated, “Utah has not seceded but is firm for the constitution and laws of our once happy country” (Arrington 1985, 294). Utah citizens, who were overwhelmingly Mormon, and the territorial government, which was increasingly run by non-Mormons hostile to Mormonism, stood by this statement throughout the duration of the war. At the same time, however, Mormons were caught in a contentious relationship with the territorial government and the federal government, exacerbated by questions of loyalty, agitation for statehood, military presence in the territory, and polygamy. Although the issues that contributed to the tenuous relationship between the federal government and the Mormons had no direct bearing on the course of the war, the war provided the catalyst for reevaluating the status of Mormons and the Utah Territory to the nation.

On the fringes of both the American religious scene and the tensions between the North and South, Mormons and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints attempted to exist quietly and independently of the rest of the nation since their overland trek from Illinois to Utah in the late 1840s. From the beginning of Mormonism under the guidance of Joseph Smith in the 1820s, Mormons faced considerable resistance and criticism from the American public. Anti-Mormonism exhibited itself in public policy, in literature attempting to expose the falsehood of the religion, and in violence. This increasing hostility prompted Mormons to migrate to the West, where they continued to experience opposition from the American public and the federal government. By 1860, more than 42,000 people lived in the Utah Territory. The increased presence of the United States in territories of the West, however, drew Mormons and Utah into the orbit of national political affairs. In addition, the country’s negative perception of Mormons, particularly their practice of polygamy, caused further troubles for the Church during the war.

Keeping a close eye on the political developments taking place in the east, Young spoke for the Mormon community throughout the war and offered an opinion that simultaneously affirmed and undermined Mormon loyalty. In communicating a Mormon religious interpretation of the war, Young’s early opinion did not lend itself to easing the mind of the federal government regarding Mormons’ loyalty to the nation. The religious interpretation of the war—an interpretation that lost staying power as the war drew to a close—offered by Young fit within the larger Mormon belief in millennialism, which suggested that the return of Jesus to earth was imminent. Part of Jesus’ return to earth included the destruction of the nation. The war itself, as interpreted by Young and other Mormon leaders, would serve as the means by which the political organization of the nation would be destroyed, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints would be the outlet for the rule of God on earth. In addition, Young and other Mormon leaders believed that the war was an act of revenge on the federal government and the American public for their rejection and hostility toward Mormons.

Prophetic statements made by Mormon founder Smith also pointed to the signs of things to come. Smith prophesied that war would come to the nation starting with a rebellion in South Carolina, and in 1843 he stated that “[t]he commencement of the difficulties which will cause much bloodshed previous to the coming of the Son of Man will be in South Carolina. It may probably arise through the slave question” (Holzapfel 1994, 94). The firing on Fort Sumter off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1861 seemed to provide a solid confirmation of Smith’s prophecy. Interpretations and opinions of the war offered by Young and Mormon leaders, and consistent criticism from Utah newspapers of the government over non-Mormon territorial administration, however, did not sit well with the federal government or the territorial officials in Utah. Although Young affirmed the territory’s allegiance to the Union in the telegraphed message and Mormon support of the constitution as divinely inspired but imperfect, statements relating to the destruction of the nation threw into question the loyalty of Mormons and their wartime political positions. The greatest anti-Mormon agitation and question of loyalty within the confines of the Utah Territory was espoused by Colonel Patrick E. O’Connor, commander of the Third California Volunteers, who was sent to the Utah Territory to protect the overland mail routes and the telegraph lines.

O’Connor’s anti-Mormonism, coupled with Mormon frustration with the territorial and military administration of the Utah Territory, contributed to a tense relationship between Mormons and O’Connor’s troops, a tension that reached the brink of violent confrontation. When the war started, the federal government pulled out the military presence at Camp Floyd near Salt Lake City in July 1861, much to the happiness of Young and the Mormon leaders. Federal authorities did not ask for troops from Utah and Utah did not volunteer regiments, although some individual Mormons chose to go East and fight. In the fall of 1862, however, after a militia was organized by Young at the request of Lincoln to temporarily protect the stage routes and telegraph lines, federal troops from California under the command of O’Connor were sent to Utah. O’Connor was not shy about expressing his opinions about the Mormons to his superiors in San Francisco, California. In an early report to his superiors, O’Connor argued that the Mormons could not be trusted and were traitors, and that they rejoiced in the knowledge that the war could destroy the government. He not only targeted the Mormons as a whole for their disloyalty, but he also railed against Young, whom he believed ruled as a despot. With the memory of the last time the federal government sent troops to Utah, which resulted in the Utah War in the late 1850s, Young and Mormon leaders were wary when O’Connor opted to locate his 750 soldiers at Camp Douglas on a bluff overlooking Salt Lake City, rather than at Camp Floyd. O’Connor’s continued belief that Mormons were disloyal, which seemed to be affirmed when Young expressed animosity toward a loyalty oath demanded of those merchants selling goods to the military, and his suspicions that Mormons aided Indians in their raids, served only to create greater animosity between the two.

Watching with a concerned and worried eye back in Washington, the federal government witnessed a near eruption of violence between O’Connor’s troops and the Mormons in the summer of 1863. O’Connor’s policy toward the Mormons became enmeshed with the Mormon dislike of the political administration of the territory. Mormons faced the latest hostile territorial governor, Stephen S. Harding, who derided the local government, targeted Mormons for their disloyalty to the Union, and attempted to undermine the powers of the local courts. Believing that Mormons were planning an armed resistance against the military, O’Connor placed Captain Charles Hempstead in Salt Lake City as provost marshal, effectively placing military authority above that of territorial authority. O’Connor’s activist policy toward the Mormons during this crisis was tempered by his superior in San Francisco, Major General Irvin McDowell, who reminded O’Connor that his orders were merely to protect the mail and telegraph routes. McDowell communicated to O’Connor that his actions in attempting to resolve the larger territorial disputes between the Mormons and the territorial officials would lead to war, weaken the strength of the troops, and leave Utah vulnerable to attacks by secessionists. Agitating Mormons to the point of violence ultimately would undermine the war effort. The Mormon delegate in Washington submitted petitions to the federal government seeking replacements for Harding and two territorial judges, who they claimed undermined the principles of republicanism and liberty, while O’Connor and his officers submitted counterpetitions seeking to retain the governor and the judges. Although orders came down from the secretary of war to O’Connor’s superiors to provide him with reinforcements in Utah, the potentially violent situation was resolved when Lincoln removed Harding and two territorial judges from their positions and appointed a governor more suitable to the position.

Over the course of the war, Young and the Mormon community maintained an active presence in Washington, D.C., campaigning for statehood, while Congress worked to undermine the Mormon religious practice of polygamy, indicating a clash between religion and politics. In the wake of continued tensions with the territorial governments, Young and Mormon leaders started the process of seeking statehood for Utah. With a constitutional convention, the adoption of the State of Deseret, and the appointment of Young as governor of that state in early 1862, the state constitution was presented before the Congressional Committee on Territories in the summer. The petition for statehood sat unaddressed in the committee until December, when the committee ruled against it. With a refusal to approve the petition of statehood, however, the State of Deseret continued to exist during the course of the war functioning as a “ghost” government run by Mormons. At the same time that the Committee of Territories sat on the petition for Utah statehood, an antipolygamy bill presented by Vermont congressman Justin Morrill made its way through Congress and to the desk of the president. Unlike the petition for statehood, the bill was pushed through Congress quickly and Lincoln signed the legislation in July 1862. The bill stated that the practice of polygamy was a federal crime and could result in a fine or jail time. In addition, the congressional legislation sought to undermine the legislation of the territory that favored Mormons. The bill annulled territorial legislation from 1851 that gave the Church rights over the regulation of marriage, and prohibited religious or charitable organizations from holding property valued at more than $50,000 in any given territory. To Mormons the legislation indicated the continued prominence of anti-Mormonism not only in American society but also within the federal government and in its policies. An unstable territorial government and the presence of the “ghost” government in the form of the State of Deseret, however, did not provide an environment conducive for enforcing the legislation. Both Mormons and law-enforcement officials largely ignored the act.

Geographically distant from the war back East, the hostility within the Utah Territory between territorial officials, military commanders, and the Mormons, and fragile relations between Mormons and the federal government over statehood and polygamy prompted tenuous relations and potentially violent situations. Amid these tensions and disagreements, however, Mormons remained loyal to the Union.


Between 1861 and 1865, while the governments and people of the North and the South were entangled in a brutal war that threw into question the state of the nation and the issue of slavery, the prominence of religion and religious impulses influenced the populations of the North and South, and their relationship to and interpretation of the war. For American Catholics, Jews, and Mormons, the war provided the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty and relationship to the nation. For the larger Protestant society and federal government, the war provided a ripe context to question the loyalty of these religious communities and manifest prejudices that contributed to tenuous relationships between church and state. The wartime experience of religious communities as institutions and as religious leaders and laity lent itself to repositioning these religious minorities in a more positive relationship with the American religious scene and society. Opposition and prejudice continued to be a prominent part of the experience of being a Catholic, Jew, or Mormon in the United States through the remainder of the 19th century and in some cases well into the 20th century. At the same time, however, the relationship between American Catholics, Jews, and Mormons and the nation became less tenuous because of their activities and positions during the war. By the turn of the 20th century, American Catholicism was the largest and fastest-growing religious denomination in the country. Jewish immigration continued into the postwar period, while Jewish communities faced a growing debate over orthodox versus reform religious practice. The end of the war, the growing number of migrants to the West, and increased mining in the region clearly indicated that the attempts by Mormons to live an independent and isolated existence could not be achieved, although Utah statehood finally came 40 years later in 1896. The institutional and individual experiences of Catholics, Jews, and Mormons during the war demonstrate that the relationship between loyalty to the nation and religious and political rights served as an underlying factor in their wartime activity and in the public perception of these religious minority communities.