The Two Irish Immigrant Churchmen Who Fought the American Civil War

Two Dueling Civil War Bishops: Patrick Neeson Lynch, Bishop of Charleston (left) and "Dagger John" Hughes, Archbishop of New York (right)

This month—April—will mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the conflict that has come to be known as the American Civil War. Also called “The War Between the States,” it was also referred to as the “War between Brothers.”  While the war was fought on many fronts, militarily as well as diplomatically, it was also fought on the moral plane, and particularly between clergymen and those interested in the public affairs and social issues of the time. And this was especially true when it came to American Catholicism of those years. While there was unity in belief in the tenets of Catholicism, there was no such unity when it came to politics and war.

The Civil War’s proponents and opponents were made manifest in the persons of two particular Catholic prelates who presided over dioceses which were located on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line: Archbishop John (“Dagger John”) Hughes of New York City and Bishop Patrick Neeson Lynch of Charleston, South Carolina.  The ironic aspect of this was that the two clerical champions of the Union and Confederacy respectively were themselves Irish immigrants—they were two emigrants from a land that was intimate with the scourge of poverty, hunger, and political dispossession. And yet, these two men—when they came of age—were embroiled in a battle far from their native land which had repercussions not only for the very meaning of democracy itself, but for the perception of their religious faith and the authenticity of their patriotism. No one in either of their families would—or could—have imagined what was in store for these two children when they were born into an Ireland that was on the cusp of the Great Famine, an event which would affect scores of peoples and nations, an event that would loom large for the future—not only for Ireland, but particularly for the United States.


Patrick Lynch was a County Fermanagh man; he was born on March 10, 1817 in the townland of Kibberidogue, which was part of the parish of Clones, in County Monaghan. John Hughes was from Tyrone; he born on June 24, 1797 in Annaloghan, in the southern part of that county. The future clerics were two years apart when they came to America; Hughes came to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania with his family in 1817 while Lynch came to Cheraw, South Carolina with his parents in 1819. They came to an America that was under the administration of President James Monroe whose time in in office was known as “The Era of Good Feelings” when the partisan ardors of early Republic had cooled somewhat (and Monroe would be the last President—like George Washington—who would be elected without opposition). For these two future churchmen, the America they would grow up in would soon see a factionalism that would dwarf anything that the Founding Fathers could have imagined or dreamed of: the heated debates over slavery expansion, taxation, and the simmering disputes over Federal/State authority.

In time, both Irishmen discovered a vocation to the priesthood and entered religious life, intending to live that life in relative peace and tranquility, tending to their parishes and their congregations. Patrick Lynch would be ordained in 1840 and eventually consecrated a bishop in 1858 while John Hughes would be ordained in 1826, serving in Philadelphia and eventually rising to become Archbishop of New York in 1850. Both men went about their work as shepherds until—by the end of the 1850’s—the stage would be set for a disastrous Civil War which would embroil these two churchmen—as many others—into a conflict that would become precedent-setting for the world at that time.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States in 1860 set into motion the movement for the southern states to secede from the Union and not before long into his Administration, he would become the President of a disunited country. It would be Abraham Lincoln’s lot to try to end a fratricidal four-year war and somehow get a separated brethren to heed “the better angels of their nature” and become one nation once again. It would only be through the tragic assassination of the “rail splitter from Illinois” that the country—what was left of it—had to comprehend what all this violence had wrought. But in the meantime, while families divided and soldiers fought, men of God also took sides, claiming—and invoking—for their cause the blessings of the “Prince of Peace”—a stance that President Lincoln himself would deride in his second Inaugural Address as a folly—if not an abomination—to claim and secure God’s blessing for one’s side of the battle. With people of every walk of life and every political persuasion choosing to back either the North or the South, it wasn’t long before these two immigrant Irish churchmen took their places on the political divide, too.

John Hughes was a combative man—he was in a very real sense, the “fighting Irishman” long before a university in Indiana would acquire that moniker for its sports teams. In John Hughes’ time, that appellation meant something; it had to be, for he was the living embodiment of it—he knew personally the cost of discrimination, not only in America, but in his native Ireland. Before the Civil War broke out, the archbishop was fighting a war of a different kind: he was a general on the front lines in the war against anti-Catholicism. In a sense, he was a one-man army in his determination to combat it; he was in the thick of the fight for religious, political and social acceptance among those “native Americans” who disparaged those who were foreign born (of which he was one) and who had a faith that was not their own, thus making them (and by extension, himself)—in nativist eyes, less than American and even, less than human. He had to fight all kinds of discrimination and threats of violence as well as actual violence in his diocese. He refused to back down; indeed, he was so tough and determined that he became known as “Dagger John,” for his thrusts were as good as he got. In a sense, he may have been an example of what the famed English writer and Catholic apologist  G. K. Chesterton’s description of the Irish psychology was when he referred to the fact that when it came to the Irish, “all their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.” When President Lincoln—and the Union Blue—beckoned, Archbishop Hughes was ready.

On the other side, Bishop Patrick Neeson Lynch saw things differently. When he and his parents emigrated to Cheraw, they blended into South Carolina life along with everybody else—they, too, owned slaves.  It was the society in which he grew up; for him as for others, it was the Southern way of life.  And when the Civil War broke out, Bishop Lynch pledged his allegiance to the Confederacy and “The Stars and Bars.” (Even his diocesan newspaper derided the election of a “Black Republican President.”) And, in time, he became an advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who would send him as a delegate to the Holy See in February 1864 in the hopes of persuading Pope Pius IX into backing the Confederate States of America. (It was a mission that would ultimately fail—try as he might, Bishop Lynch could not get the pontiff to recognize the new nation; Pius would only receive him—“politely”—as a fellow bishop, and as nothing else.) Likewise, Archbishop Hughes would be an advisor to President Lincoln and would stoutly defend the Union and what it represented and travel abroad seeking support for that Union. And while they publicly chose sides in the conflict, both prelates also fought the war in written correspondence with each other; naturally each man defended the side they were on, and obviously, neither man convinced the other of the righteousness of their cause.

Eventually—and dramatically—the Civil War officially came to an end when Confederate General Robert E. Lee (who, in another historical irony, was married to a descendant of George Washington’s wife Martha and her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis) surrendered his sword to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House on April 9th, 1865—just three days short of four years after the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter. The two military officers who had attended West Point came together on that day to officially end the bloodiest conflict that the American continent had ever saw up to that point. And a painful and difficult period of Reconstruction was to follow and eventually, a resurgent nation would arise, with new challenges and possibilities.

And what of the two clergymen-protagonists? Archbishop Hughes, the man who fought for his adopted country and against anti-Catholicism, would not get to see the end of the war—he would die in office at the age of 66 on January 3, 1864. (His great testament—St. Patrick’s Cathedral—whose cornerstone he had laid in 1858, would not be completed until after his death.) As for Bishop Lynch, he would live to see the end of the war—but he would be on the losing side. In the end, he would be pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and he would spend the rest of his days trying to rebuild a shattered diocese, whittling down an enormous $400,000 debt (to just about $17,000) until he himself would die at the age of 64 on February 26, 1882 in Charleston. And before his death, his last notable public act would be as a participant in a church-wide meeting in Rome in 1869-1870, a meeting that would be known to history as the First Vatican Council, which among other things, promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility.

The story of these two clergymen—Irish Catholic immigrants both—is illustrative of how politics, opinions and worldviews can differ—sometimes, even radically—among people of faith (often mirroring their secular counterparts). We may be surprised—even shocked—at times when we hear or read about churchmen quarreling about some matter or other involving matters of import. It is nothing new. We have seen it recently in the beginning of the Synod on the Family and we’ve seen it in these two Civil War bishops. But when you really think about it, disagreements have been present in our church from the very beginning, especially in the persons of Peter and Paul. They ended up saints—and they share a feast day together. On this 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, we would do well to remember that while there may be animosities and disagreements, we ought to do what we can to avoid final estrangements and do everything we can—as President Lincoln aspired to do—to foster conciliation and concord. Not only is that the American thing to do, it is also the catholic thing to do, too.  

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Martin Eble
3 years 9 months ago
Another Irishman prominent during the Civil War, also a Catholic priest: He is recognized with a stained glass window in the Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans, Louisiana, and a statue to him dedicated in July, 1913, with the inscription "Poet, Patriot, and Priest."


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