Max Longley is an independent historian based in Durham, North Carolina. This interview is based on his new book book For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2o15).
JF: What led you to write For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War?
ML: A Catholic convert myself, I realized that I could combine a study of several converts’ experiences with my longstanding interest in the Civil War era.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War?
ML: Four men joined the Catholic Church in the 1840s and were in the thick of the Church’s and the country’s disputes over slavery, immigration, nativism, religious freedom, secession and war. I show the interconnection among all these issues, while telling a compelling human story at the same time.
JF: Why do we need to read For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War?
ML: It’s surprisingly relevant – After the book came out, there was the controversy about the Jesuit order in Maryland selling slaves in 1838 and giving the proceeds to Georgetown University. There’s a big debate over that history, and it makes my book’s extensive discussion of the relationship between slavery in the American Catholic Church in the Civil War era all the more relevant.
It appeals both to readers’ continued interest in the American Civil War and their interest in religion, and the reader will find the careers of the protagonists very interesting. There is a compelling human story about each of the four converts in the title. William Rosecrans was a West Point trained engineer who became Catholic after a search for the true church, and then sought to share his spiritual discovery with the people around him. He was a Civil War Union general and his military career is controversial to this day. One of the people with whom he William Rosecrans shared his faith was his younger brother Sylvester. Sylvester joined the Church, received training for the priesthood in Rome during a revolution against the Pope, and became a great scholar-priest in Cincinnati. He was a bishop during the Civil War, assisting Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati and becoming a fervent foe of slavery as the war went on. James Augustine Healy was the first African-American priest who served in the United States. Born to a planter father and a slave mother, Father Healy went to Boston and became a key aide to Bishop John Fitzpatrick. Fr. Healy’s duties included defending the Irish-Americans of Boston from the powerful Know-Nothing party, defending the rights of people who often hated his race. Orestes Brownson was a Yankee convert who belonged to many religious and political movements – universalism, Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, labor radicalism – before joining the Catholic Church, where he moved between the Church’s liberal and conservative wings while defending the Union and, during the war, becoming a Catholic abolitionist.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
ML: As a freelance writer, I found particular fulfillment writing freelance articles and books about historical subjects. I believe it was Toni Morrison who said you should write the books you want to read. And the books I want to read are generally about American history.
JF: What is your next project.
ML: I have two projects right now. I think it’s too early to discuss my first project, but my second project is a biography of Joseph Williams Thorne, a radical Quaker whose career spanned half of the nineteenth century. A schoolmaster and farmer, Thorne was a conductor on the Underground Railroad in pre-Civil War Pennsylvania and a “carpetbagger” in North Carolina after the war. I am in search of a trade publisher for this project.
JF: Thanks Max!