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Special Collections — Civil War Resources

This guide highlights the Civil War collections of the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

Resource Guide Note

Although Catholic University was not officially opened until 1889, well after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the land upon which it would eventually be housed, as well as the surrounding Brookland area, were very much shaped by its climate. Located on the north side of CatholicU, now retaken by trees, are the remains of what was once Civil War era Fort Slemmer. Today, all that remains of Fort Slemmer are some barely discernible traces of earthwork in the now regrown underbrush, and a few stray bullets discovered at the site, but Fort Slemmer was one of sixty-eight fortifications created to defend the capital from any Confederate attacks that might come in from Virginia or Maryland. It was built on the highest hill of farm owner E.J. Middleton’s land, seized by the government for that purpose. Once Union soldiers stripped the trees from the hill side, they had a clear view of the Potomac, and could send a runner to deliver a message at the first sign of the enemies’ approach. However, only one of these sixty eight forts ever saw battle and that was Fort Stevens, located two miles north of Fort Slemmer. 

Although Fort Slemmer never had to fend off Confederate troops, it did see plenty of fighting in the way of (often drunken) brawls between soldiers, as well as feuds with local landowners, who objected to having their land seized and crops and livestock pillaged by rowdy soldiers. One such landowner was Colonel Jehiel Brooks, whose papers are part of the Brooks- Queens collection. 

The Civil war gave Catholics (a relative minority in the states, making up only about 10% of the population at the time) a chance to prove their loyalty to the union. About 200,000 Catholic men enlisted as Union soldiers, as well as 53 priests and over six hundred nuns who enlisted as nurses where battlefield comradery helped to soften religious prejudices. Many Catholic men, such as New England publisher Orestes Brownson, who supported Union war efforts in his influential Brownson’s Quarterly Review, were strongly in support of the Union. The Irish Brigade, a name denoting the thousands of Irishmen who joined the Union army at the start of the Civil War, was a point of pride to many civilian Catholics. 

However as the war continued and Catholic casualties mounted, sympathy for the Union began to wane, especially as many Catholics worried about anti-Catholic sentiments amongst abolitionists. In 1863, Irish-Catholics in New York City began to riot against the draft, which many felt unfairly targeted Irish-Catholics. This draft, as well as distrust of abolitionist movements, led to many Catholics supporting McClellan over Lincoln in the 1984 election. 

Several Catholic persons and/or families of note present during the Civil war have papers included in the Catholic University Archives. Thomas Sim Lee who was one of the founding trustees of Catholic University. His papers include family correspondence discussing the effects of the Civil War on the Maryland and D.C. area. The Thomas Clarke Luby papers hold the papers of the young Irish Revolutionary who, along with other Irishmen, created the Fenian Brotherhood, which was very active during the Civil War. Luby himself fought as a union soldier. The Ryan Family Papers contains family correspondence during the Civil War, and provides a unique insight into how upper-middle class Irish-Americans viewed the war.