Great Catholic Patriots In U.S. History
Although Catholics were a tiny minority at the time of the War for Independence and have suffered bigotry since colonial days, Catholics also have made great contributions to the cause of freedom throughout American history. Here are just a few examples.
Charles, Daniel, and John Carroll were part of a wealthy colonial family in Maryland. Charles Carroll was an early advocate of American separation from Great Britain and was the only Catholic among the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence. His cousin Daniel was one of only five men to have signed both the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution, while cousin John became the first Catholic bishop in the United States.
Commodore John Barry, an Irishborn Catholic from Philadelphia, has been called the “Father of the American Navy.” He served heroically throughout the Revolutionary War at the helm of Continental Navy warships. When President George Washington established a permanent U.S. Navy in 1794 he appointed Barry its senior captain and commodore.
Capt. André Cailloux was the first black war hero of the Civil War. In 1863, he was killed while leading Company E of the 1st Regiment Louisiana Native Guards in an assault on a Confederate fortress in Port Hudson, LA. His regiment, which was overwhelmingly Catholic, was the first black regiment to be mustered into the U.S. Army and the first to engage in a major battle.
Clara Barton, dubbed the “Angel of the Battlefield,” provided medical supplies and nursing care for wounded soldiers on the frontlines of the Civil War. “I was strong and thought I might go to the rescue of the men who fell. . . . What could I do but go with them, or work for them and my country?” she wrote in her memoirs. “The patriot blood of my father was warm in my veins.” She later founded the American Red Cross.
Fr. Michael McGivney responded to the financial struggles of immigrant workers and the widespread bigotry against Catholics in the latter 1800s by founding the Knights of Columbus as a mutual aid society. Emphasizing both patriotism and Catholicism, the order showed how one could be both a faithful Catholic and a proud American.
Al Smith, the first Catholic nominated for U.S. president by a major party, lost in a landslide in 1928 to Herbert Hoover due in part to the nation’s prosperity and in part to lingering anti-Catholic prejudice. But he helped pave the way for the election of our first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, 32 years later.
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.