For the Roman Catholic community around the world, March 2013 has been a very historic month, with the selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to be the next Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis.
One of least known, and but most hotly debated, tales of the American Civil War involves one of his predecessors, Pope Pius IX. In 1862 Pius had sent letters to the Archbishops of New Orleans and New York asking them to find a way to mediate between the North and the South and bring a peaceful end to the war. Inspired by this, Confederate President Jefferson Davis personally wrote the Pope a letter which was delivered by an envoy in November 1863. A month later the Pope sent Davis a reply in which he addressed him as Illustrious and Honorable Jefferson Davis President of the Confederate States of America.
Because Pius called Davis “President of the Confederate States of America” many, then and now, have argued that the Pope recognized the Confederacy a separate nation. According to legend, Robert E. Lee told people that the Pope was the only European leader to recognize Southern independence.
However, this was not the case. Judith Benjamin, the Confederacy’s Secretary of State, went on record as saying that the Davis administration merely saw it as the Pope being polite. In fact, Davis sent two more envoys to Rome in failed attempts to obtain Papal recognition for the South. More importantly, there was no exchange of ambassadors between the two nations as one would have had with formal diplomatic ties.
On the other hand, there is clear evidence the Pope Pius IX, was sympathetic towards the South. Given the fact that the Pope and the Catholic church opposed slavery and the Papal States were facing a civil war of their own, it would have seem that Pius should have been more sympathetic to the North, but Pius never even corresponded with U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. The exact reason for the Pope’s Confederate sympathies remains a mystery, though there are numerous web sites that offer a variety of theories why from the logical to the crack-pot conspiracy.
Personally, I agree that the salutation by Pius to Davis was nothing more than the Pope being polite. I also suspect he wrote his letter to Davis because Davis had written his letter to Pius as a personal, not official, letter and took the time to write it in his own hand.
As to his Confederate leanings, I suspect that it may have stem from a number of factors such as the popularity of the anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the North, and that the North was seen as home for political radicals and revolutionaries (Pius was a political conservative). Furthermore, despite U.S. Secretary of State’s William Seward promise to the Vatican that the U.S. would be “neutral” in the Italian civil war; the U.S. recognized the opposition government of Victor Emmanuel, which would have undoubtedly rubbed the Pope wrong.
There are over fifty miles of shelving in the Vatican Secret Archives, much of which stills needs to be categorized and cataloged. Though all the known papers of Pope Pius IX were released to the public in the 1960s, who knows, perhaps waiting to be rediscovered by some archivist is a document that could share new light on this fascinating tale.