REVIEW by The Journal of Southern History (February 2018)
Pure Heart: The Faith of a Father and Son in the War for a More Perfect Union. By William F. Quigley Jr. Civil War in the North. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2016. Pp. xxx, 381. $39.95, ISBN 978-1-60635-286-1.)
American historian David Brion Davis once remarked that biography is a “powerful” means of historical synthesis (“Some Recent Directions in American Cultural History,” American Historical Review, 73 [February 1968], 705). Biography shows how complex and often interrelated events center themselves within individual lives. William F. Quigley Jr.’s Pure Heart: The Faith of a Father and Son in the War for a More Perfect Union is a welcome reminder of how scholarly biographies as a genre of historical writing do just that. Pure Heart stems from the master’s thesis that Quigley wrote at Harvard University Extension School in 2009, which won a Dean’s Prize for Most Outstanding A.L.M. Thesis in the Social Sciences. The author moves his narrative of the Civil War along two intertwined tracks: those experienced by a father at home and his son on the battlefield. The father, the Reverend Benjamin Dorr, was an ordained minister of the Protestant Episcopal Church and rector at Christ Church, “‘The Nation’s Church,’” in Philadelphia (p. xxi). His son was the twenty-four-year-old William White Dorr, who enlisted as a lieutenant in the 121st Pennsylvania Volunteers, which was organized in Philadelphia during the summer of 1862. The author frames the relationship between Rev. Dorr and Lieutenant (later Captain) Dorr with analysis based on a recently discovered cache of William Dorr’s wartime letters.
Quigley’s analysis of the Dorr correspondence shows the war in its political, constitutional, economic, and religious lineaments. His work reminds us that the American Civil War was a war within a war—a battle for hearts and minds among individuals, families, and communities as well as a contest between opposing armies. The parishioners at Christ Church in Philadelphia as well as the officers and soldiers of the 121st Pennsylvania Volunteers were two such communities. The war began over secular issues, but its religious dimensions help explain both its intensity and its duration. Quigley tells the previously unknown story of a father and son’s adherence to their principles, their deeply held convictions about slavery, and their devotion to the Union during a period of fierce partisanship and racism in Philadelphia and the nation at large. Above all, Pure Heart is a story rightfully restored to history about character, integrity, faith, forgiveness, atonement, and the passions of the human heart in a world turned upside down.
The parishioners of Christ Church in Philadelphia were deeply divided over the issues that led to disunion and the American Civil War. Their concerns and anxieties mirrored those of many in the North whose morale flagged in the face of setbacks on the battlefield during the first two years of the struggle, rancor over whether the war was constitutional, and the equally divisive question of whether the institution of slavery should be abolished. Intense partisanship over these issues tested friendships and threatened to rupture the unity of Rev. Dorr’s parish as well as other Episcopal churches throughout the nation. The virtue of moderation has seldom faced greater and more personal challenges. Quigley aptly places this story of father and son within a larger national context. The author’s discussion of Copperheads is one example: “Completely evaded in eulogies to those deceased Copperheads was the issue that continued to divide post–Civil War America and to foil sectional and political reconciliation: race. There are, instead, the sprouts of a deviant history that would grow to obscure the true cause of the war and its tragic betrayal” (p. 295). This is but one good example, which must stand for many, of how Quigley connects his subject to a much larger historiographical issue that is still with us.
TERRY A. BARNHART
Eastern Illinois University
The Journal of Southern History, Volume LXXXIV, No. 1, February 2018