So It Was a Holy Cause After All

Pope Benedict and the Confederate FlagUpdate: I don’t mind having to admit a mistake every once in a while, but this time I really dropped the ball.  I thought I had confirmed this story with a sufficient number of SCV websites, but Karen Cox tells me that the entire story is apocryphal.  Ruth Ann Coski, who used to work at the Museum of the Confederacy, carried out the necessary research and discovered that the crown was made by Varina Davis.  It looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause is indeed just a myth, but I would still like to know why Pope Benedict is standing in front of a Confederate flag.

I had no idea that Pope Pius IX sent Jefferson Davis a hand-written note along with a crown of thorns during his brief imprisonment following the war.  The note included the following: “Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest” and supposedly the crown was handwoven by the thorn. Robert E. Lee, pointing to his own portrait of Pius IX, is supposed to have told a visitor that he was “the only sovereign…in Europe who recognized our poor Confederacy.” The crown is located in a museum in New Orleans.  Apparently, Pope Benedict is continuing the Catholic Church’s tradition of sanctifying the Confederate cause.  So, it looks like the Myth of the Lost Cause wasn’t a myth after all.  I had no idea.

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40 comments… add one
  • Richard Jan 31, 2012 @ 10:54

    If you look closely the flag is really a state flag, (sc I believe) which incorporated the stars and bars battle flag into the flag, before changing to the confederate national symbol.

  • Mike Sep 22, 2009 @ 16:26

    Dear Kevin
    D+1 after my email to MOC and no reply. Likewise, Ms. Cox declined my polite request to provide a way to contact Ruth Coski. It is now 12 days since you wrote, “Ruth Ann is a dynamite researcher so I will look into it. ” Have you had a chance to look into it and what have you found? I plan to check your website occasionally to see when you’ve reported the results of your inquiry. If MOC replies to me, I shall share it with you. My book discusses the role of the Jesuits at Spring Hill College in aiding The Cause. When I initially researched my book, SHC was not embarrassed by its Confederate past, that doesn’t appear to be the case on the current website. Stephen Mallory would be disappointed.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2009 @ 16:31


      I have been in touch with the MOC and I have reason to believe that additional information will be made public at some point soon. Please keep in mind that solid research takes time and John and Ruth Ann are two of the best. Let’s just say that for now I believe that they are probably right based on what I’ve heard. Unfortunately, I can’t say much more than that. By the way, I taught philosophy at Spring Hill College from 1998 to 2000.

  • jh Sep 21, 2009 @ 7:16

    As I mentioned on my blog I am very interested to see if a article has been written on the Papal crown of thorns”. I have always taken it as gospel because it is mentioned in Davis’s private letters.

    That brings a whole new interesting question. If research has shown this then it appears Mrs Davis made up the whole thing to buoy her husbands spirits which would indeed be interesting if true

    The Catholic aspect of the War on the North and South has always been of great interest to me. I would love to see more articles on the religious aspects of the war.

  • Sherree Sep 21, 2009 @ 6:08


    Thank you for the skill you exhibit as a moderator. Sometimes dialogue is not possible, and the best we can hope for is peaceful co-existence. Thank you for maintaining this blog. Sherree

  • Karen Cox Sep 21, 2009 @ 3:08

    I am confident in the research done by Ruth Coski at the Museum of the Confederacy and don’t believe I need to substantiate my conversation with her about the crown. I simply found the entire piece macabre and like Kevin found it in keeping with the Lost Cause narrative. Mine was merely a blog post and not a publication, but rest assured if it were a publication I could and would substantiate my findings. Again, my comment was based on another researcher’s findings and a researcher I respect. Respectfully, Associate Professor Karen L. Cox

    • Kevin Levin Sep 21, 2009 @ 3:14

      Thanks Karen. Obviously, we both know John and Ruth Ann Coski and can testify to their thoroughness as historians and archivists. I think the comment reflects more of an emotional defensiveness rather than confidence in any one interpretation.

  • Mike Sep 20, 2009 @ 20:12

    I’ve decided to delete this comment not simply because of the content, but because additional emails have been sent to other readers. This kind of harassment will not be tolerated. Thanks for your understanding.

    Kevin Levin

    • Kevin Levin Sep 21, 2009 @ 1:07


      I appreciate you taking the time to comment; however, you will notice that your comment has been edited. Please keep in mind that while you are welcome to respond to other readers you are not permitted to insult them. I am in the process of trying to confirm the story of the crown of thorns. Ruth A. Coski is a first-rate researcher so it is at least worth considering the possibility that the story is not true. In fact, based on what we know of the Lost Cause it makes sense. Apparently, you have written a book so it is not surprising that you would take on a defensive tone. I find your statement that anti-Catholicism in the South is a post-war phenomena. The literature on the subject suggests that you are way off. Your last paragraph on slavery and the cause of secession leaves something to be desired. That you so casually recommend that we throw out books by James McPherson suggests that you should not be taken seriously as a historian.

  • Cash Sep 12, 2009 @ 13:53

    Has the research showing that the claim the Pope wove a crown of thorns for Davis is a myth been published?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 12, 2009 @ 14:07


      Not that I know of, but I may email John Coski this week to see if he knows of anything.

  • Sherree Tannen Sep 12, 2009 @ 3:00


    For your readers who are interested, the Canadian article concerning boarding schools and the Catholic church is entitled “Canadians Welcome Pope’s Indigenous School Apology”; April, 29, 2009. Thanks, Sherree

  • Sherree Tannen Sep 12, 2009 @ 2:33


    Not only was the Catholic Church involved in the boarding schools; other denominations were involved as well, along with the US and Canadian governments. The following are links that help explain:

    Also, you are right about Catholics facing discrimination in the south. The rest of the country wasn’t much better, either. JFK’s Catholicism was a big issue in his Presidential campaign.

    On the other hand, there were (and are) prominent church leaders of Christian denominations who have defended human rights, and who have often paid the ultimate price of losing their lives because of it; Oscar Romero (Catholic and assassinated); Desmond Tutu (Anglican and still alive); Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran and executed); and of course, Dr. King (Baptist and assassinated), to name a few.


    No, the flag isn’t the Confederate flag; it is the Confederate flag incorporated within a state flag, which puts the President of the United States, the Pope, and the American public in the position of tacitly accepting the symbol by its appearance in a forum that includes our head of state. I doubt that the Pope would endorse a Confederate flag, and I am not sure that President Bush would. I don’t know how President Bush viewed the flag. At the same time, based on some of his actions, if Pope Benedict were confronted with the symbolism involved in a representation of the Confederate flag photographed behind him, and he denounced that representation and symbolism; it is questionable as to whether or not he would see parallels to his own shifting views on the relationship of the Catholic Church to the Jewish community. A non negotiable baseline of morality has to be established in both instances. When the Pope, the head of the church, begins to equivocate about a holocaust denier, where do we go? (See the Time article linked to above) Many of the contentious subjects on this blog invite comparison. Slavery was not a benign institution. Period. Non negotiable. I think most people agree on that. (emphasis on “most“) The Confederacy fought to preserve the institution of slavery. Negotiable? Not to me. Intricate and complex, but not negotiable. I personally will disagree with anyone who presents what I consider to be an erroneous portrayal of white, black, indigenous, or mixed race communities in the south, or an idealization of the north, but not when it comes to what I am calling a baseline of morality. To attempt to undermine the scholarship of the past thirty years in which the reality of slavery has been explored and revealed, is the true revisionist history. It is analogous, in some ways, to Pope Benedict’s unintentional, potential undermining of Vatican II, in my opinion, since the lines between religion and history are beginning to become blurred. It is incumbent upon historians to tell the truth–and all of it; even when the facts do not fit the theory, whatever the theory may be at the time. This is actually a moral stance, although the historian is not a moral arbiter. Ironically, when the historian does begin to think of himself or herself as a moral arbiter, the possibility exists for the historian to no longer be an historian capable of objectively analyzing the facts. Having talked myself into a circle, I’ll end here. Thanks, Kevin. Sherree

  • Jason Sep 11, 2009 @ 12:50

    It’s not the Confederate flag he is standing in front of, its the state flag of Mississippi. It has the battle flag of the Confederacy as it’s canton. Not exactly a brain buster.

  • Richard Sep 11, 2009 @ 9:24


    Your thoughts on the Catholic Church and boarding schools is interesting. Thats exactly how the faith was passed down in my family. My mothers people came from an area along the maine/canadian border. Alot of intemarriage with indians.

  • Sherree Tannen Sep 11, 2009 @ 7:22

    You’re welcome, Kevin.

    Have a good, and thoughtful, day. Our national tragedy is also your family’s personal tragedy. I am going to light a candle for your cousin. Sherree

  • Sherree Tannen Sep 11, 2009 @ 6:46


    The following is a link to an article entitled, “Pope Benedict and Judaism”, published in Time Magazine, May 18, 2009:,9171,1896735-2,00.html

    It may be of interest to your readers.

    Sorry to hear that your cousin was a victim of the 911 attacks. I will include her in my good thoughts today. Sherree

    • Kevin Levin Sep 11, 2009 @ 7:08


      Thanks for the link and thanks for the kind words re: my cousin.

  • Mike Sep 11, 2009 @ 4:57

    Thanks for clearing that up. That story is in a lot of books.

  • toby Sep 11, 2009 @ 0:20

    In the context of the time, this bizarre alignment of Papacy and Confederacy may be somewhat less mysterious.

    The pope of that time, Pius IX or “Pio Nono” as he is sometimes known, was possibly the most reactionary pope in history. At the time, the Catholic Church had just lost the last of the territory it ruled to the Italian state. The “Papal States” were a major chunk of territory across central Italy, which was siezed by the new unified Italian state in 1860, shrinking the papal territory to the extent of the current Vatican City (the situation was only regularised by the Church and Mussolini in the1920s).

    Communism and Socialism were barely on the horizon then – “the enemy” to the illiberal church was the rising tide of nationalism, democracy, republicanism and secularism. And the major world representative of these trends was the United States of America. Hence, it is no surprise to find the papacy on the side of the anti-modernisers.

    There is a shadowy figure in the background here – Father John Bannon who undertook a mission to Imperial France & the Papacy on behalf of the Confederacy in 1864. Bannon was an Army Chaplain who was present at Pea Ridge & who was the originator of the “papal strategy”. Bannon failed in France, but suceeded in Rome. By getting recognition from the Pope, Bannon scored the only Confedeate diplomatic victory in Europe. However, Pius IX had lost any international influence he once possessed – as Stalin is supposed to have said derisively “How many divisions has the Pope?”. Pio Nono had none, either moral or physical.

    There is a life of Bannon (“Father John B. Bannon, the Confederacy’s Fighting Chaplain” by Philip Thomas Tucker). Bannon went on to Ireland (his birthplace) where he acted effectively to prevent Union recruitment.

    Incidentally, Bannon’s mission had been preceded a couple of years previously by that of another Irish-American priest with almost exactly the same mission in reverse – Archbishop John Hughes of New York in a quasi-diplomatic role for the Union.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 11, 2009 @ 4:14

      Thanks for the additional information.

  • Sherree Sep 10, 2009 @ 22:57


    The connection between Pope Benedict and Pope Pius XII is explored in an article in the New York Times, entitled “Vatican-Israel Tensions Rise over Pius”, Oct. 19, 2008. The history is in flux and contested. Sounds very familiar. Thanks, Sherree.

  • Sherree Sep 10, 2009 @ 22:12


    Enough with the mea maxima culpa!

    Apparently Jefferson Davis’ wife, and/or Davis himself, thought that the man was Jesus, which IS bizarre. Also, the parallels between Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII are worth considering, especially in a blog that concerns memory, since the history of the actions and legacies of both popes is in question (as is the history of the Confederacy.) The church as an institution, and including all denominations, has a very spotty history when it comes to defending human rights and fighting racism and anti Semitism (not to mention the little known relatively recent history of the church when it comes to boarding schools for Indigenous men and women in the US and Canada), so the discussion is warranted. Also, even if the photo is photo shopped, the point is again made that the Confederate flag needs to be retired. Wonder if a flag with a swastika on it had been shown behind the Pope? Would the point be made then? Slavery was a holocaust for black men and women. The comparison can most definitely be made and should be made. Thanks for a thought provoking post. If any member of the SCV would like to engage in dialogue, let’s engage. And yes, I know it is Sept 11. I consider my comments extremely patriotic. Sherree

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 10, 2009 @ 21:56
  • Richard Sep 10, 2009 @ 14:29

    My father was excluded from the Masons because he was Catholic. Being Catholic in the South was seen as something alien at one time. I wont even go into how the image of the Pope and a Confederate flag is bizarre. Looks like someone is using their photoshop and not doing a good job of it.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2009 @ 15:49

      Good point and you might be right about the photoshopping.

  • Richard Sep 10, 2009 @ 13:35

    Well we all make mistakes. Some degree of contrition for the knock against the Catholic Church would be nice. It seems a member of the academy with your research experience and preference for primary sources and documentation would not have been so convinced without a predisposition. Either way, I will keep reading, you have a great blog.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2009 @ 13:52

      Thanks for forgiving such an awful sin and thanks for the kind words re: the blog.

  • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2009 @ 12:53


    I miss your sense of humor.


    Very funny.

  • Jimmy Price Sep 10, 2009 @ 9:52

    Perhaps the Pope was standing in front of a rebel flag to commemorate the Gary Casteel statue?

    St. Jim Limber anyone? 🙂

  • Ken Noe Sep 10, 2009 @ 9:28

    An additional irony is that Pius IX was the same pope that pre-war Nativists so hated, angrily charging him with leading a foreign conspiracy to overthrow democracy and the American republic with his Irish immigrant hordes. Maybe we should track down Davis’s birth certificate and question his religion 😉

    I don’t think the flag is a mystery, though. Since it’s right next to the Indiana state flag, I assume that’s Mississippi’s.

  • Larry Cebula Sep 10, 2009 @ 9:08

    Kevin *pwned* by the SCV?! What a dark day in the blogosphere, my friends. Which of us will take back his action figure?

    • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2009 @ 9:10

      Indeed, I have disappointed many today. I apologize for all my shortcomings. 🙂

  • Eric A. Jacobson Sep 10, 2009 @ 8:15
    • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2009 @ 8:27

      That’s great Eric. Thanks for providing the link.

  • Craig Swain Sep 10, 2009 @ 7:11

    Are you familiar with the Confederate diplomatic effort toward the Vatican? Several interesting nuances to the story. Our CWRT was entertained by a rather well researched presentation on such earlier this year. It has all those plot lines you like in a “Dale Brown” novel. Just ends with a fizzle as recognition was not forthcoming (go figure, the Church took exception to the slavery part).

  • Karen Cox Sep 10, 2009 @ 6:39

    John Coski’s wife did the research and confirmed that the whole Pope story was a myth. But you are unlikely to convince the SCV of that. Shame on you, Kevin! LOL!

    • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2009 @ 7:14

      Ruth Ann is a dynamite researcher so I will look into it. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Karen Cox Sep 10, 2009 @ 6:10

    Kevin–I remember the first time I saw the crown of thorns. It was at the Museum of the Confederacy, on loan from its home at the Confederate Museum in New Orleans. I was familiar with the whole Jefferson Davis-as-Confederate martyr theme of the Lost Cause, but when I saw the crown I thought it was a bit over the top. . .and very thorny. The MOC researched it and found that it was made by Varina Davis for her husband. Still, it begs the question: why? It is now back in its resting place at the Confederate museum next to a pair of Chinese slippers Davis apparently wore. Some of the Lost Cause material culture is so bizarre and so Victorian–like the preservation of hair for purposes of lockets and “hair jewelry.” In my own research I came across envelopes of Davis’ hair in the midst of a manuscript collection. Bizarre, indeed.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 10, 2009 @ 6:32


      Thanks for the comment. So, you are saying that the Pope didn’t send the crown to Davis? I thought the website I linked to was legitimate and after seeing a number of SCV sites repeat the story I, of course, was convinced. 🙂

      Feeling just a little embarrassed.

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