Book Review Interpreting The Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites edited by Kevin Levin

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Pat Young

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Interpreting The Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites edited by Kevin Levin published by Rowman & Littlefield (2017) Hardcover $68.00 Paperback $30.00 Kindle $15.12

Interpreting The Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites edited by Kevin Levin is a collection of short essays by and about the people who use museums, historical sites, and other places to engage the public with the history of the Civil War Era. I may not be in the book’s primary audience, but I still found a lot to be interested in between its electronic covers (I read it on Kindle).

The book is part of the Interpreting History series published by The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). Books in the series “provide expert, in-depth guidance in interpretation for history professionals at museums and historic sites,” according to the AASLH. The books are intended to help practitioners expand their interpretation to be more inclusive of the range of American history. Kevin Levin is a well-known historian focusing on Civil War Memory, in fact that is the name of his heavily trafficked blog. He is also an educator who helps school teachers develop new approaches for classroom engagement with the war and its aftermath.

The essays come from museum professionals as well as academic scholars involved in creating more accurate portrayals of mid-19th Century American history. Christy Coleman of the American Civil War Museum opens the book with a history of the origins of the Museum of the Confederacy as a shrine to the Lost Cause. The decision to place the Lee Monument in Richmond made the old capital of the Confederacy into the Lourdes of Confederate Memory. Four more massive monuments to Confederate heroes went up along Monument Avenue between 1907 and 1929. 100,000 people turned out for the unveiling of the Lee statue and millions have made the pilgrimage to the Confederate Pantheon since then.

In 1896, the Confederate Museum was opened in Richmond and became, writes Coleman, “a beacon to generations of white Southerners intent on preserving the memory and legacy of their ancestors.” The transfer of 327 captured flags from Confederate units in 1905 and 1906 by the U.S. War Department formalized the place of the Confederate Museum as the leading reliquary of the Lost Cause. As long as questions about slavery and Jim Crow could be kept outside of the discussion of the Civil War, the Richmond center could tell its stories of Mighty Stonewall and the Christian Gentleman Robert E. Lee to new generations of Southern whites. But things changed with the challenge posed by the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

Attendance and support for the Confederate Museum began to decline after the Civil War Centennial and Civil Rights revolution. Coleman writes that “The decision was made to alter the [Confederate Museum’s] focus from being a shrine “for” the Confederacy to a museum “about” the Confederacy.” A new building housing the renamed Museum of the Confederacy was opened in 1976 to coincide with the Bicentennial, and the old amateur staff was replaced by museum professionals.

Visitation revived at the museum and exhibits challenging the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War began to be offered in 1985. An exhibit on slavery in 1991, called “Before Freedom Came,” marked another new departure for the museum. The staff engaged with Richmond’s African American community to create a groundbreaking depiction of human bondage in the Old South. Along the way to teaching history in the place of myth, the museum alienated some of the old families that had financially supported it since the 1880s. At the same time, there was a limit to just how many new visitors an institution with the word “Confederacy” in its title could pick up. Coleman writes that; “While the museum has transformed itself from shrine to education institution, public perception remained a challenge in an increasingly diverse population.” The need for change provoked a revolt by some on the board of directors that resulted in terminations of professional staff and the raising of a Confederate Battle Flag outside of the museum by the Old Guard.

[Due to its length, I am posting this review in four parts. Stay tuned for parts 2, 3 and 4.]
 
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Pat Young

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Part 2 of the review:

In 1999 a competing center for interpreting the Civil War was established at the site of Richmond's Tredegar Iron Works. With a national board of directors and a modern approach to museum management and interpretation, Tredegar could reach visitors who would never think of walking into the Museum of the Confederacy. The decision, made during the Sesquicentennial, to merge the two Richmond museums into the American Civil War Museum combines the massive artifact collection of the old Museum of the Confederacy with new modalities for reaching a broader audience. The new museum system will have locations at Tredegar, the White House of the Confederacy, and the new museum at Appomattox and is set to kick-off in 2018 under Christy Coleman’s leadership.

The change sparked a 30% decline in membership, less than the 40% planners had anticipated, but still a major loss of support. It has also left some former Museum of the Confederacy supporters broken-hearted and empty-pocketed when it comes to donating to the revived institution. Yet it is difficult to see how the old Museum of the Confederacy could have survived what has been some of the most contentious years for Confederate and Civil War memory since the conflict itself ended in 1865.

Since the summer of 2015 street battles over the meaning of the memorialization of the Civil War have taken place with increasing violence. Given the controversy, would a museum that was widely, if inaccurately, viewed as honoring the Lost Cause have been able to attract visitors, corporate sponsors, or government grants? Would university credentialed staff want to work in a Confederate reliquary?

Coleman writes; “Interpretation of the American Civil War is not for the weak of heart. It is relentless, but rewarding. It is work that must be done because at the heart of this history are the very things Americans of every background grapple with in contemporary times: appropriate balance of state versus federal powers, human and civil rights, enduring legacies of racism, and so forth. This history is not dead or past. This history is present.” The presentness of Civil War Era history is what makes it so important for modern (and post-modern) Americans.

[Part 3 will be posted shortly]
 
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Pat Young

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Part 3 of Review:

The essays in this volume present several case histories of individual sites and how they have created modern interpretations of our now-ancient conflict of civil war, federalism, and race. One article looked at the historical society in Arlington, which has exhibits depicting this Northern Virginia county as a continuing part of the United States after Sumter. Another is a fascinating look at the Civil War museum in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Kenosha essay discusses the creation of a new Civil War museum in 2008 hundreds of miles from the nearest major Civil War battlefield. Using modern technologies, the Kenosha museum allows visitors to choose to follow the life of one person from the Civil War Era, ranging from a farmgirl, to an Irish immigrant, to a slave, to a Native American. The museum highlights the experience of the war in the Upper Midwest and takes patrons from home front to battlefield through immersive experiences. The Kenosha essay, written by three members of the museum’s staff, gives a good glimpse into the decision making in a museum devoted to the mid-19th Century that was developed from scratch in the 21st.

Educator James Percoco has an essay that should be interest to those of us here who worry about how the next generation will experience and transmit the history of the Civil War. Percoco teaches a high school course on Public History. The course includes a semester of classroom work and a semester of field placement at institutions like The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Ford’s Theatre, George Washington’s home and estate, Mount Vernon, the Alexandria Black History Museum and the Fairfax Museum. The essay describes how the Public History class works and also how museums around the country can work with local high schools to create partnerships to involve students.

Percoco writes about the educational benefit to the students’ understanding of history of working on-site:

“What was interesting to observe as their teacher was how by working at these sites students came to develop their own understanding of how the Civil War fits into the national narrative. Their interpretations, particularly those that were giving talks, addressed the National Park Service’s efforts to interpret the Civil War from a broader and more diverse platform. At Arlington House, much of the interpretation addressed the lives of the enslaved population at Lee’s home and then the lives of those who lived on the property as freedmen after the war. In this way history was interpreted from “the bottom up” as opposed to from the “great man” premise that has long been a staple at Civil War sites. My students worked hard with park staff to recover the lost voices of the past.”

There is also an essay in this collection that explains the new Georgia Civil War highway markers. These plaques move beyond the Confederate-focused markers of an earlier era to present a more realistic and highly localized vision of the state’s historical experience. W. Todd Groce explains that the “most challenging aspect of creating the new markers was writing the marker text. The markers must not only describe the event but also place it in an interpretive framework while also conveying the meaning and relevancy to the reader. Each must pass what we call the “so what?” test. The reader should never have to wonder why the event described on the marker is important and has meaning. This was a tall order when working with a limit of approximately 130 words.” The marker program also proved highly controversial as it sought to remedy the one-sided presentations of the past. Even something as simple as the decision to use the phrase “United States Army” rather than “Union Army” aroused anger.

National Park Ranger John Rudy from Harpers Ferry trains staff in interpreting sites. Rudy’s essay looks at how well staff and docents interact with the public. He writes of one study of National Park Service programs for the public; “The study categorized interpreter communication styles into three categories—friend, authority figure, and walking encyclopedia—and assessed the effectiveness of each. They found that of all the modes of communication Park Service interpreters utilized, the “walking encyclopedia” identity type, which focuses “on conveying a large volume of facts,” was least effective. This was also the style that was most likely to be used. The essay painfully recounts the inability of some sites to create a welcoming environment for 21st Century Americans and the new departures taken at other sites to bring in new audiences.

Rudy writes that:

“If the goal of interpretation is to impel visitors to think anew…, the best tools an interpreter has to provoke such a shift are being woefully underutilized. The visitors’ voices themselves, joining the discussion of what the past means in their daily lives, might be the crucial piece now missing in the relevance of Civil War landscapes.”

This can only be done, Rudy writes, when staff create new partnerships beyond the traditional players.

The last two essays relate to Confederate iconography in public spaces. They offer a consideration of what these symbols mean to different constituencies and how they have been used politically. Each essay is useful.

[Part 4 to follow shortly]
 
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Part 4 of Review:

I approached this book with some hesitation since one of its targeted audiences is museum professionals. I enjoyed the essays, but I had some problems with the overall focus of the work. As with any collection of essays, there is a lack of a synoptic unity to them. It was also difficult for me as a layperson to evaluate the case studies of individual sites. What is the criteria for determining if the Kenosha museum has the right approach? Visitation? User surveys? Funding? The revamped American Civil War Museum sounds great, but if it has lost nearly a third of its members, will it soon be out of business? I don’t know. Part of the problem here is that each of the case studies is prepared by people on the staff of the institution. A brief evaluative essay would have been nice to include.

I also worry that some of the essays seem to be an exercise in “fighting the last war.” Some efforts at partnering are aimed at correcting the shortcomings of the Centennial Era when Confederate descendants were privileged and the descendants of enslaved African Americans were excluded from some commemorations and slavery was written out of the program in many states. One of the most self-defeating aspects of Civil War sites was their status as places almost exclusively of ancestor worship. Both the descendants of slaves and the scions of Confederate veterans are declining percentages of the American population. Apart from the Kenosha museum, some of the other sites seemed locked into a history that could only serve a binary America of Black and White.

Mark Benbow’s essay on the Arlington Historical Museum recognizes the changing demographics of the area where the museum is located without discussing the implications of that transformation. According to Benbow, “Arlington is about 64 percent white, 9 percent black, 10 percent Asian, and 15 percent Hispanic or Latino.” In other words, merely expanding interpretation to include the long excluded African American population does little to create a meaningful historical experience for the quarter of the population that is neither black nor white. Racism did not only effect blacks during the Civil War Era, the Chinese, for example, were excluded from citizenship even if born in the United States until the ratification of the 14th Amendment and barred from Naturalization until the 1940s. There is a Civil War story of race in America that could be told that gets beyond black and white and includes Native Americans, Latinx, and Asian Americans.

Also along the theme of finding a broader past in the present there is a problem with the lack of any discussion of immigration in most of the essays. The 1850s and 1860s were a time of large-scale immigration, Know Nothing anti-immigrantism, the expansion of the official use of languages other than English, and the grudging incorporation of new religions and “foreign” politics into American life. Are there lessons about immigration that could be learned from the Civil War Era? None of the essays address this. Could new audiences of the children of post-1965 immigrants be brought into the sites by challenging new exhibits on immigration and identity? Not addressed in this book, unfortunately.

I was fortunate enough to tour the Lincoln Cottage a year ago in Washington. There was a small exhibit there on Lincoln and the Immigrants. It did not shy away from presenting excellent historical information about immigrants in the 1860s along with a discussion of immigration today. At the end of the exhibit, visitors were encouraged to put up their own post-it notes with reactions. It was wonderful to see enthusiastic missives from immigrants and refugees from Syria, India, El Salvador, Ireland, and Mexico, among many others, who saw their own experiences in the past that some said that they had only learned about for the first time at the cottage.

These issues aside, I recommend Interpreting The Civil War at Museums and Historic Sites for those of you involved in presenting history to the public and for anyone interested into how museums and sites are reevaluating how they do business in this new era. The essays are approachable for the layperson, and will give you insights in how interpretive decisions are made.

The historical institutions that were created in the Jim Crow South cannot survive in the post-Voting Rights Act world where non-white constituencies play a role in decision making about budgets and land-use. The mollification of a declining number of self-identified Confederate descendants is not a solid base for these institutions to project their lives into the next century. The sites that so many of us love will only stay vibrant if they connect to the emerging America we live in today. Kevin Levin’s book offers some road maps to the future, although with no certainty as to which route is best to follow.

Patrick Young, Esq. is Special Professor of Immigration Law at Hofstra University School of Law where he also co-directs the school's Immigration Law Clinic. He is the author of the web series The Immigrants' Civil War.

This concludes the review.
 
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wausaubob

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Except that the Civil War was not primarily fought over states rights or the status of the enslaved.
 

wausaubob

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George Meade was one of the winners of the Civil War. He was a Catholic from Philadelphia.
Phil Sheridan was the son of an Irish immigrant.
Ulysses Grant made an anti-semitic order, but the Solomon brothers did not quit the United States army, and Grant remained friends with the Seligmans.
The United States army was full of German units and there so many German officers that Franz Siegel was not missed.
The people that transferred allegiance from central and eastern Europe, to the United States, between 1865 and 1890 changed world history. And a lot of them were Jewish.
Ulysses Grant and John Pope hammered on US Indian policy and set up a system from Wisconsin to Arizona were some indigenous people survived.
So the real issue was national citizenship, open immigration, and religious tolerance, despite the fact that Kentucky remained a fundamentalist Christian enclave. :D
The effort to establish the Christian religion in the Constitution was defeated.
Most of these issues remained alive and are still being debated.
 
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Part 2 of the review:

In 1999 a competing center for interpreting the Civil War was established at the site of the Tredegar Iron Works. With a national board of directors and a modern approach to museum management and interpretation, Tredegar could reach visitors who would never think of walking into the Museum of the Confederacy. The decision, made during the Sesquicentennial, to merge the two Richmond museums into the American Civil War Museum combines the massive artifact collection of the old Museum of the Confederacy with new modalities for reaching a broader audience. The new museum system will have locations at Tredegar, the White House of the Confederacy, and the new museum at Appomattox and is set to kick-off in 2018 under Christy Coleman’s leadership.

The change sparked a 30% decline in membership, less than the 40% planners had anticipated, but still a major loss of support. It has also left some former Museum of the Confederacy supporters broken-hearted and empty-pocketed when it comes to donating to the revived institution. Yet it is difficult to see how the old Museum of the Confederacy could have survived what has been some of the most contentious years for Confederate and Civil War memory since the conflict itself ended in 1865.

Since the summer of 2015 street battles over the meaning of the memorialization of the Civil War have taken place with increasing violence. Given the controversy, would a museum that was widely, if inaccurately, viewed as honoring the Lost Cause have been able to attract visitors, corporate sponsors, or government grants? Would university credentialed staff want to work in a Confederate reliquary?

Coleman writes; “Interpretation of the American Civil War is not for the weak of heart. It is relentless, but rewarding. It is work that must be done because at the heart of this history are the very things Americans of every background grapple with in contemporary times: appropriate balance of state versus federal powers, human and civil rights, enduring legacies of racism, and so forth. This history is not dead or past. This history is present.” The presentness of Civil War Era history is what makes it so important for modern (and post-modern) Americans.

[Part 3 will be posted shortly]

"The presentness of Civil War Era history is what makes it so important for modern (and post-modern) Americans."

Well said, and a good reason for CWT to re-consider its policy on stifling discussion of current events related to Civil War history.
 

ForeverFree

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Pat, that was useful. I've seen the book, and I've considered buying it. This is useful for my buying decision.

I'm a volunteer historical interpreter at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC. The Museum's focus on the black experience (specifically black soldiers and sailors) during the war gives it a somewhat unique niche in the CW Museum space.

One thing that I understand is that the period of 1861-65 was the site of a social revolution or movement for African Americans and white Americans. There were people who were touched by this revolution who never experienced "war" and people who were touched by the war who never experienced this revolution. I sometimes call this the "Emancipation Revolution" or the "Emancipation Movement."

proxy.php?image=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.blackpast.org%2Ffiles%2Fblackpast_images%2FContraband_Camp.jpg


This is a picture of a so-called contraband camp, a camp in the Washing ton, DC-northern VA area. As I understand it, Lincoln was due to visit the camp, and the children were waiting outside, ready to show Lincoln they were learning to read.

There is much profound in this event, but it has nothing to do with right flank/left flank stuff. In the African American Civil War Museum, I have the opportunity, because of its subject matter, to focus on issues of "freedom" and African American agency. But in Museums that don't have related content or subject matter, discussing issues of slavery and race and social change can be challenging.

If CW Museums are to go beyond military history, and into social, political, cultural, and economic history, curators and other staff will need to make an effort to add content to their exhibits that opens the door to such subjects, and train docents in the subject matter. That can be very challenging especially for smaller institutions.

RE: “The study categorized interpreter communication styles into three categories—friend, authority figure, and walking encyclopedia—and assessed the effectiveness of each. They found that of all the modes of communication Park Service interpreters utilized, the “walking encyclopedia” identity type, which focuses “on conveying a large volume of facts,” was least effective.

It's hard to not become a “walking encyclopedia” type. One thing that immediately hits you when people visit a museum is that there is so much they don't know. As an interpreter, you sometimes feel this imperative to fill people's heads with as much info as possible, lest they leave before they've learned some essential information.

On the other hand, it's quite clear that visitors are moved by personal histories or stories. Just one or two poignant stories about actual people who lived at the time can make a visitor's day. I try to do a mix of facts/information and personal stories. But to do that, I leave a lot out in my talk time with visitors. Hopefully, the content they see in the exhibit will inform them too - it's not just about me as an interpreter.

- Alan
 

Bruce Vail

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Pat, that was useful. I've seen the book, and I've considered buying it. This is useful for my buying decision.

I'm a volunteer historical interpreter at the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, DC. The Museum's focus on the black experience (specifically black soldiers and sailors) during the war gives it a somewhat unique niche in the CW Museum space.

One thing that I understand is that the period of 1861-65 was the site of a social revolution or movement for African Americans and white Americans. There were people who were touched by this revolution who never experienced "war" and people who were touched by the war who never experienced this revolution. I sometimes call this the "Emancipation Revolution" or the "Emancipation Movement."

View attachment 160005

This is a picture of a so-called contraband camp, a camp in the Washing ton, DC-northern VA area. As I understand it, Lincoln was due to visit the camp, and the children were waiting outside, ready to show Lincoln they were learning to read.

There is much profound in this event, but it has nothing to do with right flank/left flank stuff. In the African American Civil War Museum, I have the opportunity, because of its subject matter, to focus on issues of "freedom" and African American agency. But in Museums that don't have related content or subject matter, discussing issues of slavery and race and social change can be challenging.

If CW Museums are to go beyond military history, and into social, political, cultural, and economic history, curators and other staff will need to make an effort to add content to their exhibits that opens the door to such subjects, and train docents in the subject matter. That can be very challenging especially for smaller institutions.

RE: “The study categorized interpreter communication styles into three categories—friend, authority figure, and walking encyclopedia—and assessed the effectiveness of each. They found that of all the modes of communication Park Service interpreters utilized, the “walking encyclopedia” identity type, which focuses “on conveying a large volume of facts,” was least effective.

It's hard to not become a “walking encyclopedia” type. One thing that immediately hits you when people visit a museum is that there is so much they don't know. As an interpreter, you sometimes feel this imperative to fill people's heads with as much info as possible, lest they leave before they've learned some essential information.

On the other hand, it's quite clear that visitors are moved by personal histories or stories. Just one or two poignant stories about actual people who lived at the time can make a visitor's day. I try to do a mix of facts/information and personal stories. But to do that, I leave a lot out in my talk time with visitors. Hopefully, the content they see in the exhibit will inform them too - it's not just about me as an interpreter.

- Alan
For what it is worth, I like "the walking encyclopedia" style of interpreter. I always have questions and I like to think the interpreter can answer with authority.
 
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wausaubob

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As Forever Free comments, the United Sta
Care to elaborate?
The issue was the survival of the national government as an institution capable of taking a place on the international stage.
It was not only the descendants of the colonialists that were fighting for the United States, but first and second generation immigrants, most of the families having arrived after 1820.
After the war there is substantially stronger national government, with a national banking system and a national currency.
Soon after the war immigration shifted from a state issue to a national issue.
In the course of the war itself, the United States held a national election in the midst of a Civil War.
Many times more than 4 million people came across the ocean than were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. By 1863 a movement of people began that was very similar to the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire, but bigger, and faster, and broader.
Oh, and slavery was definitely attacked and destroyed in the process: Fortress Monroe, Alexandria, South Carolina sea islands, John C. Fremont was given command in Missouri, and the center of the domestic slave trade, New Orleans was taken by a surprise attack as the Confederates concentrated to attack at Shiloh.
Look at the effects. White supremacy reasserted itself with 10 years of the end of the war.
But the principals of the American party did not resurface in the Republican party for 50 years.
But the history of immigration you would know better than I would.:D
 

Pat Young

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Pat, that was useful. I've seen the book, and I've considered buying it. This is useful for my buying decision.



- Alan
Thanks. I enjoy writing the reviews primarily to express myself after reading a book, but I am happy that other folks find them useful as a sort of consumer's guide.
 

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George Meade was one of the winners of the Civil War. He was a Catholic from Philadelphia.
Phil Sheridan was the son of an Irish immigrant.
Ulysses Grant made an anti-semitic order, but the Solomon brothers did not quit the United States army, and Grant remained friends with the Seligmans.
The United States army was full of German units and there so many German officers that Franz Siegel was not missed.
The people that transferred allegiance from central and eastern Europe, to the United States, between 1865 and 1890 changed world history. And a lot of them were Jewish.
Ulysses Grant and John Pope hammered on US Indian policy and set up a system from Wisconsin to Arizona were some indigenous people survived.
So the real issue was national citizenship, open immigration, and religious tolerance, despite the fact that Kentucky remained a fundamentalist Christian enclave. :D
The effort to establish the Christian religion in the Constitution was defeated.
Most of these issues remained alive and are still being debated.
Sorry to pick nits, but George Meade was not a Catholic, so far as I know. If you've seen otherwise, could you give a link? I've read two books about him, and if he was Catholic, neither of those biographers mentioned it.
 
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wausaubob

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Sorry to pick nits, but George Meade was not a Catholic, so far as I know. If you've seen otherwise, could you give a link? I've read two books about him, and if he was Catholic, neither of those biographers mentioned it.
I have seen that so many times I did not know it was contested.
 

wausaubob

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Sorry to pick nits, but George Meade was not a Catholic, so far as I know. If you've seen otherwise, could you give a link? I've read two books about him, and if he was Catholic, neither of those biographers mentioned it.
This does not have footnotes, but it has a credible feel to it.
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:2001.05.0134
I think he was baptized as a Catholic in Spain, consistent with his the practices of his father's family. Whether he ever practiced Catholicism is not mentioned.
 
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