Chaplains in the Civil War

by Charles White


When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the bloodiest war of America's history had just begun. As troops from both the Confederate States of America and the United States of America took to the field to settle the question of cession, ordained ministers of various Christian denominations took the field along side them. As the troops sought to defend their persons and homelands from physical onslaughts, the chaplains on both sides fought for the spiritual and physical well-being of the combatants.

From the beginning of the war, the War Department recognized the need for spiritual guidance among the troops. Due to this fact, the War Department authorized the appointment of regularly ordained ministers as chaplains with the quota being one per regiment. Chaplains held no command rank, but instead entered the army with the rank of private.

On October 31, 1864, Congress and the War Department awarded the chaplains with the pay and allowances commensurate with the rank of captain in the cavalry. Because the law gave them captains pay, they wore the uniform and insignia for that grade as well as sword and pistol. For this reason, chaplains were sometimes mistaken for command officers. Unlike the Union, chaplains within the Confederate army held no rank whatsoever, but were still paid as members of the military at the rate of one half the pay of a first lieutenant.

Selection of chaplains was, in large part, the responsibility of the various churches. There were only a few qualifications which were spelled out by the government. Originally, the government required chaplains to be ordained ministers of a Christian denomination, but after protests by Jewish leaders this statute was changed on July 17 1862 to read "any religious denomination". Also, the government required that these ordained ministers must have the endorsement of their particular denominational body. On July 17, 1862, Congress passed a regulation which stipulated that clergymen who wished to become chaplains must produce credentials from their denominational body which attested to the candidates fitness for the position of chaplain. This regulation was initiated to cut down on the clergy who were not suited for the position as well as to ensure that all applicants were indeed ordained ministers. There was one instance where an actor posed as an ordained minister in order to receive the one hundred dollar a month salary of a chaplain. However, none of the legislation passed established minimum educational qualifications, nor were age limits specified.

Once a clergyman had met all the governmental regulations for chaplaincy, the chaplain was assigned by the president to each regiment at army posts and hospitals, an action mimicked by the Confederate government as well.. However, volunteer companies were allowed to choose their own chaplains upon the approval of the War Department.

Many of the denominations in the North wholeheartedly supported the military chaplaincy program. It is estimated that about 3000 chaplains were appointed by governors, Federal officials and commanders in various places. The Methodists provided approximately 500 ordained ministers to serve in this capacity. However, only 40 Catholic priests, nicknamed "Holy Joes", served in the Northern army, despite the fact that the Catholic population within the armed forces numbered 200,000, 155,000 of which were Irish. The Catholic presence within the military chaplaincy program was undermined by the fact that many of these priests only served for short periods of time. Bishops sometimes recalled Catholic chaplains due to demands placed upon the church by parish needs. Also a factor in the dismal participation of the Catholic church in the chaplaincy program was the desperate need for Catholic clergy within local parishes, religious orders and seminaries to minister to the swelling numbers of immigrants in the United States.

Within the Confederate Army, the chaplaincy program was alive and well. The Confederate Army was well supplied with chaplains as well as missionaries which performed work similar to the chaplains. Although reliable information regarding the total number of chaplains serving in the Confederate army is non existent, existing military records indicated that early in the war 400 chaplains were appointed by President Davis. The number of chaplains serving within the Confederate army as been estimated between 600-1000. The Methodist and Episcopalian churches furnished about 300 clergymen to serve as chaplains while respectable representation was provided by the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic churches as well. Some chaplains became distinguished line officers, among them Brigadier General William N. Pendleton, Lee's chief of artillery.

Many of these Confederate chaplains were known as "fighting chaplains" who regarded the war as a central moment in their spiritual journey. The most famous of the Baptist fighting chaplains was Isaac Taylor Tichenor. He impressed his men with his sharp shooting abilities and rallied his comrades at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. A number of these Confederate chaplains were captured by Union forces. Some were confined within prison camps for long periods while some, such as Father Francis X. LeRay who was captured on several occasions while performing last right, were always immediately released.

Although the general orders on both sides did provide for the immediate release of chaplains captured as prisoners of war, exceptions to the general orders can be found. One such exception is made for those clergy whose release could be viewed as detrimental to the war effort. A chaplain from Massachusetts, John F. Mines, was captured by Confederate forces and detained due to a strongly perceived negative attitude towards the war which was viewed by the local commander as dangerous. Two Confederate chaplains were sent to Johnson's Island by the commander of Fort Delaware for tampering with his men and trying to cause them to desert . Another such exception was found in those chaplains who insisted in bearing arms and participating in combat. Those who bore arms were not guaranteed the immunity granted under the rules of war adopted by both sides.

With this in mind, the question of the "fighting chaplain" perplexed the members of the chaplaincy program. The combat exploits of chaplains on both sides of the war were well known. Some members defended the bearing of arms and engaging in battle along side the front-line troops. Sixty-six Union chaplains are known to have died in service along with others due to battle as well as the hardships of camp and field, one of whom, commander John L. Lenhart, was the first American naval chaplain in history to loose his life. Still others felt this opinion that chaplains should bear arms was wrong under normal battle situations. Even though as many as 97 union chaplains were appointed as combat soldiers, 23 of which served as officers, and even though some clergymen had actually raised regiments, it was agreed that the primary duty of the chaplain would normally be that of counseling the soldiers, writing the families of troops, caring for the wounded and burying the dead. Some chaplains also served as assistant surgeons, hospital stewards, regimental adjutants, or quartermasters.

When able, the main duty of these chaplains was to tend to the spiritual needs of the soldiers. Chaplains primarily performed the functions of a parish pastor of their own denomination whenever possible. Chaplains often heard confessions, instructed soldiers in ecclesiastical matters, settled difficulties among the troops, performed last rights, accompanied and counseled troops sentenced to death by court-martial as well as preached and celebrated services. Whenever possible, chaplains arranged to hold worship services. This was often interrupted due to bad weather, army movements, Sunday inspections and drills, as well as other diversions. Many of the soldiers preferred to drink and play cards rather than to attend services. Some troops were kept from services due to simple exhaustion.

When brigades remained in one place long enough, makeshift worship areas were constructed. Some were even fairly permanent when the encampment was viewed as such. Many of the worship areas consisted of crude, makeshift worship areas. Many times, sticks, logs and boards served to form the altar where candles and linen were placed. Some tents were provided for chaplains by friends, charitable organizations, the army or even members of the regiment. One pastor eventually acquired a circus tent to use as his chapel and boards over cracker boxes served as his altar.

Along with horses, tents, and the normal supplies carried by soldiers, chaplains also were aided in the field by various religious publications which were made available to troops through various benevolent societies. Tract societies published such varied titles as A Mother's Parting Words to Her Soldier Boy, Are You Ready to Die, and Sinner, You are soon to be Damned. Even more popular were the periodicals, such as the Army and Navy Messenger, which were circulated by the various denominations. Bibles were also circulated to troops on both sides due to the work of the American Bible Society and various organizations in England and Bible societies, such as the Confederate States Bible Society formed in the Confederate states. In 1862, Moses D. Hodge escaped through the Union blockade and brought back from England 10,000 Bibles, 50,000 Testaments and 250,000 miscellaneous publications. Not only were the Testaments that were distributed to the troops printed in English, other versions printed in German, French, and Italian were also distributed.

Early on in the war, President Lincoln and the leaders of the Confederacy both saw the need for a greater presence of chaplains within the armed forces. As the combatants on both sides of the field struggled to achieve victory, the chaplains struggled to maintain the health and well-being of the soldiers with which they served. Although most never carried a gun or commanded a regiment, these soldiers fought every bit as hard as the men who wielded musket and sword.