Army Missionaries

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Army Missionaries

Army missionaries ministered to both the Confederate and Union Armies. These persons were defined by the historian Steven Woodworth as "ministers who had no official role in the military establishment and did not necessarily intend to remain permanently with the army" (2001, p. 160). As opposed to chaplains, these individuals were not attached to a specific regiment or brigade and thus could move from place to place as needed. Father Paul E. Gillen's missionary work in the Army of the Potomac as a Roman Catholic priest serves as a perfect example. He moved "from regiment to regiment, and wherever he found a few dozen Catholics, there he 'pitched his tent,' staid a day or two, heard all their confessions, celebrated holy Mass, and communicated those ready to receive" (Corby 1992, p. 309).

Missionaries' Roles

As Gillen's experience illustrates quite clearly, missionaries functioned much like chaplains, providing care in hospitals and distributing Bibles and other religious literature as well as preaching to troops in camp. Their temporary positions allowed churches on the home front to continue to hold services. The missionaries' role also prevented the waste of their talents during times of the year when preaching services were usually not held.

In both the North and South, the main role of the missionaries was the distribution of tracts, Bibles, and other forms of religious literature. The specific missionaries who participated in this work were known as colporteurs. A prominent Methodist missionary, William W. Bennett, served on the Confederate side. Bennett noted in his 1876 A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies During the Late Civil War Between the States of the Federal Union, that the missionaries as a group sought "to turn the thoughts of the soldiers not to a sect, but to Christ, to bring them into the great spiritual temple, and to show them the wonders of salvation" (p. 71). These individuals were quite inclusive and represented several denominations that had large memberships in the Southern states—the Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians, and the Methodists—each of which sent their own contingent of colporteurs.

As Bennett further explained in his text, in the South the Baptists were the first to organize, setting themselves up under the General Association of the Baptist churches in Virginia in May 1861. Subsequently, the Presbyterians organized as the Presbyterian Board of Publication, directed by the Reverend Dr. Leyburn. Next, the Virginia Episcopal Mission Committee formed under the direction of the Reverend Messrs. Gatewood and Kepler of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Virginia Episcopal Mission was formed after the Episcopal dioceses in the South formed the Episcopal Church in the C.S.A. Finally, the Methodist Episcopal Church formed their colporteur group in March of 1862 (Bennett 1876, pp. 72,74–76).

In addition to these missions provided to members of specific Christian denominations within the Confederacy, the Evangelical Tract Society, organized in July 1861, included within its ranks an interdenominational group of Christians. According to Bennett, this body issued over a hundred different tracts (pp. 72, 74–76). Noting the importance of this devotional literature to the soldiers at war, the historian Beth Schweiger asserts that the tracts and Bibles themselves served as "the great evangelists of the war" (2000, p. 101).

The United States Christian Commission

Many missionaries served within the Union armies, under the auspices of the United States Christian Commission (USCC), a national group formed in November 1861 upon the urging of the New York Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). No comparable institution existed within the Confederacy. According to Woodworth, the USCC at the height of its power contained about five thousand delegates from various denominations across the North, "with field superintendents in each army corps" (2001, p. 167).

Historian Gardiner Shattuck relates that the USCC had two main goals during the war, one spiritual and the other more physical. First and foremost, the missionaries were to help regimental chaplains in all aspects of their jobs: in providing pastoral care for their men, distributing tracts, and also helping with worship services. Second, they were to provide for the physical needs of the soldiers themselves (1987, p. 27).

An example of meeting the latter goal took place at Petersburg in 1864. The USCC gave Chaplain Henry Clay Trumbull of the Army of the Potomac a basket of fresh peaches, which he distributed "among the men on duty in the advanced trenches, one peach to each man" (Trumbull 1898, p. 116). In another example, at Fortress Monroe in Virginia in August 1864, a Christian Commission delegate, Thomas Scott Johnson, explained in one of his letters that the USCC provided supplies for both the hospitals in the area as well as "the hospital transports that load at this point." He subsequently concluded, "We are thus reaching as far as may be all the cases of suffering among our brave boys" (Kaliebe 1966, p. 28).

Not all Union missionaries, however, were affiliated with the United States Christian Commission. Some worked for independent tract societies or missionary associations. In a letter written to his brother Ned, Chaplain Joseph Hopkins Twichell of the Seventy-First New York Infantry Regiment noted the impressive work of the missionary John Vassar of the New York Tract Society during a period of revival within the Army of the Potomac. Twichell described Vassar as "the most wonderful Christian I ever saw… He, by fervent prayers and exhortations, stirred us mightily" (Messant and Courtney 2006, p. 274). According to a Massachusetts newspaper, the Lowell Daily Citizen and News (October 7, 1861), another missionary, the Reverend L. C. Lockwood, affiliated with the American Missionary Association, was commissioned and sent to Fortress Monroe to teach the contraband laborers.

Missionaries admirably ministered in both the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War, augmenting and aiding the work of chaplains in fostering religious devotion within the armies. Their most important duty, however, was as colporteurs distributing religious tracts and Bibles to those troops enduring the profaneness of army life. This literature aided greatly in promoting revivals within both the Union and Confederate armies, yielding men reborn into the Christian faith by the trials and tribulations of war.


Bennett, William W. A Narrative of the Great Revival Which Prevailed in the Southern Armies During the Late Civil War between the States of the Federal Union. Philadelphia: Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 1876.

Corby, William. Memoirs of Chaplain Life: Three Years with the Irish Brigade in the Army of the Potomac, ed. Lawrence Frederick Kohl. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

Kaliebe, Jon Edward. "The Letters of Thomas Scott Johnson: His Work among the Negro as Christian Commission Delegate and Chaplain, 1864–1866." Master's thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1966.

Messent, Peter, and Steve Courtney, eds. The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell: A Chaplain's Story. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2006.

"Missionaries among the 'Contraband,"' Lowell (MA) Daily Citizen and News, October 7, 1861.

Schweiger, Beth Barton. The Gospel Working Up: Progress and the Pulpit in Nineteenth-Century Virginia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Shattuck, Jr., Gardiner H. A Shield and Hiding Place: The Religious Life of the Civil War Armies. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.

Trumbull, Henry Clay. War Memories of an Army Chaplain. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1898.

Woodworth, Steven E. While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001.

Benjamin L. Miller