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The Continental Congress officially laid the foundations for the future U.S. Chaplaincy Corps on July 29, 1775, when it authorized Washington to procure a chaplain for each regiment serving in the Continental army. Between the Revolution and Civil War, just like the regular army, the chaplaincy generally languished in peacetime and was rapidly expanded in wartime, when each U.S. brigade was authorized to secure the service of at least one chaplain. In 1838, the U.S. Army set up a new system that provided funding for chaplain positions at West Point and the army's various Western forts and bases. On the eve of the Civil War this system had expanded to thirty post chaplain positions for the nineteen regiments, or 16,000 troops, of the U.S. regular army. But Lincoln's July 22, 1861, call for 500,000 additional volunteers meant that the army's prewar chaplaincy could not possibly address the enormous spiritual needs of the rapidly expanding Union Army (Hourihan 2004).

In May 1861, the federal government dramatically expanded the size of the U.S. Chaplaincy Corps. President Abraham Lincoln ordered the colonels of all regular and volunteer regiments to appoint regimental chaplains to help maintain "the social happiness and moral improvement of the troops" and issue regular reports on the "moral and religious condition" their units. President Lincoln took a personal interest in the project, convinced that an expanded chaplaincy would not only address Union soldiers' religious needs, but also raise Northern morale by helping volunteers adjust to army life and become better integrated into their units (Shattuck 1987, pp. 52–63).

Not Clearly Defined

Theoretically, the selection process for chaplains mirrored that for other regimental officers, with field officers and company commanders voting to confirm or reject the colonel's nominee, but numerous "unofficial" chaplains served without commissions. The regulations also specified that chaplains were to be "regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination," a provision that was later amended by Congress in July 1862 to include spiritual representatives from other prominent religious denominations, such as Jewish rabbis (Wagner 2002, p. 440). During the conflict, more than 3,000 official and unofficial chaplains eventually served in the Union armies, but there were never more than 1,000 chaplains in active service in the army's regiments, hospitals and military posts (Hourihan 2004).

The official rank, uniform, and daily duties of the chaplain were not clearly defined in Lincoln's initial orders. Although they received a cavalry captain's salary and horse from the government, and thus frequently dressed as officers, the government did not officially define them as captains or provide them with uniforms, officers' rations, or forage for their animals (Woodworth 2001, pp. 145–146). Some chaplains' practice of riding behind Union battle lines bearing the weapons and insignia of a cavalry captain provoked enough resentment in the ranks for Congress to issue additional regulations clarifying the chaplains' dress and rank. The government specified that they were to wear a plain black frock coat and cap without any insignia, and that they held the "rank of chaplain, without command" (Hourihan 2004).

Although most Union Army chaplains were dedicated ministers of the Gospel who worked tirelessly to meet their troops' spiritual and physical needs, and bravely accompanied them into battle, too many of the early nominees turned out to be personally or professionally unqualified for their wartime ministries. This was mainly due to the unprecedented demand for chaplains in all the new Northern regiments; the demand had rapidly exhausted the pool of qualified applicants. Few accomplished Northern ministers felt "called" to abandon their successful, well-established ministries in the North for the spartan and highly dangerous life of an underpaid chaplain. Veteran pastors probably also knew from experience how difficult it would be to carve out new ministries among hardened men living outside the normal constraints of society. The other major problem was the high attrition rate in the chaplaincy during the war. Men of the cloth proved highly susceptible to disease, and many returned home after becoming seriously ill or realizing their physical constitution was not up to the task of heavy marching and sleeping outdoors in inclement weather.

Practically Unfit for Their Work

In any event, the successful confirmation of numerous unqualified candidates tarnished the reputation of the entire chaplaincy. According to some soldiers, during the first eighteen months of the war more than half of the chaplains were neither spiritually nor professionally qualified for their posts. After listening to a sermon by a chaplain from the Thirty-third Massachusetts on Sunday, August 16, 1863, John T. McMahon wrote,"I have come to the conclusion that our Chaplains are a class of men who could not get employment at home and by underhanded work have got to be Chaplains. At any rate I never heard a good sermon from a Chaplain yet" (McMahon 1863, p. 60). A lieutenant colonel in the Fifth Massachusetts believed that "at least seventy-five per cent of the chaplains commissioned during the first year of the war were practically unfit for their work"; Milton Bailey of the Forty-third Indiana noted that "over half the preachers that our Government employs at such high prices turn out to be the most deprave siners in the world our firs Chaplain maid no scruples to take things out of houses wher people had left them and was always in the company with abandoned women" (Woodworth 2001, pp. 149–150).

In the first year of the war the charismatic, hardworking chaplain was apparently more the exception than the general rule in the Union Army. In 1863, Sergeant George Chapin told his brother—who coincidentally also happened to be a preacher—that the Twenty-seventh Indiana Infantry Regiment's "chaplain has gone home on furlough tho' we do not miss him for he has been very little account to our regiment…. Thomas A Witted has not preached over a dozen times to the 27th regiment . never held social religious meetings & what is far worse than this he has not walked circumspectly before his men. His example is exceedingly inconsistent resembling more that of a renegade than a Teacher of Christ" (Chapin, February 17, 1863).

Some religious soldiers were extremely disappointed when they discovered that their spiritual shepherds were more interested in pursuing the pleasures of this world than ensuring the safe arrival of their flock in the next. In the fall of 1863, First Lieutenant John Blackwell informed his wife of the "sad state" of religious affairs in his brigade: "I wrote you that one of our chaplains has been sent home for drunkenness & now I have had the painful duty of reporting another, the 116th chaplain, for lending his pants to a lewd woman about camp to conceal her sex" (Blackwell, October 24, 1863).

Notwithstanding this behavior, the reputation of the Civil War chaplaincy was largely redeemed by the dedicated chaplains who did perform their duties extraordinarily well, and by the much larger crop of inspired and competent official and unofficial chaplains who began filling the existing regimental vacancies in late 1862. By then the worst of their kind had mostly returned home for health reasons or easier jobs, or because their wartime ministries had foundered due to their professional or spiritual shortcomings. Meanwhile, most of the chaplains still serving in the ranks had gradually earned the respect of their units and commanders through their steadfast dedication, courage under fire, and sacrificial service for their commands, thus ensuring the future success of their wartime ministries. Having come to recognize the valuable services rendered by a good chaplain, colonels and company officers also were exercising greater caution and care when replacing previously unsuitable candidates.

"I Don't Know How I Could Live Here Without Him"

Another major reason for the improved performance of the Union chaplains was that the physical requirements, dress, and duties of the chaplaincy were now more clearly defined—in books such as Reverend W. Y. Brown's The Army Chaplain: His Office, Duties, and Responsibilities and Means of Aiding Him (1863), a first-rate guidebook written by a highly successful Northern hospital chaplain. Brown emphasized that successful chaplains needed to do more than just preach weekly sermons, conduct prayer meetings, and administer last rites. In addition to performing their regular spiritual duties, chaplains also cared for the wounded, both on and off the battlefield; distributed stationary and helped soldiers write letters home to their families; wrote to the families of dead soldiers to inform them of their loved one's heroic sacrifice; secured and maintained regimental libraries containing books on both spiritual and secular topics; served as regimental postmasters and messengers; and in their free time, taught illiterate soldiers and contrabands how to read and write. Their service in the regiment reflected Christ's principle of servant leadership. On long marches they offered to haul the soldiers' heavier equipment on their horses or offered their mounts to sick soldiers, and when the regiment had to perform a hard manual-labor or foraging assignment, they energetically pitched in with the rest of the men.

From late 1862 on, the soldiers' correspondence generally documented a growing appreciation for their chaplains' ministries. In October 1863, Elisha Hunt Rhodes kept urging his fellow officers to nominate a new chaplain after their first spiritual shepherd proved to be a miserable failure: "Some of the officers were opposed and were afraid that we might get another man like Jameson," but were later persuaded, and "after much talk, I nominated Mr. Beugless…. He has already made himself very popular, and I trust God will bless his labors…. Many of the soldiers are good Christian men, but need some one to guide them. I feel greatly rejoiced over the prospect for the future" (Rhodes 1985, pp. 125–126). Private David King also rejoiced at the arrival of his new chaplain: "Our Pastor has come at last and he is a fine man and a good preacher" (King, April 16, 1864). In late December 1863, Andrew J. McGarrah of the Sixty-third Indiana expressed his appreciation for the religious books and tracts his unit's "fine little" chaplain was distributing: "he furnishes us with good Books tracts and papers and is going to establish a Bible class" (McGarrah, December 16, 1863). Vermont soldier Charles A. Manson also boasted that his unit "had one of the best chaplains," because recently, "he had had given every soldier in the regiment a Soldiers prayer Book" (Manson, October 18, 1862).

Jewish Chaplains in the Civil War

The Civil War was the first American conflict in which the military chaplaincy was opened to Jewish rabbis as well as to Christian clergy. There were about 6,500 Jews in the Union Army in 1861, as well as 2,000 in the Confederate Army, but there was no provision for their religious needs at the beginning of the war. Although Congress recognized the need for regimental chaplains to serve the rapidly expanding Union Army, the act that was passed in August 1861 stipulated that they must be "regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination and were to be selected and appointed as the President may direct" (Bates 1864, p. 280). Arnold Fischel, a Philadelphia rabbi, lobbied various congressmen for the next eleven months to have the wording of the law changed. In addition to Fischel, the Board of Delegates of American Israelites petitioned President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) to open the military chaplaincy to Jewish rabbis as well as to Christian clergy.

Lincoln then made a recommendation to Congress in favor of the change. On July 17, 1862, the wording of the act providing for regimental chaplains was altered to read as follows:

That no person shall be appointed a chaplain in the United States Army who is not a regularly ordained minister of some religious denomination, and who does not present testimonials of his good standing as such minister, with a recommendation of his appointment as an Army chaplain from some authorized ecclesiastical body, or not less than five accredited ministers belonging to said religious denomination (U.S. War Department 1862, p. 521).

After the law was changed Rabbi Fischel served as a civilian chaplain during the Civil War, ministering to Jewish personnel in the Army of the Potomac.

The first rabbi to be officially commissioned as a chaplain in the Union Army was Rabbi Jacob Frankel of Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Frankel came from a musical family and was known as "the sweet singer of Israel" for his beautiful voice. He was commissioned by President Lincoln on September 18, 1862, and served until July 1, 1865. Rabbi Frankel ministered to wounded soldiers in military hospitals in the Philadelphia area, singing and praying with them. He valued his years as a chaplain so highly that he had his commission framed and displayed in his home.

The first Jewish chaplain who saw combat in the Civil War was Rabbi Ferdinand Leopold Samer, who emigrated to the United States from Germany. Rabbi Samer was elected by the largely German-speaking soldiers of the 54th New York Volunteer Regiment, the so-called Schwarze Jäger, to be their chaplain. He was commissioned on April 10, 1863. Following a severe wound received at the Battle of Gettysburg (1863), Rabbi Samer was discharged for medical disabilities in October 1864.



Bates, Edward. "Opinion of Attorney General Bates on Paying a Colored Chaplain." The Political History of the United States of America during The Great Rebellion, ed. Edward McPherson. Washington, DC: Philp and Solomons, 1864.

Patrick, Bethanne Kelly. "Jacob Frankel." Available from

Slomovitz, Albert Isaac. The Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

U.S. War Department. Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1861. Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1862.

Most soldiers apparently believed that the unofficial chaplains serving short-term missions in the army with the U.S. Christian Commission came the closest to exemplifying Brown's ideal of a military chaplain, but by late 1862, the energetic preaching and teaching of conscientious, hardworking official chaplains was also finally beginning to bear fruit. In a late September 1862 diary entry, Berea M. Willsey recorded that "Nothing has been talked of this forenoon but the sermon we had yesterday. I hope good results will follow" (Willsey 1995, p. 49). First Lieutenant Dwight Fraser told his sisters, "Our Chaplain is a very fine man and is the highest sense a Christian gentleman…. It is quite a treat for us to get together once in a while and have preaching and singing and prayer. It seems a good deal like a Camp Meeting to me, and I think these exercises are calculated to do much good among the men" (Fraser, June 25–26, 1864). W. S. Bower told his sister that his chaplain's prayer meetings were very "profitable to us….There was 18 present last time [and] our number is increasing. Some are beginning to enquire the way our chaplain is loved by all. I don't know how I could live here without him" (Bower, April 17, 1863). Many Union chaplains' exemplary service after 1862 apparently helped atone for the earlier sins and failures of their peers. Three Union chaplains even received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their heroic wartime service—either fighting at the front or caring for wounded soldiers while under fire.

The Sword over the Gown

On the Confederate side, Jefferson Davis initially opposed the creation of a Southern military chaplaincy because he thought the South needed soldiers, not ministers, and because, like most Southerners reared with the Spirituality of the Church doctrine espoused by the Presbyterian minister James Henley Thornwell (1812–1862), he believed such religious concerns were best left to individual churches, not the state. Although the Richmond government later reluctantly organized a chaplaincy to placate the spiritual concerns of prominent Southern Christians and churches, Southern chaplains were paid significantly less than their Northern counterparts, were issued even fewer instructions regarding their duties, and received virtually no support from their government. As a result, there was always a severe shortage of Confederate chaplains serving in the army, and less than half of the Confederate units ever received one. Lacking detailed orders concerning their military status, many of those who did serve became "fighting chaplains," and were thus far more likely to be wounded or killed in combat than their Northern counterparts (Shattuck 1987, pp. 47, 63–68).

In the first years of the war most Southern churchmen seemed more interested in embracing the role of an Old Testament warrior—such as Joshua or King David—than in ministering to the spiritual needs of Southern soldiers. When Jefferson Davis asked his former West Point roommate, the Episcopal bishop Leoni-das Polk (1806–1864), to accept a commission as major general in the Confederate States Army, Polk immediately suspended his religious duties so he could buckle his "sword over the gown" and serve the South as a warrior-priest. Over the next year, many other Southern clergymen apparently felt inspired to follow his lead. In Richmond, Sallie Putnam noted that Virginia clergymen such as William N. Pendleton (1809–1883) and Dabney Harrison were shedding their clerical vestments and girding on "the armor of the soldier… not with a wish to lead in a rebellion… but from a stern sense of divine direction and the whisperings of patriotism to which conscience and an innate feeling of duty prompted and would not be stilled" (Putnam [1867] 1961, p. 49).

Ministers from other denominations across the South seemed to share Polk's sentiment that fighting the war should take precedence over their local ministries or any spiritual outreach to the troops. Catherine Hopley, an English subject living in Virginia during the war, was shocked when the local Baptist minister she invited to dinner suddenly exclaimed: "I cannot rest here, I believe I must enlist too. I feel that my country calls me, and that I might be as useful on the battlefield as in my church. Has not Bishop Polk set me an example? And there is S. who has volunteered, and M. intends to do the same" (Hopley [1861] 1971, pp. 329–330). Perhaps Hopley's dinner guest and colleagues were among the dozens of Baptist ministers across Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia who organized local companies and marched off to war, leaving their congregations to fend for themselves. The Methodist camp was also decimated by fever for war. Bishop George Foster Pierce noted that so many Methodist ministers had enlisted in the Confederate army that the work of the December 1861 Atlanta Conference was impaired (Smith 1888, p. 447). Increasingly concerned with the excessive "war spirit among our preachers," Bishop Pierce announced that in the future, Methodist preachers should only go to war as chaplains, not soldiers (Owen 1998, pp. 103–105). The Virginian Presbyterian, Robert Lewis Dabney, also believed that ministers like himself should not compromise their moral power "to act as peace-makers and mediators," and urged Virginia's Christians to "arise and conquer in this war by the power of prayer." After taking a leave of absence from his seminary to serve as a chaplain in Beauregard's army, however, Dabney's earlier convictions and noncombatant status did not prevent him from serving as a battlefield courier in the First Battle of Manassas (July 1861), or from later serving as "Stonewall" Jackson's chief of staff (Johnson 1903, pp. 221–272).

The Eternal Message of Grace and Love to Perishing Sinners

Shortly before his death in 1863, General Stonewall Jackson urgently requested that the Southern churches send additional clergymen to his army to care for the spiritual needs of his men. In response to Jackson's request, despite a critical shortage of local clergy, the 1863 Annual Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia temporarily stripped some hard-pressed clergymen of their parishes so they could serve short-term mission trips with the Rebel army. In what appeared to be the beginning of a gradual shift in policy, the Episcopal Council also asked that its ministers stop preaching sermons "on the times and the war and the objects of our country's hopes" and instead focus on "the glad tidings of salvation, [or] just the eternal message of grace and love to perishing sinners" (Episcopal Church, Diocese of Virginia 1863, p. 39). In other words, the churches should shift the emphasis of their preaching away from a Yankee-appropriated Confederate jeremiad and back to the more urgent and traditional spiritual business of individual salvation.

This return to the gospel of individual salvation later reaped handsome rewards, as major revivals began to blaze through the Army of Northern Virginia. Having failed to redeem the home front, the Southern churches continued to dispatch spiritual emissaries or eleventh-hour "chaplains" to help feed the burgeoning revivals at the front. At home, popular interest in the army revivals soared as many hoped the spiritual enthusiasm in the army would somehow spill over to their communities and help spiritually renew the home front as well.

Military events in 1864 and the spring of 1865, however, soon dispelled such illusions. Instead of unlocking the spiritual door to victory, the Southern revivals had apparently just sanctified soldiers for their imminent deaths at places such as Spotsylvania Courthouse and Petersburg. The final defeat of the Confederacy provoked a profound spiritual crisis as the Southern churches and their emissaries to the troops tried to ascertain what had gone wrong with the Confederate experiment. Still convinced of the righteousness of their lost cause, they could only conclude that like the examples of Job and Christ, the life and death of the Confederacy was intended to accomplish some higher, presently unknown, purpose. Southern Christians took comfort in a literal, commonsense exegesis of the scriptures that assured them that God had never intended His Church's final victory to come in this world. When the Confederate chaplains returned from the war, they helped their churches pursue revival at home with the same spirit it had been pursued in the army.


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David W. Rolfs

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