Ministering to the Troops

This entry is part 8 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life

Father William Corby at GettysburgReligion was an important part of American’s lives in the Civil War Era. Every city and town had churches and synagogues that ministered to the populace. Why, therefore, wouldn’t the men who fought on both sides of the war look for the same solace in battle as they found at home?

The soldiers on both sides of the conflict were for the most part men of faith. And the violence of the Civil War was shaking their faith in their God. Chaplains who ministered to the troops therefore found it necessary to provide them with some solace and comfort during the most stressful times of their lives.

The violence and suffering of the war impelled many men to look to God for answers. religion stood at the center of the Civil War for both sides. Both North and South looked to God for meaning, and each side believed, with equal fervor and certitude, that God was on its side.

Many ministers, generals, leaders, and editors went so far as to proclaim that God had ordained the war and would determine its length, its damages, and its outcome. The victor would show, in other words, whose side God really supported. New England political and religious leaders had long proclaimed themselves God’s “chosen people.” With the start of the Civil War, southerners laid claim to the title and, through speech, print, and ritual actions, proceeded to “prove” their claim.

In order to minister to the troops both sides enlisted chaplains of all faith and incorporated them in their regiments. Protestants still enjoyed a significant numerical and cultural dominance in the 1860s. However, Catholics and Jews also provided chaplains to both sides.

During the course of the war the chaplains numbered about 3,000 and the average length of service was 18 months. It is important to understand that the average age of chaplains was 50. Although that sounds middle-aged by modern standards during the Civil War era it would actually be closer to 70 in length of life. It is no wonder that the average service length was short.

Chaplains not only ministered to the troops but there was a wide variety of other services that they performed. The ministered to the sick in camps and the dying on the battlefield. They wrote letters and read them to illiterate troops. They counseled troops individually. They held church services and revival meetings.

They solicited supplies and bibles from their home congregations. Some wrote to their hometown newspapers in an effort to kept them informed about their men. Some chaplains also served as assistant surgeons, hospital stewards, regimental adjutants, or quartermasters.

Chaplains also were aided 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, a Richmond minister, evaded 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.

At the start of the war the Union War Department authorized the appointment of regularly ordained ministers as chaplains with the quota beingA chaplain performing a field service 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. They wore the uniform and insignia for that grade as well as sword and pistol and were sometimes mistaken for command officers.  It is estimated that about 3000 chaplains were appointed by governors, Federal officials and commanders

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. The Confederate Army was well supplied with 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.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of religious men in the military of both sides was the concept of “fighting chaplains” or “fighting parsons.” This subject will be covered in the next post in this series.


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