The Fighting Parsons of the Civil War

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General Leonidas PolkThe American Civil War was the only conflict in American history in which men of the cloth took up arms and led troops in battle. Colloquially, they were known as “fighting parsons”. Almost always during the war men who held both command positions and religious positions were in the Confederate States Army. On occasion chaplains in the Union Army would pick up a musket and join in the fight.

The highest ranking officer on both sides of the conflict who was also a man of religion was Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk. Known as the Fighting Bishop, Polk had graduated from West Point in 1827 with an impressive academic record, excelling in rhetoric and moral philosophy.

He almost immediately resigned his commission to enter the Virginia Theological Seminary after being baptized into the Episcopalian Church at West Point. He was ordained as a priest of that church in 1831 and moved back to Maury County, Tennessee where he was reputed to be the largest slaveholder. Some say he held up to 400 slaves in bondage. In 1841 he was  elected Bishop of Louisiana.

At the beginning of the war, Polk offered his services to his friend and former classmate Jefferson Davis who immediately appointed him a major general of volunteers. By October 1862 he was a lieutenant general, the second most senior Confederate of that rank during the war, behind James Longstreet. Polk led Confederate troops in the Western Theater until his death on June 14, 1864 where he killed by an artillery shell near Marietta, Georgia.

A lesser known “fighting parson” was Lt. Col. David C. Kelley, a Methodist minister who served congregations both in Tennessee and China before the war. At the start of the war Kelley approached Nathan Bedford Forrest who offered him a major’s commission in his cavalry regiment. He eventually commanded Forrest’s Regiment after Forrest moved to higher command.

Forrest considered Kelley as not only a fighting man but also his chaplain, although Kelly never held a chaplain’s commission. After Forrest’s surrender in May 1865, the Rev. Kelley returned to his duties as a Methodist minister in Tennessee.

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 while serving with the 17th Alabama Infantry. Returning to civilian life, he nevertheless remained active in Confederate activities.

Robert Lewis Dabney was a Presbyterian minister who also served under Stonewall Jackson as his chief of staff during the Valley Campaign and the Seven Days Battles. Dabney, whose wife was a first cousin to Stonewall Jackson’s wife, participated in the Civil War: during the summer of 1861 as chaplain of the 18th Virginia Infantry. After the Civil War Dabney spoke widely on Jackson and the Confederacy.

On the Union side, Milton L. Haney, a Methodist minister, joined the Union Army as a captain in charge of Company F, 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, and was appointed chaplain of that regiment in March 1862. During the Atlanta Campaign in July 1864, Haney reverted to his initial role as fighting man. According to his Medal of Honor citation Haney “voluntarily carried a musket in the ranks of his regiment and rendered heroic service in retaking the Federal works which had been captured by the enemy.”

Hiram Eddy was chaplain for the 2nd Connecticut Volunteers (90 days service) at Bull Run, where he was captured with a rifle in his hand. He was reported to have preached a sermon the night before urging the soldiers to “show no quarter, take sure aim and shoot to kill.” These facts made the Confederates less agreeable to the “chaplains are noncombatants” rule, and Reverend Eddy was the first prisoner of Libby Prison POW camp. He was prisoner of five different POW camps before he was released a year later.

Nathan G. Axtell enlisted as chaplain of the 30th New York Infantry on June 1, 1861, serving through the battles of Second Bull Run, South Mountain, and Antietam before being appointed the first Major of the 142nd New York Infantry. He fought with the 142nd at Drew’s Bluff, Bermuda Hundred and the siege of Petersburg. He was wounded at Drewry’s Bluff in May 1864. Discharged on October 22, 1864, he was appointed Colonel of the 192nd New York Infantry on May 10, 1865. This regiment saw garrison duty in the Shenandoah Valley for the last few months of the war.

It is believed that as many as 97 union chaplains were appointed as combat soldiers, 23 of which served as officers, and some clergymen actually raised regiments. In many respects being a clergyman in 19th century American was looked upon as simply another occupation and for those men who took up the sword they saw it as a defense of their way of life.

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