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Thread: Chaplains in the Civil War

  1. #1

    Chaplains in the Civil War

    My ancestor was a fighting chaplain in the Civil War and it is something that is not well known so I thought I might share a few interesting facts that I came across when studying chaplains during that time.

    "To the Union belongs the distinction of authorizing the first female military chaplain. After first receiving encouragement from President Lincoln upon expressing a desire to become an Army chaplain, Mrs. Ellen E. Hobart did not receive the same welcome from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton--despite a signed note of approval from Lincoln himself. Though Hobart was an ordained minister and married to a regimental chaplain, Stanton bristled at the notion, stating he did not want to “set a precedent” and then bluntly refused Hobart’s petition. But Hobart, coming from a rather liberal theological background, had been trained to challenge traditional notions of Christian service and dogma. She continued to work with various Christian aid societies on behalf of soldiers and eventually won the support of Wisconsin Governor, James T. Lewis. After obtaining the endorsement of several other ministers, as well as gaining the confidence of a number of Union soldiers, Ella Hobart was elected chaplain of the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery on November 22, 1864, thus becoming the first female chaplain in the United States military. Governor Lewis later recanted his original support and refused to commission her, “if Stanton won’t muster you” and the war ended with Hobart’s status in limbo. After several years of political wrangling, Congress would eventually pass a joint resolution on March 3, 1869 that authorized Hobart’s right to receive the full pay and recognition of a U.S. Army chaplain.

    To the Confederacy also belongs a first in the history of military chaplains—the first black man known to minister to white soldiers. The September 10, 1863 issue of The Religious Herald, recounted how a Tennessee regiment was having difficulty securing a chaplain to conduct religious services for its soldiers. A slave in the regiment known by the men as “Uncle Lewis” enjoyed a reputation among the men of being devout. He was asked to fill in temporarily and conduct a worship service.

    The soldiers were so pleased with his service that they asked him to continue to serve as their chaplain from the spring of 1862 until the close of the war, during which time the regiment experiences two revivals. The Religious Herald correspondent describing the services wrote, “He is heard with respectful attention, and for earnestness, zeal, and sincerity, can be surpassed by none.” To this Tennessee regiment, as well as the reporter who wrote the story, the service of their black chaplain was “a matter of pride.”

    Uncle Lewis’s full name was Louis Napoleon Nelson and he served with Company M, 7th Tennessee Cavalry, which was part of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s command. According to Nelson’s grandson, Nelson Winbush, his grandfather told him that a number of Yankee soldiers once joined the Tennesseans during a worship service and, after its conclusion, “all shook hands and went back to fighting.”

    Men trained as theologians and preachers displayed amazing courage when facing death, even when presented with an easy means of escape. Albert Gallatin Willis was offered a chaplain’s pardon to avoid a hanging execution by Union soldiers. His response was quite remarkable.

    He had been serving with Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s rangers for several months. Though born into a wealthy Virginia family, Willis chose to pursue a life of gospel ministry and was, at the time the war broke out, studying to be a Baptist preacher. Willis had been looking forward to seeing his home as he headed toward Culpeper, Virginia on October 13, 1864. Mosby’s men enjoyed frequent furloughs as their lightning-quick, hit and run missions allowed them to return to their homes and farms often. But Willis’s horse came up lame near Flint Hill, forcing him to stop at the local farrier’s shop at Gaine’s Crossroad. Suddenly, Willis and an unnamed companion were surrounded by troops of the 2nd West Virginia Cavalry. Taken prisoner, the two soon learned their fate. One of them would be hanged. That order had come from General Ulysses S. Grant as retribution for Federals Mosby had killed. Grant’s order required that one Confederate be hanged “without trial” for each Yankee killed by Mosby’s men.

    Speaking with the two young men separately, Union Brigadier General William H. Powell informed them they were to draw straws to determine which man would die. Powell also informed Willis that he could claim a chaplain’s exemption, if he so chose. Willis had not yet been ordained and did not believe he deserved such consideration. He refused Powell’s offer. The two prisoners were brought back together and ordered to draw straws. Willis’s unnamed companion drew the short straw and then burst into tears crying, “I have a wife and children, I am not a Christian and am afraid to die!”

    Upon hearing those words, Willis spoke up: “I have no family, I am a Christian, and not afraid to die.” Due to Willis’s willingness to stand in his stead, his companion was released. Within moments and after praying for his executioners, Albert Gallatin Willis was hanged. Today his remains rest inside a white picket fence in the tiny graveyard of Flint Hill Baptist Church in Flint Hill, Virginia.

    Many 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 was found in those chaplains who insisted on 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.

    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 alongside 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 lose 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.

    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."


    Psalm 144
    Praise be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. He is my loving God and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge.

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    Last edited by JediKnightSolo; 01-10-2022 at 01:04 AM. Reason: new detail

    "Blessed be the LORD, my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle."

  2. #2
    WoR-Dev Bradley's Avatar
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    Jan 2018
    I got the moniker "Chaplain Bradley" because I specialize in Civil War chaplains and I did some undergraduate work in seminary. My seminary was also named after a Confederate Chaplain. Here are some books I would recommend on Chaplains and Confederate religion.

    God's Almost Chosen Peoples: A Religious History of the American Civil War by George C. Rable
    The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Mark Noll
    The Life of Johnny Reb: The Common Soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Wiley
    Chaplains in Gray; The Confederate Chaplains' Story by Charles Frank
    Christ in the Camp by John William Jones
    While God Is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers by Steven Woodworth
    Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains by John W. Binsfield and William C. Davis
    Our Trust is in the God of Battles: The Civil War Letters of Robert Franklin Bunting, Chaplain, Terry's Texas Rangers by Thomas Cutrer

  3. #3
    I will have to get my hands on those books. I want to learn everything possible about my ancestor and what he did so that I can keep his story going. Even changing my civil war reenactment kit to a Chaplain kit. Thanks for the book mentions they will help immensely.

    "Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them." - George Eliot

    "Blessed be the LORD, my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle."

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