Faith and War, the lot of the regimental chaplain in the civil war

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By Phillip Bryant

In 1861 the Federal War Department established General Orders #15 for the regulation of chaplains for the provisional army, those volunteer units being called by each state of the Union for the suppression of the rebellion. It was recognized that a chaplain was as much needed for the health of a regiment as a surgeon and quartermaster was. That the soldiers would need guidance, spiritual instruction, and a faith influence in their lives is still recognized today in the modern military.

Regulations were needed for the regimental special staffs as each state regiment was sworn into federal service. General Order 15 established a formal call for how a chaplain was to be recognized and inducted into federal service and that order was amended by General Order 16, which expanded the call to allow for Jewish Priests to fill the role, the earlier order only established that a minister in good standing of a Christian denomination.

In practice, however, chaplains had more to contend with than just the rigors of life in the field. A chaplain would receive the pay commiserate with that of a captain of cavalry. In the early days of the war some chaplains, lacking clear guidelines, wore officers shoulder straps, carried a sword, and would often be mistaken for an officer of the line. General Orders 16 established a uniform of a plain frock coat of black wool and no rank, but as with most officers in the civil war service, these were at times taken as mere guidelines. What was more, the chaplain was still under the command of the regimental commander and often under his whims for permission to execute his spiritual duty among the troops. If a commander chose to, he could restrict the ability of a chaplain to hold regular Sunday services by refusing to allow the regiment to have any free time, or by restricting or discouraging the use of that free time that the chaplain might have used for vespers or observances. If the army was in active campaigning, there would be little time or space for holding regular meetings. But, if the commander was a pious man himself, he could make the job of his chaplain much more rewarding. Every regiment had a billet for a chaplain. Early in the war they could be elected by vote of all officers, which often led to abuses as men without any clerical experience or training could be elected to the office. The War Departments General Orders 15 and 16 were in part responses to these abuses.

Unless the regimental commander felt the need to troop his regiment to Sunday services, the chaplains were often left to appeal on their own for attendance or for organizing bible studies, prayer groups, or other spiritual focused small group activities where the men of the regiment could elect to participate or not. While the recognized need was there for a man of the cloth to be present, the general orders did not give the chaplains any means to officially carry out their role, it was up to their own powers of persuasion and a friendly commander that could mean the difference. An effect of this was a large turnover of chaplains throughout the war. Age, the rigors of campaigning, and often hostile commanders drove many from their office after only several months of serving. Few served throughout the war, having left behind parishes and churches untended while they served the war effort, many returned to pick up their lives, some never being the same again in both mind and body.


phillipPhillip Bryant is a civil war historian and author. Philip works in the IT field as an Windows Active Directory Architect and systems administrator. He has been active in living history and reenacting since 1995. His first novel, They Met at Shiloh, debuted in 2011 and his second release, A Certain Death, is now available for Kindle download.


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They Met at Shiloh They Met at Shiloh, book #1 of the Shiloh Series A Certain Death, book #2 of the Shiloh Series blog Facebook Author page

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