American Civil War Chaplains: Finding Purpose on the Battlefield

            Reading Janie Blankenship’s VFW Magazine article (2008), “Chaplains Provide Spiritual Comfort on the Battlefield,” a hopeful chaplain candidate might be led to believe that the estimated 4,000 chaplains that served in the Civil War were not only heroic on the battlefield, but served in a well-defined position within their units.  Gardiner H. Shattuck, Jr. also shares a story of a heroic Civil War chaplain; except unlike Blankenship, he suggests that the heroic Civil War chaplain tales are far more the exception than the norm (Bergen 2004).  Often, the chaplains who served during the American Civil War struggled to find purpose on the field of battle.
            According to Blankenship, “There were 157 chaplains who were killed or died during the war on both sides (44 Confederate)” (2008).  As evidence of bravery among chaplains, Blankenship discusses the three chaplains who were awarded the Medal of Honor.  “Methodist Rev, John Whitehead of the 15th Indiana Volunteer Infantry received the nation’s highest honor for carrying several wounded and helpless soldiers to the rear while taking enemy fire at Stone River Tenn., on Dec. 31, 1862” (Blankenship 2008).  The second was Reverend Francis Hall, with the 16th New York Infantry, who “...voluntarily exposed himself to heavy fire during the thickest of the fight and carried wounded men to the rear for treatment” (Blankenship 2008.)  And the third was Presbyterian Reverend Milton Haney of the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry who voluntarily carried a rifle, provided whisky to the men, and became an active combatant in the Battle of Atlanta, “further deepen[ing] the respect of the men around him” (Blankenship 2008).
            Gardiner too shares a chaplain’s story of battlefield bravery.  During the Battle of Gettysburg, chaplain William Corby “...exposing himself to enemy fire, stood up and pronounced the absolution of sin on every man he saw” (Bergen 2004, 112).  A statue honoring Corby’s bravery was later erected on the Gettysburg battlefield.  However, even among the great wartime revivals, church services, and occasional anecdote of a heroic chaplain, Gardiner argues that most chaplains failed to find purpose on the battlefield, and sometimes even among the soldiers during garrison periods.
            Baptist minister Frederic Denison “not only conducted worship services, prayed, preached, and counseled his men,” according to Gardiner, “but he also cared for the sick and wounded, buried the dead, guarded prisoners, delivered the mail, chronicled the activities of the regiment, functioned as its librarian and treasurer, taught freed slaves how to read and write, and even assisted officers as an aide-de-camp” (Bergen 2004, 106.)  Yet, even having these great service opportunities, Denison believed most chaplains were completely useless on the battlefield, specifically after he encountered a small group of chaplains who were “bewildered” and “distressed” having been separated from their unit (Bergen 2004, 107).  This was likely the case for most of the chaplains serving during the Civil War.
            However, the lack of battlefield purpose was not entirely the fault of the chaplain corp. According to Gardiner, “Since they had received no clear instructions about their responsibilities, most never really knew what was expected of them in the field” (Bergen 2004, 107).  Today, every position in the American Army, including the chaplain, has a wartime mission.  Had this been true for the Civil War chaplain, they might not have felt like, as Denison described, “a kind of fifth wheel to a coach, being in place nowhere and out of place everywhere” (Bergen 2004, 107).
            Despite the great advances of the chaplaincy in the garrison environment, most chaplains were unable to find their proper place in the fight during the Civil War. Despite the small handful of heroes, most chaplains were indeed the “5th wheel” and Denison believed.

Reference List
Bergen, Doris L. The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplain from the First to the Twenty-First Century.  Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 2004. 
Blankenship, Janie. 2008. "Chaplains Provide Spiritual Comfort on the Battle Field." VFW Magazine, November.

*This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.