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Military chaplins during the civil war

This paper discusses the role and duties of a military chaplain during the Civil War. MILITARY CHAPLAINS DURING THE CIVIL WAR
Cassie S. Tritthart
September 7, 2008
During the civil war, chaplains had undefined role when it came to their involvement within the military unit. Baptist minister Fredric Denison recalled his own duties while placed with a Union regiment as practical as well as spiritual. As Bergen describes Denison’s true chaplaincy role, “he…conducted worship services, prayed, preached and counseled his men, but he also cared for the sick and wounded.”[1] The duties performed not fitting into the chaplaincy role included, “buried the dead, guarded prisoners, delivered the mail, chronicled the activities of his regiment, functioned as its librarian and treasurer, taught freed slaves how to read and write, and even assisted officers as an aid-de-camp.”[2] The complaint of Denison was that chaplains had no recognized place within the military. During battles marches and battles, chaplains had no defined role as to what they should be doing.[3]
Chaplains were also overwhelming stretched thin during the early period of the civil war. Congress finally sanctioned an exact number one chaplain would oversee. While the chaplains were paid the amount of a captain in the cavalry, they were not allowed to wear uniforms with any insignia. They were also not afforded any formal military rank. [4] The uniforms provided for the military chaplains did not set them apart from civilian clergy.
Because of the separation of church and state, the chaplain’s exact duties had to remain vague. In some instances, chaplains were viewed as feminine, because they did not assume the usually roles of a soldier. While many embraced the religious movements of the time, the chaplains had to deal with those soldiers that had denounced the institutional church.
The Confederate army officials at first did not want to appoint clergy to military units. But because of the outcry from citizens, the military officials were forced to place clergy with military units. However, the chaplains had no official standing and no recognized authority within the military. They had no insignia designating them as part of the military unit. Their pay grade was the lowest on the scale of officers which was that of second lieutenant.[5] Since the confederate chaplains felt their role was not of importance, many quit the military campaign all together. This inadequacy was fulfilled by missionaries from the many southern movements of the time. The southern Baptist convention, the Methodist Episcopal church, and the Presbyterian church all sent missionaries to minister to the military regiments of the Confederacy.[6]
The problem with chaplains preaching to the men on the eve of battle was that death was imminent. The chaplain had to assure the troops that God would be watching over them. The chaplain prayed for protection but knew that it was part of war that men would be slain. It was hard to reconcile the spiritual with the temporal setting. While soldiers knew that death was a possibility it was the chaplain’s job to insure them that what they were fighting for was just and their deaths were for God’s purpose. It was hard to justify a war started by men and the deaths that were the outcome of this war with the spiritual teachings of the church. [7]
Works Cited
Bergen, Doris L. ed. 2004. The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press.

[1] Doris L. Bergen, The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 106.

[2]Bergen, The Sword of the Lord, 106.

[3]Bergen, The Sword of the Lord, 106-107.
[4] Bergen, 108.

[5]Bergen, Sword of the Lord, 108-110.

[6]Bergen, 110.
[7]Bergen, 116-117.

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