DuBose, Justin Z: GC6831
CM 730 Writing Assignment #1
The Chaplain in the American Civil War carried out perhaps the greatest responsibility of any war-time Chaplain in history. Chaplains have always been in an awkward position since their inception, being a non-combatant in an organization whose entire purpose is combat. Combine this with the fact that they were also the most under prepared for their duties, and that they were carrying out this ministry in a divided, fighting, hostile country, and you discover a group of ministers in the greatest place of hardship imaginable. In addressing these three issues – their being in an awkward position, their being grossly unprepared, and their ministry taking place in a civil war – it will become evident that these men had the most awesome responsibilities of any group of Chaplains in history.
Chaplains have always occupied an awkward position in combat. Chaplains, at first glance, seem to be almost a contradiction of sorts on the battlefield. Firstly, they are non-combatants in a combat zone. Beyond this, though, they are symbols of peace in war, love in violence, and servitude in their role as superior officers. It is quite easy to see how they have a difficult time finding their place and acceptance among the very men they seek to serve. However, this position of awkwardness goes beyond raw facts – it extends also to perception. As postwar author Louisa May Alcott wrote in her famous novel Little Women, “I think it was so splendid in father to go as a chaplain when he was too old to be draughted, and not strong enough for a soldier.” 1 This is often the perception of Chaplains – as not really being soldiers.
They wear the same uniform, but yet are outsiders. What is the reason behind this? In
1 Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women (1868; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pg. 11.
specifically addressing Civil War views, Gardiner Shattuck writes that “some skeptics worried that Christianity itself encouraged ‘feminine’ qualities in men” and as a result, Christians “usually made ineffective soldiers.” 2 This perception is something that all Chaplains have an uphill struggle against, and just another variable in the equation of why Civil War chaplains, in particular, had an unusually difficult time.
When the statistics of prewar Chaplains are examined, it becomes evident why Civil War chaplains were so grossly unprepared for their awesome responsibility. “Prior to the attack on Fort Sumter, the 16,000 soldiers in the U.S. Army had been served by just thirty chaplains, and some of those men held concurrent civilian pastorates while others were not even formally ordained.” 3 This is a ratio of one chaplain for every five-hundred and thirty-three soldiers! By war’s end some 3,694 Chaplains served in total. 4 This is an increase of over twelve-thousand percent in just four years! No one is ever fully prepared to be a Chaplain in war, but these men certainly were so rushed into their positions that preparation was almost a non-factor. Consider, too, that the Civil War was, by far, the most deadly and gruesome war in American history. To equal the number of Civil War deaths, one would have to combine the total American deaths of World Wars I and II, Vietnam, the Revolution, and the War of 1812. These Chaplains certainly were underprepared, if prepared at all, for the horrors that awaited them on the battlefield.
Ministry is never an easy thing to do. Ministry in combat is exponentially more difficult.
2 Bergen, Doris L. ed., The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ of Notre Dame Pr, 2004), page 109.
3 Ibid, page 107.
4 “National Civil War Chaplains Museum,” http://www.chaplainsmuseum.org/i/?page_id=21 (accessed October 15, 2011).
Ministry in civil war is perhaps the most difficult ministry imaginable. Not only are you forced to address normal combat concerns of killing and being killed, but now those whom you minister to are killing not just their fellow man, but their fellow countryman. In some cases, even their own family. How is someone prepared to address such issues? Additionally, one must continue to be a staff officer and perform these functions as well. One Union chaplain describes his duties by saying that he “not only conducted worship services, prayed, preached, and counseled his men, but he also cared for the sick and wounded, 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 aide-de-camp.” 5 This ministry and these responsibilities took place in a combat zone. Certainly such responsibility - physically, mentally, and spiritually - has never been shared on such a grand scale by any other American chaplain.
The chaplains who served in the American Civil War had, in the opinion of the author, the most awesome responsibility of any chaplain in American history. While all chaplains, especially those in combat situations, have a difficult time, none can compare to what these men had to face. In today’s Army, chaplains and chaplain candidates are given a twelve week course in how to be a chaplain. These men had no such preparation. They simply felt compelled, convicted, and called to serve, and a great many of them did so heroically – four of whom were awarded the Medal of Honor. Today’s chaplains can and should look to these men not only for encouragement, but also as example of the power of God to use men as light to the world, even in the most dire of human circumstances.
5 Bergen, Doris L. ed., The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ of Notre Dame Pr, 2004), page 106.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women (1868; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
Bergen, Doris L. ed., The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ of Notre Dame Pr, 2004).
“National Civil War Chaplains Museum,” http://www.chaplainsmuseum.org/i/?page_id=21 (accessed October 15, 2011).
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