Chaplains in the Civil War

Civil War Chaplains of the Ninth Corp Petersburg, VA: October 1864 Library of Congress

Civil War Chaplains of the Ninth Corp
Petersburg, VA: October 1864
Library of Congress

I have been researching the experience of Chaplains in the Civil War for my book on Rev. John McNair and have learned some interesting facts about what Chaplains experienced.

  • There were 30 chaplains serving in the Army before the war and by the end there were over 2,300 who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
  • The role was quite controversial at the beginning of the war. There were many citizens who didn’t believe that Chaplains had a place in the military because of the division of church and state and there were others that had very specific thoughts about who they should be. The laws governing their education, status, pay and responsibilities of their service were fraught with legislative updates to clarify the issues e.g. broadening the definition of “Christian” denominations to “religious” denominations.
  • They were to be paid the equivalent of a Captain, but they never got a “rank”.
  • They were supposed to wear a uniform of a “plain black frock coat with standing collar and one row of nine black buttons, plain black pantaloons; black felt hat or army forage cap, without adornment.” Many of the chaplains preferred not to wear religious robes and instead wore the uniform of a captain.
  • They were paid $100 per month, 2 rations a day while on duty and forage for their horse.  Though because of a comma in the law, many Quartermasters used this as an excuse to not pay the Chaplains if they were “off duty” e.g. sick, captured or on another assignment for the Regiment.
  • To be commissioned as a Chaplain for a Regiment, they needed five letters from ministers from their denomination declaring their appropriateness for the office, a certified letter from the Regiment stating they had been elected by the staff leaders and an appointment from the state Governor.
  • What he carried: one valise, a roll of blankets (one of India rubber), a haversack, toilet articles, canteen and a tin cup. If they were at camp for winter quarters he could have a trunk and “bedstead”.
  • They had a wide variety of duties while serving their Regiment besides holding services and prayers. Many chaplains also:
    • Wrote letters for soldiers in the hospital.
    • Maintained libraries at camp
    • Taught reading and writing to illiterate soldiers
    • Notified families of a soldier’s death
    • Aided former slaves who made it into camp teaching them to read and write
    • Carried men and equipment on horseback during marches
    • Foraged for fresh vegetables for the soldiers
    • Assisted the wounded on the battlefields and in surgery
    • Counseled soldiers weary and sick from the war
    • Loaned money to soldiers
    • Carried ammunition and water to the men in battle

If your ancestors served in the Civil War, they would have had a minister in their Regiment (a Regiment is 10 companies of 100 men equaling about 1000 men.). Perhaps they interacted and your ancestor went to services or was helped in some way by the Chaplain. Or maybe your ancestor was not religious and he tried to keep away from the Chaplain, especially when drinking and gambling? I am pretty sure some of my ancestors fell into this category! Just something to think about when you are looking at the men that served with your ancestor.  Did he know the Chaplain from back home?


Armstrong, Warren B.. For Courageous Fighting and Confident Dying: Union Chaplains in the Civil War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Brinsfield, John W., William C. Davis, Benedict Maryniak and James I. Roberson, Jr. Faith in the Fight: Civil War Chaplains. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books, 2003.

Maryniak, Benedict R. and John Wesley Brinsfield, Jr.. The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of the Civil War Chaplains – The Union. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2007.

Messent, Peter and Steve Courtney. The Civil War Letters of Joseph Hopkins Twichell. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2012.

Woodworth, Steven. While God is Marching On: The Religious World of Civil War Soldiers. Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2001.

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2 Responses to Chaplains in the Civil War

  1. Laura says:

    Terrific post on a topic I’ve never read about before. So looking forward to reading your biography of the Rev. John McNair.

    • Rachelle says:

      Thanks Laura! The book on the Rev. is taking longer than I expected and will require more research trips to New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I am afraid it will be done by the end of 2017, not 2016 like I had hoped!

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