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CONGRESS AND THE CIVIL WAR CHAPLAINCY Rollin W. Quimby Much has been written about the Union's clumsy mobilization after Sumter fell. Generally unmentioned is the fact that before 1861 there were few policies for bringing spiritual guidance and religious consolation to fighting soldiers. When hundreds of ministers enlisted as chaplains during the first summer of the war grave defects became apparent, for the lack of clear directives made it difficult for chaplains to fulfill a beneficial role in the way that devout persons considered proper.1 By July both Congress and the War Department had received the first in a continuous series of letters which deplored the state of the chaplaincy. For its part, Congress tinkered with the pertinent regulations for three years as it fashioned a set of rules designed to improve the status and quality of army ministers. In reviewing these regulations, and the debates which accompanied their passage, one can see how the harassed lawmakers sought to solve yet another highly charged problem which had descended upon them through the sudden advent of "total" war. The chaplain was the forgotten man of a neglected army in prewar years. In all, only eighty chaplains had been appointed from 1813 to 1856, mostly as post schoolmasters.2 In 1860 only thirty chaplains (assuming that all vacancies were filled) existed to serve slightly less than fifteen thousand soldiers. All but a thousand of the latter were scattered along the vast frontier west of the Mississippi. Consequently, most soldiers rarely saw a chaplain. The man killed on a cavalry patrol into Indian country would be buried while his sergeant read a passage from the Book of Common Prayer—if he received any religious attention at all. The peacetime military had not considered a full-scale ministry as necessary for soldiers, and Congress had never looked with favor upon the funds needed for it. When Fort Sumter fell, Lincoln and his commanders issued various 1RoUm W. Quimby, "The Chaplain's Predicament," Civil War History, VIII (1962), 25-37, with erratum, 334-335, describes the hardships experienced by chaplains in the performance of their duties. 2 Lorenzo D. Johnson, Chaphins of the General Government, with Objections to their Employment Considered (New York, 1856). Names and dates of service are given on pp. 65-69. 246 regulations designed to mold the new volunteer regiments into a national army. Chaplains were first mentioned in General Order No. 15, dated May 5, 1861. The section which authorized chaplains for volunteer units rested on past statements of policy as implied in former congressional legislation. The lawmakers had debated the pay and status of chaplains ever since the government undertook to create a national military force after the Revolution. Even tiiough the statutes were revised a number of times through the years, one can detect an accumulation of official concepts and attitudes: ( 1) The word "chaplain" represented a title and not a military rank. Successive Congresses held different opinions as to where chaplains stood in the military hierarchy, but generally prewar Congresses tended to approximate the chaplains' pay and rank with that of a captain. (2)After 1838 the appointment of chaplains was frequently justified by the thought that they could act as schoolmasters to illiterate and immigrant soldiers and to dependent children living on army posts, as well as being pastors. This idea was so attractive that during the Mexican War, when some commanders suggested that reluctant chaplains be forced to accompany the soldiers into the field, a Senate committee stressed the importance of chaplains as schoolmasters, and the matter was left to the discretion of the Secretary of War. By 1861 the chaplain was considered to be attached to a post and not to a regiment. If the post was closed when a regiment transferred elsewhere, he lost his position unless there was a vacancy at another post. (3)Congress never officially assigned the chaplain any duties other than teaching, not even the performance of religious services. (4)The ratio of chaplains to soldiers varied. The most common suggestions were to have one chaplain for each large post, or one chaplain for either a regiment or a brigade. With respect to numerical ratios, congressmen spoke...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 246-259
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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