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Civil War Chaplains

Civil War church service
Civil War church service

It may surprise you that there is a National Civil War Chaplains Research Center and Museum. Why in the world does that exist? One of their primary functions is to “educate the public about the role of chaplains, priests, rabbis and religious organizations in the Civil War.” The center and museum is located on the campus of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Not only did religious leaders pass their philosophies and religious fervor onto the line soldiers, several ministers served as officers including Lt. Colonel David C. Kelly (a Methodist minister who served in the Confederacy under General Nathan Bedford Forrest) and Lt. General Leonidas Polk (the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana who served under General Albert Sidney Johnston also in the Confederacy).

Not long after the war started, ministers of many denominations followed both armies to fight for the spiritual souls of the participants. They officially became chaplains of the regiment with the rank of private. Originally the government said that chaplains had to be ordained ministers of Christian denomination, but by 1862 that was changed to “any religious denomination” to include rabbis.

It is estimated that northern churches provide upwards of 3,000, including about 500 Methodist ministers and 40 Catholic priests.

It is believed that about one hundred chaplains died in service. At least one, Foster Spotswood, Chaplain for the 111th U.S. Colored Troops, is known to have been a prisoner of war. A Catholic priest, Father Peter Whalen, the chaplain for the famed Andersonville Prison in Georgia administered to both the Confederate prison staff and the Union prisoners earning him the nickname “Angel of Andersonville”.

The chaplains had many duties including serving as help at the hospitals, counseling the soldiers and anything else “as needed.” They served as a bridge between the horrors of the war and the desperation of the situation. The soldiers were lonely, bored, hungry, and in many cases probably wondering if the “hellish” war was an indication that God had abandoned them. The soldiers leaned on the chaplains to encourage them to keep the faith and believe that was not the case at all.

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