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Chaplains of the American Civil War

Cheryl Wilcox - 700 Club Producer

On this day, [April 9th] 150 years ago, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant here, at McLean House, in Appomattox, Virginia. It was a Palm Sunday and the Civil War was over.

The Reverend A.I. Dutton, a member of United States Christian Commission recorded in his field diary his eyewitness account. 
 
“Today witnesses the culmination & overthrow of the rebellion. From the position
I now occupy I can see a large part of Lee’s army lying about 1 mile away – this is
a day long to be remembered. The armies of the union are completely triumphant.
 – how are the prayers of Christians answered!”

Many men of peace, like Reverend Dutton, went to war to minister to the men fighting, and dying, on the battlefields of America’s bloodiest conflict. 5,000 members of the United States Christian Commission, itinerant preachers and 3,400 commissioned chaplains tended to the spiritual needs of soldiers during the Civil War. The story of their service has largely gone untold.

“When chaplains held services, soldiers went. Some wanted to go simply for the spiritual gratification, others went because what else were they to do?” according to Kenny Rowlette, the Director of the Civil War Chaplain’s Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia.  It tells the story of Protestant ministers, Catholic priests and Jewish rabbis who left their homes and congregations to offer spiritual guidance and humanitarian care to the men – regardless of faith, or the color of their uniform.

“Chaplains were there to minister to all soldiers,” adds Rowlette. “On the field those who were in great need of spiritual comfort in their final moments. There’s no ‘well, I'm not going to take care of this guy because he is of the "opposing" side.’” 

Commissioned chaplains did receive some compensation - those in the confederacy were paid $85 a month while those serving union forces got $100 a month plus a horse and food. But to these men, what mattered most was giving spiritual guidance.

“When they were not preaching when they were not in the camp, when they were not ministering to the soldiers who were healthy, so to speak, they were in the hospitals,” explained Rowlette.

At the start of the war, neither side could have anticipated the scope of devastation… all told, there were 1.5 million casualties. That figure includes the wounded, prisoners of war, those missing and those killed in battle or by disease. Chaplains helped attend to the needs of the wounded and dying in field hospitals and wards that were hastily built after every battle.

Rowlette continued, “More soldiers died of disease than they did of wounds, and so when they're between health and death, a lot of these soldiers had time, to get messages out to family members. They had time to be ministered to. A lot of soldiers were able to dictate letters, short letters be it, to their families and they would say often, ‘I am dying. I am dying.’ They kept these men afloat, if you will, until, as they say, "they crossed the bar," I see that as maybe perhaps one of the greatest roles that these chaplains had is that they were able to sustain these men through that very challenging and difficult time.”

620,000 men died in Civil War, more lives lost than American military casualties in WWI and WWII combined. Due to the nature of Civil War armaments, fighting on the battlefield was as fierce and bloody as death was slow and painful.

“When these men were lingering, often without any help, there was not a whole lot that they could give them. So if a chaplain was out on the field, he could minister to that soldier; even though that soldier might not be retrieved for some time. And if you will, they figuratively and literally held hands of many of these dying soldiers when they were, in an out of consciousness,” pointed out Rowlette.

Chaplains also aided the grieving. According to the Civil War Trust, one in four soldiers that went off to war never returned home. And one third of all southerners lost a least one family member. Early in the war there weren’t national cemeteries, burial details, or family notification for the dead or wounded. As the death tolls mounted, national cemeteries like Gettysburg had to be built. Lay preachers, or non-commissioned chaplains, like freed slave John Jasper, also ministered to soldiers on both sides.

Rowlette explained, “When Richmond becomes the repository of the sick, the repository of prisoners, Jasper goes to the Confederate authorities and he asks them if he can minister. They allow him to do so, and he ministers to not only Confederate wounded and sick, but also Union soldiers who are wounded and sick, and prisoners. So he has this role throughout the war. And even though he's never given a commission by the Confederate government, as far as I know, he is a de facto chaplain.” 

...as were members of the United States Christian Commission.

According to Allen Farley, an ordained minister and Civil War reenactor, who represents one of the 5,000 delegates of the United States Christian Commission, this northern group petitioned President Lincoln to serve the cause of Christ during the Civil War. “He [Lincoln] wholeheartedly approved it,” mentioned Farley. “[They received] no monetary remuneration whatsoever and they ministered. They did not take the place of a chaplain unless there was not a chaplain. They helped in the hospitals, [and] they helped out on the battlefields.”

As recorded here by Christian Commission delegate, reverend A.I. Dutton in his field diary:

Page #70
No. 1
This soldier has lost his right arm in charging Fort Gregg. When I told him
I belonged to the [Christian Commission] he gave me his left hand. Wants
me to write to his dear father & mother. (NOTE: Soldier not a Christian)
 
Farley concluded by saying, “They showed the cause of Christ, the love of Christ... and these men had a calling from God and they had a commission from God. They printed over 34 million pages of gospel tracts to give to the soldiers. They printed pocket hymnals, they printed pocket New Testaments. They smuggled through the line tens of thousands of New Testaments to the Confederate States Bible Society so that the southern men could have the word of God.”

The good work of these Civil War chaplains, if not lauded in the pages of history is celebrated in heaven.

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