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Chaplain John's History of the Civil War Chaplains

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Chaplain John Melnick,

Chaplain of the 81st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry

With Mr. Michael Maleski and Mrs. Barbara Kundrick at a Christmas, 1863 Party

Army Chaplains


Spiritual care of soldiers during the

Civil War




The American Civil War (also known as the “War Between the States”) was the most significant historical event to affect nineteenth century America, virtually as much as the Revolution affected the eighteenth century. And just as the Revolution saw the involvement of the chaplain, so did the Civil War; but on a scale that dwarfed that of 1776. The size of the Civil War was of such a magnitude, and the destruction so great, that the conflict has been justly called the first modern war.

 Union Chaplains

For almost four years huge volunteer armies of citizen-soldiers grappled with each other in a series of campaigns and battles over a vast geographical area. Governors, regimental or post officers, and the Federal authorities appointed an estimated 3000 chaplains to the Union forces. The names of slightly over 2300 of these chaplains are known to us. The largest number of chaplains serving at any one time in the listed 1079 on active duty. There were 930 regimental chaplains, 117 hospital chaplains, and 32 post chaplains. Sixty-six chaplains died in the service of their country during this conflict, including Chaplain U.P. Gardner of the 13th Kansas Infantry who, after identifying himself as a chaplain, was shot down by a member of Quantrell's guerrilla raiders on 22 November 1864, in the Cherokee country. The raider was a 17-year-old by the name of Jesse James. On the Confederate side existing army records are also incomplete as to the number of chaplains, but somewhere between 600 and 1000 served in that capacity. We know the names of 25 Confederate chaplains who died in the war.

Civil War chaplains fell into three general categories: regimental, post, and hospital. The 30 post chaplain positions mentioned earlier still existed, although with added war duties. The greatest influx of chaplains came with the calling up of troops from the States. According to the old militia laws, each regiment was to have a chaplain. On 22 July 1861, when 500,000 volunteers were called to the colors, there was a clear need for more chaplains. Appointment was vested in the regimental commander on a vote of the field officers and company commanders. A chaplain had to be a regularly ordained minister of a Christian denomination and received the pay and allowances of a captain of cavalry.

Offices of the US Christian Commission

By the act of 3 August 1861, regimental chaplains were provided for the Regular Army. These were to be "regularly ordained ministers of some Christian denomination and were to be selected and appointed as the President may direct." The qualification section was changed on 17 July 1862, to read:

Chaplain in uniform on the Battle Field

That no person shall be appointed a chaplain in the United States Army who is not a regularly ordained minister of some religious denomination, and who does not present testimonials of his good standing as such minister, with a recommendation of his appointment as an Army chaplain from some authorized ecclesiastical body, or not less than five accredited ministers belonging to said religious denomination.

This change was brought about as a result of a request made to President Lincoln by the Board of Delegates of American Israelites to make provisions for Jewish chaplains. The manner of appointing and commissioning chaplains in the volunteer regiments varied widely, and many served without commissions. Most states provided for commissioning by the Governor, using the same form of commission as that given to chaplains. Wisconsin and Rhode Island commissioned some but not others. New Hampshire gave a commission for the chaplain to hold office at the discretion of the colonel of the regiment.

Regular Army chaplains were commissioned in accordance with the provisions of the Articles of War. Hospital chaplains received a commission signed by the President and Secretary of War. No specific provision was made regarding commissions to post chaplains, except that the appointment was to be made by the Council of Administration of the post and that the appointment proceedings were to be forwarded immediately to the Adjutant General's office. The great diversity in the status of chaplains made it easy for unofficial chaplains to spring up. These were of three types: clergymen and lay evangelists who simply held services in the camps or even became followers of the Army, clergymen attached to the United States Christian Commission, and Presidential hospital chaplains.

 Considerable improvement in the organization of the Chaplaincy resulted from an act approved on 9 April 1864. In it the "rank of chaplain, without command, in the regular and volunteer service of the United States" was recognized. Up to that time chaplains had been customarily treated as captains. As a result, the practice of some chaplains wearing a captain's uniform and insignia (often including a sword and pistol) caused controversy. General Order No. 102 (1861), had authorized that the "uniform for chaplains of the Army will be a plain black frock coat, with standing collar, and one row of nine brass buttons; plain black pantaloons, black felt hat or army forage cap" This remained the standard approved uniform throughout the conflict.

Sunday Mass with a New York Regiment

The Civil War, besides seeing a large number of Roman Catholic priests serving as chaplains, also saw the appointment of the first Jewish and Black chaplains.

Chaplains' duties in the Civil War encompassed many areas. Most important were the worship services they conducted in tents, outdoors or around campfires. Services often were ecumenical with Catholic and Protestant chaplains sharing duties. The themes of their sermons were either patriotism to the cause, or admonitions against "evil" behavior (i.e. swearing, gambling, drunkenness and so forth). Additional duties included evening prayer meetings, prayers at dress parades and officiating at weddings, baptisms, funerals and burials. Chaplains performed pastoral functions by counseling, providing guidance and comforting the sick and wounded. They formed temperance societies and opened informal schools to teach illiterate soldiers to read and write. Among other chores assigned to chaplains were those of postmaster, writer of letters for wounded and dying soldiers, writer of letters telling of a soldier's death, banker, ambulance driver, defense counselors and Army recruiters.

With the end of the conflict in April 1865, the great military machine that was the Union Army was quickly dismantled, and its mass of volunteer citizen-soldiers, including chaplains, returned to their old lives.


Fr. William Corby

Chaplain at The Battle of Gettysburg


Fr. William Corby during the Civil War

In 1860, at the age of 27, Fr. William Corby, C.S.C. was ordained a Catholic priest .  He was a member of a religious Order called the “Congregation of the Holy Cross”. The following year he volunteered as a chaplain with the Irish Brigade and eventually marched through the Civil War years with these Union men who fought at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, and, most notably, Gettysburg.

 Shortly after 4:00 p.m. on July 2, 1863, as the battle in Pennsylvania approached its crescendo on Cemetery Ridge, Fr. Corby beseeched the commanding colonel for permission to address the Brigade. He donned his purple stole, mounted a nearby rock, extended his hand, and pronounced brief words of absolution over the soldiers.

 Witnesses later reported that every man in sight, Catholic, other faith, and atheist, dropped to his knees in unison as Fr. Corby made the Sign of the Cross. Later in life, he insisted that the rare general absolution was intended for everyone regardless of whether they were clad in blue or gray. Yet by sunset on that epochal day, the blood of nearly 30,000 uniformed men wearing grave clothes of indistinguishable colors mingled on the ground before him, and in the horrible aftermath, one wonders  about his emotions as a “minister of religion” and his unshakable faith in  prayer.

 He survived the war and, in 1888 Fr. Corby was invited to be the first speaker at a twenty-fifth anniversary gathering held in Gettysburg. When he poignantly uttered the words, "Here is what is left of us. Where are the others?" former Yankees and Confederates broke down with him and wept together for several minutes. After his death, they proved how much he had meant to them by petitioning to have his statue erected near the spot where he stood with raised hand and blessed them all.

Fr. Corby later in Life (1893)

Today, before this statue, many stop occasionally and say a quiet prayer in front of the priest, who reminds us every day that God's forgiveness is powerful enough to conquer death and reconcile bitter foes.  Though Fr. Corby later served two terms as president of the famous “Notre Dame University” in Indianna, he would undoubtedly be pleased that he is most remembered for the sacrament he administered at Gettysburg with a few words and the priestly movement of his hands.

Fr. Corby's story epitomizes how much a young man can do to relieve the world's sufferings through the simple signs of grace which are the Church's sacraments. It is what we have been ordained to do, and there are few things more important to the Church's future than having more priests present among us to manifest God's merciful justice wherever people's souls hang in the balance.




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This page respectfully prepared by Rev. John Melnick, Ob.S.A.

in honor of the many Chaplains who served our military during the Civil War

Fr. John Melnick poses with a Union Soldier
At Eckley Pennsylvania, August 24, 2003,
At Heritage Day Celebrations

Catholic Nuns during the War
81st PA Vol. Infantry Re-enactors
Fr. Whelan, the 'two sided chaplain'
The Eckley Page