Religion and Spirituality

Chaplains, 9th Corps, U.S. Army, Petersburg, Virginia, October 1864. Although none of the chaplains were identified in this photo, the man standing second from left may be Rev. W. D. C. Rodrock, Chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers. This man's image bears a striking similarity to Rodrock's December 1863 carte de visite (public domain, U.S. Library of Congress).

U.S. Army chaplains (reportedly 9th Corps, Petersburg, Virginia, October 1864). Although none of the chaplains were identified in this photo, the man standing second from left may be Rev. W. D. C. Rodrock, Chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers. This man’s image bears a striking similarity to Rodrock’s December 1863 carte de visite image (public domain, U.S. Library of Congress).

What are the duties of the colonel of a regiment? He must see to the temporal wants of his men, that they are properly clothed, and fed, and sheltered. He must prepare them, by constant exercise and practice, for the work which they have undertaken to perform. He must lead them on to meet the enemy, and yet, at the same time, prevent them from being suddenly exposed to the innumerable messengers of death which howl over the field of battle. But the chaplain has a higher and nobler duty to perform. He watches over the spiritual welfare of those entrusted to his care; supplies food for the mind; tells of robes of righteousness as coverings for the soul; points out a refuge and a hiding-place from the storms and tempests of a sinful world; and leads on in an attack against the enemies of God, in which victory will result in eternal blessedness to the triumphant soldiers of the cross. – Rev. J. Pinkney Hammond, M.A., Chaplain, U.S. Army


The words above were obviously penned by a member of the Christian faith, the predominant religion of soldiers who fought with the Union Army during the Civil War.*

* Note: Although there were roughly 7,000 Jewish soldiers who served on the Union side during the war, as well as soldiers who were non-religious (atheist or agnostic), their numbers were smaller. This seemingly disproportionate number of non-Christian soldiers was due both to the fact that America’s Jewish population at this time was less robust than the Protestant and Catholic populaces and to the failure of regular U.S. Army and state volunteer regimental clerks to fully document the backgrounds of those who served.

In 1895, the number of serving Jewish soldiers was documented more thoroughly by Jewish activist Simon Wolf, and continues to be revised upward as researchers uncover more information about Jewish soldiers who served their nation honorably. Several latter day researchers have reported that the number of Jewish soldiers who served may have been less than the number of Christians, but that the actual percentage of soldiers who enrolled from the Jewish population was proportionately higher than that of the combined Christian traditions.

The Jewish-American Civil War Veterans Database currently lists a total of 536 Jewish soldiers who enrolled with Pennsylvania Civil War regiments, and confirms that there was at least one member of the Jewish faith who served with the 47th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry – Corporal Moses Jacoby of Company E.

As a result of this religious makeup of regular U.S. Army and Union volunteer troops, the chaplains who ministered to these Union soldiers were also predominantly Christian – and most of those were Protestant since the vast majority of Christians in the United States at that time were members of various denominations of the Protestant faith (Baptist, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, or Presbyterian).

Civil War chaplains generally fell under one or more classifications – post, regimental or chaplain; however, many of the duties expected of each class were often similar and sometimes overlapped as in the case of regimental chaplains who were called upon to minister to the sick, wounded or dying men within their own units. Most classified strictly as Union hospital chaplains were members of the regular U.S. Army and, according to Hammond were only appointed to permanent hospital positions after being approved by the President of the United States and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Post chaplains were “appointed by the council of administration … composed of the three senior officers belonging to any post or garrison,” and were “considered as permanently attached to their respective posts” until “discontinued” from service.

Qualifications of a Chaplain

Piety and a commitment to daily prayer and reflection, a healthy body and mind and the ability to teach and counsel others were among the personality traits deemed as important for men appointed to serve as 19th century military chaplains. According to the Rev. W. Y. Brown, A.M. in his 1863 army chaplain’s manual:

A lively temperament, and a kind and obliging disposition, are also requisite. Both in the camp and in the hospital, men need to be encouraged, to be cheered up in their labors and sufferings, and it is very desirable that the very countenance, as well as the manner of the chaplain, should indicate cheerfulness; its power is magical, and irresistible among the men. Without a genial temperament, he will often find his own comfort, as well as that of the men, sadly, and perhaps often, almost unaccountably destroyed. However perplexing and harassing his situation, he must ever bear in mind that he is a Christian gentleman, which is the highest type of man, and excludes every act of rudeness, unkindness, and moroseness.

As for needing “a good constitution,” noted Brown, chaplains were “constantly inhaling the atmosphere of the sick chamber … frequently impregnated with contagious diseases,” placing their lives “in constant jeopardy.”

In addition to being men who had received “a divine call” and being “the dispenser of the Sacraments of God” and “the means of bringing the penitent believer into a holy covenant with his Saviour” who were “intellectually able to grapple with and refute the various arguments and objections which are often brought forward against the religion which he proclaims,” wrote Rev. J. Pinkney Hammond, M.A., military chaplains were also expected to be role models who could inspire their men to actively practice the values of chastity and temperance – as well as men who also knew how to pray:

Prayer is one of the most effective weapons of the chaplain against the trials, temptations, and discouragements which oppose him in his efforts to discharge faithfully his duties. It is also one of the strongest stimulants of the soul to zeal and earnestness, and persevering labor.

Brown also encouraged scheduling of “evening prayers … at the close of dress-parade”:

Let the colonel order his men to be formed in a square; and then, in a short, earnest, appropriate prayer, let the chaplain commit them to the care of the Almighty. It is the family-prayer of the regiment; and the prayer should have special reference, not only to the wants of the men, but to their families at home. The men will take great pleasure in daily committing, in prayer, their love ones to the care of Him who knows all their necessities, and is abundantly able to supply them all. God will smile upon such exercises.

What a chaplain was not, observed Brown, was “a common-carrier, an express-man, a post-boy, a claim-agent, a paymaster, a commissary, a quartermaster, an undertaker, a banker, a ward-master, a hospital-steward, or a surgeon,” and he should not, therefore, [take] on any of those duties no matter how hard he may [be] pressed to do so by his superior officers or others.”

Hammond also noted that a chaplain’s most important duties were “not carnal, but spiritual” since the men appointed to these positions were “not liable to be called upon to use a weapon, even in self-defense”:

His place, if in the battle-field, is with the wounded and the dying; and though the swift messengers of death may whistle around him, even to endangering his life, he will heed them not, if faithful to his duty; but will be totally absorbed in the glorious occupation of whispering in the ears of the departing soul, the blessings of redemption, and telling of that precious blood which was shed to take away the sins of the world.

Even President Abraham Lincoln and Union Major-General George McClellan weighed in on the role of religion in military life. Lincoln, in an Executive Order issued from the White House on 15 November, 1862, wrote:

The President, Commander-in-chief of Army and Navy, desires, and enjoins the orderly observance of the Sabbath by the officers and men in the military and naval service. The importance, for man and beast, of the prescribed weekly rest, the sacred rights of the Christian soldiers and sailors, a becoming deference to the best sentiment of a Christian people, and a due regard for the Divine will demand that Sunday labor in the army and navy be reduced to the measure of strict necessity.

The discipline and character of the national forces should not suffer, nor the cause they defend be imperiled by the profanation of the day or name of the Most High. At this time of public distress, adopting the words of Washington in 1776, ‘men may find enough to do in the service of God and their country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality.’ The first general order issued by the Father of his Country after the Declaration of Independence, indicates the spirit in which our institutions were founded, and should ever be defended. ‘The general hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending to the dearest rights and liberties of his country.’ – Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln further directed that “all officers who shall behave indecently or irreverently at any place of Divine worship, shall, if commissioned officers, be brought before a general court-martial, there to be publicly and severely reprimanded by the President.” Non-commissioned officers or soldiers were fined “one-sixth of a dollar” from their pay for a first offense, and fined the same and imprisoned for 24 hours for subsequent offenses.

A year earlier on 6 September 1861, McClellan declared via his General Order No. 7 that:

The Major-General commanding desires and requests that in future there may be a more perfect respect for the Sabbath on the part of his command. We are fighting in a holy cause, and should endeavor to deserve the benign favor of the Creator. Unless in the case of an attack by the enemy, or some other extreme necessity, it is recommended to commanding officers that all work should be suspended on the Sabbath – that no unnecessary movements shall be made on that day; that the men, so far as possible, be permitted to rest from their labors; that they shall attend divine service after the customary Sunday morning inspection; and that officers and men shall use their influence to insure the utmost decorum and quiet on that day. The General commanding regards this as no idle form; one day’s rest in seven is necessary to men and animals; more than this, the observance of the holy day of the God of mercy and of battles is our sacred duty.

 Two months later, McClellan clarified his thoughts, noting that:

Congress having by law provided for the employment of chaplains for the army, it was no doubt designed, and the General commanding directs, that no officer place obstacles in the way of a proper exercise of the functions of their office. It is therefore ordered that, in the future, the Sunday morning services will commence at eleven o’clock, unless manifest military reasons prevent. Commanding officers will see that all persons connected with their commands, when not on guard or other important duty requiring their constant attention, have the opportunity afforded them of attending divine service.

However, despite the support of such senior military officers as McClellan, the average military chaplain faced enormous challenges – whether he was ministering to soldiers on battlefields or serving far from the front lines in the relative safety and comfort of a military hospital. As they worked to console combat-scarred men, wrote Hammond, chaplains were also forced to battle the military’s bureaucracy and Mother Nature, as well as their own personal demons:

The chaplain is necessarily exposed to hardships and fatigue. He must march with his regiment in storm, as well as in sunshine, in cold and in heat. Oftentimes he is compelled to pass whole nights and days in the field without any adequate shelter from the inclemency of the weather. He must bear all the fatigues of long and tedious marches, spending hour after hour in the saddle, and often suffering the pangs of hunger and thirst. His religious services must, for the most part, be held in the open air, beneath a blazing sun in summer, and a cold and chilling sky in winter. In addition, he is continually called upon to witness scenes of bloodshed and suffering, and to be a spectator of many of the horrors and heart-rending scenes of war….

The chaplain must also possess a strong nervous system, for he is often called upon to witness painful surgical operations, and to whisper the consolations of Christ into the ears of the mangled and dying, amid scenes of carnage and intense agony of the mind and body.

Duties of the Chaplain

William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, Chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Fort Jefferson, 1 December 1863, public domain).

Rev. William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, Chaplain, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers (Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, Florida, 1 December 1863, public domain).

Under existing American laws, according to Brown, each regiment was allowed one chaplain who was appointed by the regimental commanding officer with support from a vote of field officers and company commanders serving at the time the appointment was made. Although regulations stipulated at one point that the chaplain was required to be “a regularly ordained minister of a Christian denomination” and would receive the same pay rate as a cavalry captain, this requirement was ultimately changed as follows:

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 present good standing as such minister, with a recommendation for his appointment as an army chaplain from some authorized ecclesiastical body, or not less than five accredited ministers belonging to said religious denomination.

Report of Rev. W.D.C. Rodrock, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, Post-Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia (excerpt, 31 December 1864, public domain).

Report of Rev. W.D.C. Rodrock, 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, post-Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia (excerpt, 31 December 1864, public domain; double click to enlarge).

Each chaplain was paid $100 per month, plus two rations per day “when on duty.” Beginning 17 July 1862, “forage in kind for one horse” was also provided. Reporting directly to his regimental commanding officer, the regimental chaplain was expected to write quarterly reports detailing “the moral and religious condition of the regiment, and such suggestions as may conduce to the social happiness and moral improvement of the troops.”

Most importantly, he helped exhausted, frightened soldiers find hope as they battled post-combat despair. He often achieved this lofty goal by planning concerts and lectures; encouraging men to play checkers, backgammon or other “innocent games”; establishing literary societies, literacy programs and regimental libraries which motivated men to read rather than play cards or gamble; and convincing weary men to correspond with families and friends back home – even going so far as to provide supplies and franking (adding postage marks to envelopes) for the poorest members of the regiment.

Chaplains also frequently wrote letters on behalf of men too disabled by their wounds to put pen to paper. And, explained Hammond, it became “the chaplain’s duty to write at once to the soldiers’ friends in all cases of dangerous wounds or illness” so that “the force of the terrible blow” to loved ones would be mitigated:

And he should write frequently during the continuance of such sickness, detailing the progress of the disease, infusing hope into the hearts of the absent ones, or preparing them for any change for the worse, which, in the providence of God, may happen. And when the last struggle is over, how comforting to the hearts of those who mourn, to read, when written by the hand of kindness, the records of the last moments of the loved one who passed away among strangers! To hear that each one at home was remembered; to receive the little messages of love, spoken by the lips of affection; and perhaps, also to read the assurance of a fight well fought, a victory gained over the powers of sin and Satan, and a faith which lighted up the eyes of the dying, as he saw the future the bright mansions of eternal life, prepared by the Saviour for his faithful people!

Chaplains were also expected to keep accurate records, according to Hammond, tracking not just the spiritual activities of soldiers such as baptisms and communion participation, but maintaining “a register of all funerals, the names in full of all who are buried, together with the place of interment.”*

* Note: One of the most solemn duties of chaplains, in fact, was to conduct the funeral services not just for the departed in their respective regiments, but to memorialize senior military leaders who impacted the lives of those soldiers. As a result, Rev. W. D. C. Rodrock, the chaplain for the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteers, not only played a key role in the final tribute for General Ormsby M. Mitchel, the commander of the U.S. Army’s 10th Corps and Department of the South after he succumbed to yellow fever on 30 October 1862 at Hilton Head, South Carolina, but he brought comfort to the men of the Army of the Shenandoah’s 2nd Brigade, 1st Division when he eulogized President Abraham Lincoln on 19 April 1865 near Winchester, Virginia. The soldiers whom he addressed that day, still heartbroken over the assassination of the Commander-in-chief, had been willing but not allowed to march in Lincoln’s funeral procession because the nation needed them on duty to guard against any sudden movement by Confederate troops on the greater Washington, D.C. area. By war’s end, Rodrock had also, according to his obituary, achieved another important milestone – “the distinction of serving his country longer than any other chaplain of a volunteer regiment.”

So important was the ministry task of the chaplain, wrote Brown, that he “must not forget the spiritual wants of any, and especially of the dying”:

They may have but a moment to live, and upon the proper improvement of that moment, may hang the eternal destiny of their souls. They must not be neglected by him. They may want to send a dying message to friends; let him hear the message, and as promptly as possible transmit it to them. However much he may desire to do for the body, he must be more solicitous for the soul.

And chaplains were also expected to care for the souls of survivors – by conducting prayer meetings, leading Bible classes, disseminating spiritual reading materials (often from the Bible due to their largely Christian audiences) – and by preaching. Hammond suggested that sermons be kept short and simple so that important messages would be easily understood:

The chaplain’s object is not to weary, but instruct; and he will utterly fail in its attainment if he devotes too much time to the delivery of the message which he has received. For he must remember that he is not speaking to a trained congregation, but to those who are naturally restless, and, for the most part, unaccustomed to the restraints of public worship. And this applies more particularly to the hospital, where the congregation is made up almost exclusively of invalids, who are totally unable to sit for any very great length of time in one position.

Sermon writing and delivery was so vital, explained Brown, that:

To be careless in the preparation to meet such an audience is criminal. It is spiritual murder, for which the great Head of the Church, if not the Government, will hold the chaplain to a fearful accountability….

Every man in the regiment may be said to be in imminent peril…. They are assailed by the adversary of their souls at every point, and with tremendous power…. Opportunities for uncleanness and wicked indulgences are abundant; and the gratification of his wicked passions is constantly pressed upon him. The restraints of the family circle are wanting…. In the camp they may do with impunity what they would not dare to attempt in the presence of their families, or in the midst of a circle of Christian friends at home. The association with openly profane and wicked men tends to blunt their spiritual perceptions, and to sear the conscience; and the general tendency of the camp is to moral degeneracy; and nothing but the grace of God can prevent the souls of even good men from being carried headlong into sin. The necessity, therefore, for special religious instruction of the professors of religion is much greater in the camp than in the parish; and without it, the most tremendous wreck of character and of Christian professions must result.

Additionally, said Brown, the compassionate and skilled chaplain should “visit from tent to tent,” becoming “intimately acquainted with the men”:

He must know them by sight, and be able to recall at once the former history of each. He must learn the localities of their homes; the character and religious standing of their parents, friends, and associates; their former business; their successes and reverses; their education, and so on, as far as these facts can be ascertained, without improperly prying into private matters.

He will thus be able to form a correct idea of their former habits and moral status; will be able to sympathize more fully with them in their troubles and perplexities; will gain their confidence, and be in the most desirable position to communicate instruction. No chaplain can be said to have done his duty, who has been any considerable length of time with his regiment, and does not know the majority of his men personally, and much of the personal history of each. In his intercourse with the men, let him avoid unbecoming familiarity and levity upon the one hand, and unnecessary professional reserve and assumed dignity on the other, and then men will soon respect him as a friend, and confide in him as a brother.



1. Bates, Samuel P. History of Pennsylvania Volunteers, 1861-5, Vol. I. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: B. Singerly, State Printer, 1869.

2. Brown, A.M., Rev. W. Y. The Army Chaplain: His Office, Duties, and Responsibilities, and the Means of Aiding Him. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: William S. A. Alfred Martien, 1863.

3. Hammond, M.A., Rev. J. Pinkney. The Army Chaplain’s Manual: Designed as a Help to Chaplains in the Discharge of Their Various Duties, Both Temporal and Spiritual. Containing Also All the Laws and Regulations in Regard to Chaplains Together with the Proper Steps to Be Taken to Secure a Chaplain’s Appointment. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1863.

4. Nay, Robert. The Operational, social, and religious influences upon the Army Chaplain Field Manual, 1926-1952: A thesis presented to the Faculty of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree Master of Military Art and Science, Military History. Fort Leavenworth Kansas: 2008.

5. Rev. William DeWitt Clinton Rodrock, A.M., in Franklin and Marshall College Obituary Record No. 8, Vol. II – Part 4. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Franklin and Marshall College Alumni Association, 1904.

6. Rodrock, W. D. C. An Address. Delivered to the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, Army of the Shenandoah, near Winchester, Va., April 19th [1865], the day set apart for the funeral of the late President of the United States, in Eulogies on Abraham Lincoln. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Library of Congress Lists, 1902-1903.