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The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains, The Union

edited by Benedict R. Maryniak and John Wesley Brinsfield Jr., Mercer University Press, 2007, 269 pages, $35.

Many years ago, when esteemed historian Robert K. Krick began his work with the National Park Service, his supervisor smugly assured him: “There will be no new books about the Civil War. Everything has been done already.” That supervisor was wrong, of course. Primary documents have yielded fresh studies of battlefield tactics, political infighting, ailing generals, sexual malfeasance and court-martialed doctors, to name just a few areas of freshly plowed ground. The hour of chaplains has now arrived. Certainly much has been written about a few men of the cloth, such as Father William Corby of the Irish Brigade, but now two recent books have given us the grand sweep of chaplains in the war.

The first of these, Faith in the Fight (2003), brought us two extensive essays, one Northern and one Southern, plus a roster of every known Civil War chaplain with his name, birth, death, denomination and regiment. This is a monumental reference work whose lead editor, John Brinsfield, also edited this book.

The Spirit Divided, after an appropriate introductory essay, is a collection of the writings of 25 Union chaplains. Some are sermons, some are letters home, some are postwar memoirs. They are first and foremost remarkable reminders of the eloquence of educated people in the 19th century—a welcome departure from the wretched sound bites, mangled syntax, spoonerisms, self-serving spin, whining for money and ghostwritten pap fed to us by today’s luminaries, both political and ecclesiastical. These chaplains, perhaps inspired by the word of God, certainly immersed in the cadences of the King James Bible and on fire with their dedication to the cause, speak to us from the grave in a manner still worthy of our attention.

These men were in little doubt about the Union cause. The Reverend Henry Clay Trumbell, upon hearing of the attack on Fort Sumter, wrote, “The aroused North was in the white heat of indignation” and reminded his audience of Luke 22:36: “let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one.” But in an army of millions, “white heat” was not enough. There were the mundane problems of defining a chaplain’s duties, paying him, equipping him, even disciplining him—42 chaplains were court-martialed. And like everything else in the Civil War, precedent was of little help in creating huge armies out of the tiny, understaffed, largely ossified and widely scattered Regular Army.

In the 31 years before the war, a total of 30 Army chaplains had been authorized, most of these assigned to the headquarters of widely separated units in the far West. In the Mexican War, only nine chaplains served, and three of them were Mormon bishops. During the war, the Union had approximately 2,400 regiments. Each was supposed to have a chaplain, as was every hospital. The War Department decided that chaplains were to wear an officer’s uniform of black cloth, without insignia, and be given $100 a month plus two rations each day and forage for one horse. Chaplains were appointed by the regimental commander after being elected by that regiment’s officers. What was missing was any guide to their duties.

In these 25 essays, chaplains describe how they defined their duties, and how they saw themselves in relationship to their heavily armed flock. They were officers, but not exactly; how did they get along with the “real” officers? What did they do during battles? Their emergence as useful and inspiring members of the regiment was a remarkable example of what in today’s jargon would be called self-actualization.

As for the life of a chaplain on the march, The Reverend Gamaliel Collins of the 72nd Pennsylvania wrote home to a colleague advising him how to prepare at home for duty in the field: sleep on the wooden floor without a pillow, or in the garden in a horse blanket; if you put straw under your blanket, have a mule nibble on it while you sleep; live on spoiled pork, iron-hard biscuits and black coffee; and stay cheerful.

The chaplains saw themselves as embarking on a dual crusade: first, to crush treason (i.e., the Confederate government), and second to free the country from the unforgivable sin of slavery. It should be fascinating to read the view from the other side when the editors complete their study of Confederate chaplains.

The Civil War had its origins in belief. These chaplains have as much to say as any famous general’s memoirs. The Spirit Divided is a worthwhile read.


Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here