Civil War chaplains: bringing the Catholic faith to the battlefield


The soldiers kneeled, presented arms and solemnly looked towards the Catholic priest as he held up the Eucharistic host. The priest was silent as he held up the Eucharist for the soldiers to adore. Cannon fire broke the silence as it was used to mark the host’s elevation instead of the usual chiming of bells.

This was only one scene that the Rev. Patrick Whittle, TOR, described during his Civil War Chaplains talk March 26 in Franciscan University’s International Lounge.

“Chaplains had a role in encouraging the men to fight for their country,” Whittle said. “If they were Union (chaplains), they exhorted them to fight to preserve the Union, and for the Confederacy to fight for the rights of the (South) and against the oppression of the North. Their courageous ministry and heroic virtue helped gain respect amongst their Protestant peers.”

The Civil War was a moment of major Catholic oppression. There were only 70 Catholic chaplains, and often they were denied the opportunity to serve the military simply because it was assumed that there would be a Catholic priest always within the perimeter, which was not often the case. Yet, the sacraments on the battlefield were where public Catholic worship “truly came to be,” Whittle said.

“‘Never before in this land has true worship been offered to the true God,’” said Whittle, quoting Confederate chaplain Hippoltye Gache, S.J. “‘Now I and a few Catholics may be a few people of the Old Dominion to know God truly and to worship him in his holy will. It is this thought that makes me welcome the opportunity to celebrate the Mass in various places,’” said Gache.

These various places might range from a barn with a crate for an altar, in the forests, along the roads, on pianos, in lunatic hospitals and in the field. The sacraments were celebrated constantly and openly.

Some chaplains offered confessions in the back of a forest by a river under the moonlight because “‘it was only fitting to hold confession in such a beautiful place where each man sitting beside me looking as if he was carrying the most ordinary conversation settled and prepared with God,’” said Whittle, quoting Gache.

Other chaplains offered general absolution to both sides of the struggle after a battle.

“It was really interesting because I didn’t know anything about Civil War chaplains,” student Sidney Johnson said. “I’ve seen a picture of (general absolution), but never really understood it before this.”

“I just liked learning about what they did,” student Theresa Baker said. “I never really thought about the aspect of faith in the Civil War, but it’s really cool to know (chaplains) had a presence there.”

This talk was sponsored by a new club, The Explorers of the Past Society, started by students Tucker Lutter and Jessica Dowling to form a bridge between Franciscan’s anthropology and history departments.

The Explorers of the Past Society also took donations for Exodus Road, an anti-sex slavery group. The society will donate the contributions in honor of Whittle.