George Washington’s Remarkably Modern Chaplain Problems

Index to the series:

I spent much of the President’s Day holiday reading George Washington’s military correspondence,  written as a regimental commander in the French and Indian War (the American theater of the Seven Years War) and then as the commanding general of all continental forces in the War of American Independence (also known as the Revolutionary War). I went there looking for a quick quote on the importance of chaplains. What I found instead was a story that connects with the modern Army chaplaincy on many levels. In the next few days, I am going to publish a number of posts with extracts from Washington’s letters and orders, arranged topically. Before I begin, let me summarize some of what I found:

Accessions and Qualifications: During the French and Indian War, Washington and the British government of Virginia had difficulty finding suitable candidates to fill the regiment’s need for a chaplain. In addition to a written endorsement from the bishop of the established church, Washington was looking for certain personal qualities in his chaplain. During the Revolutionary War, formal ecclesiastical endorsement appears to have become less of an issue, with Congress appointing chaplains as it saw fit. Low pay, however, seems to have been a significant disincentive in the recruitment and retention of chaplains. I suspect the opposite is now the case.

Ecclesiastical Relations: Washington wrote to a church in Connecticut expressing his desire to retain its pastor on active duty as a chaplain. He asked the church not to recall their pastor to parish ministry. Washington hoped the church would understand the important ministry their pastor was now performing, and that the church would hold the chaplain’s job for him until he returned home.

Pluralism: Washington had to issue a direct order to the Army (and to its chaplains) to respect the appointment of a chaplain from the Universalist Church. Some people objected to this brand of religion and didn’t want the chaplain to serve in the Army.

Religious Accommodation: Washington wanted to insure that soldiers had the ability to worship in accordance with their own forms of Christianity (mostly Anglican, Presbyterian or Congregationalist, but some others), and to insure that religion didn’t become a contentious issue in the ranks. He thought he knew which form of military organization would best accomplish that goal.

Organization, Grade Structure and Pay: Ideally, Washington wanted chaplains to serve at the regimental level and to be paid the same as a captain of infantry. He recognized, however, that low pay was a burden for chaplains and their families. Congress could not bear the cost of both raising chaplain salaries and leaving the rule of allocation at one chaplain per regiment. Washington assented to a compromise, raising the chaplains’ pay slightly and adjusting the rule of allocation to one chaplain per two regiments.

Within a few months, however, Washington reengaged Congress on the issue. While the compromise had worked for a while, Washington said, it no longer fit the Army’s situation. The Army really needed one chaplain per regiment and it needed to pay chaplains adequately.  Congress acquiesced  to Washington’s way of thinking, but only for a short time.

Bean counters in Congress were still looking for a way to cut the overall expense of providing chaplains. Moreover, some chaplains still considered their pay too low and lobbied Congress for a new way of allocating. Chaplains, they said, should be assigned at the brigade level, not at the regiment, and be paid the same as a colonel of infantry. Note that this arrangement does not call for an additional layer of chaplain supervision at the brigade level (as in the current Army structure), but for chaplain service only at the brigade level. Under this plan, chaplains might serve from three to six regiments in a brigade, and their pay would increase would to compensate for the greater responsibility. Chaplains who made the cut probably liked the higher pay. Congress liked the cost savings. Washington, however, opposed the plan, and told Congress that his commanders did too. If chaplains could not adequately cover two regiments in the current fight, how could they possibly cover three or more?

Congress initially approved the “brigade chaplain” distribution plan, and then at Washington’s insistence deferred implementing it. Washington was certain that Congress would ultimately change its mind, but it did not. The following year’s pay tables show only one rate of pay for chaplains – that of a brigade chaplain paid at a colonel’s rate.

After the war was over, Washington proposed a very small standing Army for the new nation. He urged Congress to assign chaplains once again to regiments, not brigades, and to cut their pay. In Washington’s mind, the “brigade chaplain” experiment had been a failure. Maintaining an effective chaplain structure while controlling personnel costs continues to be a matter of concern to the Army.

Reduction-In-Force (RIF): Chaplains faced reductions in their strength at several points during the Revolutionary War, both when the chaplaincy reorganized as described above, and when Army regiments themselves reorganized due to personnel losses (which they did frequently throughout the conflict). At one point, Washington had to issue an order directing commanders to dismiss chaplains whose organizations had been dissolved. Washington used the word “supernumerary”. We would call them “over strength”.

The Status of Captured Chaplains: During the War of American Independence, Washington proposed that both sides immediately release without parole or payment chaplains or medical personnel who might be taken as prisoners. Quite a few of his letters deal with the negotiation and implementation of this issue. It appears that long after this matter was formally decided, combatants on both sides remained ignorant of the decision. Washington had to intervene on a number of occasions to insure the measure was properly carried out. Today, the chaplain’s status as a non-combatant under the Geneva Conventions addresses the same concerns.

Ministry to Enemy Prisoners: Washington directed that chaplains be provided to prisoners, specifically to condemned spies. He also directly asked chaplains to gather intelligence as they ministered to those accused of espionage. Chaplains today maintain confidentiality with everyone to whom they minister and do not act as intelligence collectors.

Divine Worship: Washington frequently directed that chaplains hold services on Sunday, that other duties should not interfere with the opportunity to attend worship and that officers set the example by attending the service themselves. Washington expected the chaplain’s sermons to support the war effort.

Eventually, it became clear that Sunday worship would not always work for an Army at war. Washington ordered the Army’s various chaplains to assemble and propose guidelines for Sunday worship in a combat setting, paving the way for one of the modern Chaplain Corps’ favorite clichés: every day is Sunday. The meeting, which took place in the back of the encampment’s artillery park, is also putatively the first Army conference focused on standardizing the integration of chaplain capabilities into Army operations. I’ve been to a few of those over my career.

Military Ceremonies: In addition to providing Sunday worship, Washington ordered chaplains to develop messages suitable to the occasions of national thanksgiving and supplication declared by Congress, and in celebration of events Washington thought worthy of such an observance. France’s recognition of the young republic, the Army’s victories at Saratoga and Yorktown, and the conclusion of the war all merited a command-directed, chaplain-led ceremony. One chaplain sent Washington a copy of the speech he delivered on one of these occasions, and Washington replied with a gracious letter of thanks. Today, the chaplain is more likely to give only a short prayer at such observances.

Garrison Religious Support: The Continental Army built its first permanent chapel at its final winter encampment at New Windsor, New York, just north of West Point. For some reason, Washington had to become involved in the staffing and scheduling of services. He directed that unit chaplains rotate responsibilities for leading worship and to coordinate service opportunities with commanders.

Washington was also deeply concerned that so many chaplains were absent from the camp on furlough, thinking they didn’t need to be present with the troops or to share the camp’s hardship. The general believed that he should be the one to decide whether the chaplains were needed or not, and he thought they were. He directed that chaplain furloughs must be approved by higher headquarters, that no more than 1/3 of the chaplains could be on leave at any one time and that chaplains should coordinate among themselves a coverage plan for their absences. The commander made it clear that expected chaplains to visit the hospitals, call on the sick and serve as a “point of light” for the whole Army. How familiar does this sound to a modern chaplain’s ears!

Chaplain Resourcing: Washington’s general orders not only enumerated a chaplain’s pay, they also authorized each chaplain to maintain one horse with a daily forage allowance of 14 pounds of hay and 10 quarts of oats. Following the British capitulation at Yorktown, Washington authorized chaplains – with other officers – to draw $20 in provisions from local merchants. Washington even invited chaplains to dine with him when their commanding officers were shared Washington’s table.

Chaplain Wants and Needs: A number of chaplains wrote Washington, sometimes complaining about their pay, and other times seeking a better assignment. Washington occasionally forwarded these matters to Congress, but at other times he simply replied that he was not empowered to fulfill the request.

Chaplains Misconduct: At one point during the Revolutionary War, Washington had to deal with the case of an officer who defected to the British, recruited a company of deserters for the enemy and then returned to continental ranks as a chaplain aboard an American naval vessel. Washington suggested that the War Board might have a different plan for the defector. The chaplain appealed to Washington, who refused to become involved in settling the matter. The Board of War, Washington declared, would hear the evidence and decide the chaplain’s fate.

Chaplain Self-Care: One of the chaplains often mentioned in Washington’s correspondence was widely esteemed, but also, apparently, deeply troubled. Washington and other luminaries of the revolutionary era praised the chaplain time-and-time-again. Princeton awarded him an honorary doctorate. On more than one occasion, Washington intervened on his behalf. However, at one point Washington opposed him. Believing himself to be dire financial straits, in ill-health and with a history of mental illness, the chaplain impulsively cut his own throat. He immediately regretted the action, but his wound never healed. He died a few days later, presumably the first Army chaplain to commit suicide.

That’s the summary. In a few days, I will begin to publish extracts from Washington’s writings that tell this story in more detail. I hope to touch on every reference to chaplains in Washington’s wartime correspondence.