General Washington and the Tragic End of Chaplain Abiel Leonard

Abiel Leonard was a Congregational minister from Connecticut who served as a chaplain in the Continental Army. From George Washington’s correspondence, it is clear that the commanding general took a great interest in Chaplain Leonard. No other chaplain’s name appears nearly as often or as favorably in Washington’s letters and orders. Unfortunately, Chaplain Leonard’s story does not have a happy ending.

Keeping Chaplain Leonard on active duty required Washington to write at least two letters, one to the governor of Connecticut and one to Leonard’s church in the town of Woodstock.

Having heard that it is doubtful whether the Reverend Mr Leonard from your Colony, from the circumstances of his affairs, will have it in his power to continue here as a Chaplain, I cannot but express some concern, as I think his departure will be a loss—His general conduct has been exemplary and praiseworthy—In discharging the duties of his office, active and industrious—He has discovered himself a warm and steady friend to his Country, and taken great pains to animate the Soldiery and impress them with a knowledge of the important Rights we are contending for—Upon the late desertion of the Troops he delivered a sensible and judicious discourse, holding forth the necessity of courage and bravery, and at the same time of perfect obedience and subordination to those in Command. In justice to the merits of this Gentleman, I thought it only right to give you this testimonial of my opinion of him, and to mention him as worthy of your esteem and that of the public.

Washington to Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut, 15 December 1775

Mr Leonard is a man whose exemplary Life and Conversation, must make him highly esteemd by every person, who has the pleasur⟨e⟩ of being acquainted with him—the Congregation of Woodstock Know him well, it therefore Can be no Surprise to us, to hear that they will be Loth to part with him, his usefulness in this Army is great—he is employed in the glorious work of attending to the Morals, of a brave people who are fighting for their Liberties, the Liberties of the people of Woodstock, the Liberties of all America, We therefore hope—that Knowing how nobly he is employed—the Congregation of Woodstock will chearfully give up to the public, a gentleman So very usefull, and when by the blessing of a Kind providence this glorious & unparaleld Struggle for our Liberties, is at an end, We have not the Least doubt, but Mr Leonard will with redoubld joy, be receivd in the open arms of a Congregation So very dear to him, as the good people of Woodstock are. this is, what is hoped for, this is what is expected by the Congregation of Woodstocks Sincere well wishers and Very Humble Servants

Washington and Major General Israel Putnam to the First Church of Woodstock, 24 March 1776

Within Washington’s preserved writings, only Leonard earns the general’s intervention with civil and ecclesiastical authorities.

When Washington announced the downsizing of the chaplain corps in February 1776 – cutting the number of authorized chaplains in half – the same general order made sure there was a place for Chaplain Leonard in the drastically reduced chaplaincy.

The Continental Congress having been pleased to order, and direct, that there shall be one Chaplain to two Regiments, and that the pay of each Chaplain shall be Thirty-three dollars and one third, per Kalendar Month—The Revd Abiel Leonard is appointed Chaplain to the Regiment of Artillery, under the command of Col. Knox, and to the 20th Regiment, at present commanded by Lt Col. Durkee. As there can be but fourteen Chaplains under this establishment, to the 28 Regiments (including the Artillery, and Riffle Regiments) and as preference will be given to those Chaplains who served last Year, provided their conduct, and attendance, have been unexceptionable: The Brigadiers are to enquire into this matter and with the Colonels and commanding Officers of the several Regiments, arrange them agreeable to the above direction, and make report thereof that orders, may issue accordingly.

General Orders, 7 February 1776 (emphasis added)

Washington doesn’t preserve a billet for any other chaplain by name.

Leonard’s story intersects with Washington’s correspondence once again in 1777, but to see the connection we have to turn to other sources.

According to an unpublished PhD dissertation by historian Dennis K. Borman (as quoted by The Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Connecticut), Leonard was not satisfied with his pay, then equivalent to that of a major. Leonard aspired to be appointed as the chaplain of artillery for the enire Army, and to be paid as a colonel. He petitioned Congress in 1777 to create the position of “brigade chaplain”, one who would cover the three to six regiments in a brigade, and to raise the chaplain’s pay accordingly. Leonard visited Philadelphia himself in 1777 to lobby for the plan, and he asked Major General Nathaniel Greene to intervene with Congress on his behalf. Greene – a second cousin once removed of Leonard’s wife – wrote John Adams.

Doctor Lennard of Connecticut who was Chaplain to the Artillery last Campaign offers his service again in the Artillery department. There will be several Regiments this Year. They are commonly detacht to different Brigades and divisions of the Army. The Doctor thinks he can serve the whole. But he cannot think of engaging in the service unless there is a more Ample provision made than at present. If the Doctor would answer for the Three Regiments he would Merit some extraordinary allowance. He thinks his services will deserve the pay of a Lt Col of the Train. If any Man deserves it the Doctor does. He engaged early in the Army and has been indefatigable in the duties of his Station. In a word he has done everything in his power both in and out of his line of duty to promote the good of the service. The Clergy are most certainly useful and necessary in the Army and ought to be decently provided for. It is General Knoxes opinion and wish that the Doctor may be appointed to the office of Chaplain for the whole Artillery of this division of the Army. You will please to consider of the propriety of the measure.

General Nathaniel Greene to John Adams, 2 May 1777

Adams’ reply was non-committal.

Chaplains are of great use, I believe, and I wish Mr. Leonard might be in the Army, upon such Terms as would be agreeable to him, for there is no Man of whom I have a better Opinion. But there is So much difficulty in accomplishing any Thing of the Kind, that I wish G. Washington would either appoint him or recommend him to Congress.

Adams wanted to know what Washington thought of the plan. It would turn out that Washington strongly opposed the idea, and on Washington’s opposition Leonard’s life would ultimately turn.

Not all of Congress, however, shared Adams’ hesitancy. The reduction in the number of chaplains under Leonard’s plan would more than offset the raise in pay. The overall cost of chaplain support would be greatly reduced. Whether Congress independently came up with the plan or Leonard was the first to propose it, Congress loved the cost savings. The fact that a prominent chaplain supported the plan provided Congress with an excuse to implement it.

It’s here that Leonard’s story once again comes in contact with Washington’s existing correspondence, although Leonard is not mentioned by name. As I documented in General Washington and Continental Congress Support for Chaplains, Congress voted on 27 May 1777 to reorganize the chaplain corps in exactly the manner Chaplain Leonard proposed. Congress had apparently not consulted Washington and he disapproved. He wrote two letters (here and here) to Congress describing his objections and then met with a congressional committee on 17 July. Congress agreed to defer action on the restructuring and Washington was certain the plan was dead in the water. Although Congress did not record the deferral until 5 August, on 19 July Washington was able to instruct his generals not to take any action on restructuring.

Since the Congress passed the Resolve that there should be but one Chaplain to three Regiments, nothing has been done towards reducing them, and I have my doubts whether the Resolve will ever be carried into execution.

Leonard, too apparently believed his plan had failed and he experienced a deep personal crisis. On 27 July, he impulsively cut his own throat. He immediately regretted the action, but his wound never healed. He died on 14 August, presumably the first Army chaplain to commit suicide.

Leonard’s suicide is all the more shocking because of the course of his career. He was highly esteemed by Washington and leaders throughout colonial society. On more than one occasion, Washington intervened on his behalf. He received honorary doctorates from Yale in 1776 and Princeton in 1777. He was a rock star and a celebrity.

It is possible that his physical, mental and financial health may have been contributing factors. He had recently suffered an illness as the result of a primitive small-pox inoculation gone wrong. And 15 years earlier, he had experienced a brief struggle with some form of mental illness. Leonard’s financial hardship may have had the greatest impact. During his absence from his parish, he had to pay his supply preacher from his own pocket.

At one point, Leonard petitioned Congress to pay him for services provided to regiments other than his own. On 16 August 1776, Congress approved his petition:

The committee, to whom the letter from General Putnam, in favour of the Rev. Abiel Leonard, was referred, reported, That it appears, from a farther certificate of General Putnam, that Mr. Leonard performed the duty of a chaplain to other regiments than that of the general’s, for the space of eight months, for which he has had no compensation; and that it also appears, that Mr. Leonard’s services, at that time in the army, were very necessary and useful: Whereupon, Resolved, That the sum of 300 dollars be paid to the said Mr. Abiel Leonard, as a reward for his services.

And while this may have been a matter of financial importance for Leonard, it might also have been a matter of pride. Essentially, Leonard’s complaint was that he performed more services than the job customarily entailed. Congress could have replied, “Sorry, chaplain, that’s ‘additional duties as required.’” Congress was exceedingly generous, I think, in its 1776 response to Chaplain Leonard’s petition.

Leonard had become accustomed to getting his way. People had only good things to say about him and his popularity always opened doors. Now, in July 1777, it appeared that Washington’s opposition would not only hurt – or, in Leonard’s mind, destroy – the chaplain financially, it would also cause Leonard to lose face. He had publicly invested himself in lobbying Congress, and his apparent failure would be embarrassing. What would people think of him now? What would Washington think of him? For people of a certain disposition, public failure and humiliation are devastating. The ironic thing is that Washington’s apparent victory was short-lived. Leonard’s plan would ultimately prevail in Congress for the rest of the war. Leonard would not live to see his plan vindicated.

For whatever reason, this popular and highly favored chaplain reached a personal crisis at the end of July 1777. Whether his outlook was colored by financial anxiety, ill health, troubled emotions or a fragile ego, Leonard despaired of his life. Unfortunately, he was not the last chaplain to do so.


This is one chapter of the series, George Washington’s Remarkably Modern Chaplain Problems.

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