General Washington Answers Chaplain Letters

Washington occasionally received letters from his chaplains. What did the chaplains want? Recognition, assignments, pay and – in once case – exoneration.

Recognition

In 1778, Chaplain Israel Evans sent the general a copy of a speech he had given on one of the congressionally mandated days of thanksgiving. The letter hints that Evans’ speech, among other things, praised Washington’s character, and perhaps that’s why Evans sent a copy to the commander in chief. The chaplain appears simply to have wanted a pat on the back from the senior officer. I wonder if Evans let his brigade commander know that he was going to write the general. Washington, despite being buried by the flood of correspondence, diplomacy and decision-making required to manage the war, responded politely to Evans’ self-promoting letter.

Revd Sir : Your favor of the 17th Ulto inclosing the discourse which you delivered on the 18th of December—the day set apart for a general thanksgiving—to Genl Poors Brigade, never came to my hands till yesterday. I have read this performance with equal attention & pleasure, and at the sametime that I admire, & feel the force of the reasoning which you have displayed through the whole, it is more especially incumbent upon me to thank you for the honorable, but partial mention you have made of my character; & to assure you, that it will ever be the first wish of my heart to aid your pious endeavours to inculcate a due sense of the dependance we ought to place in that allwise & powerful Being on whom alone our success depends; and moreover, to assure you, that with respect & regard I am Revd Sir, Yr Most Obedt Sert

Washington to Chaplain Israel Evans, 13 March 1778

Assignments

Chaplain also wrote Washington seeking appointments to various posts. Washington replied that he had no authority to make such appointments.

Sir , I have your favr of the 4th. As I have no power to make the appointment of Chaplain to the Garrison of Philada which is sollicited by you, I can only recommend it to you to make your application to Congress who are alone competent to grant your request, if they think it proper. I thank you for your professions of Regard and am with Respect Sir Yr most obt Servt.

George Washington to Chaplain William Rogers, 13 December 1778

In answer to your request to be appointed Chaplain of the Garrison at Wyoming I have to observe; that there is no provision made by Congress for such an establishment; without which, I should not be at liberty to make any appointment of the kind, however necessary or expedient (in my opinion), or however I might be disposed to give every species of countenance & encouragement to the cultivation of Virtue, Morality, and Religion.

From George Washington to Jacob Johnson, 23 March 1781

Pay

Other chaplains wrote seeking financial relief.

The journal of the Continental Congress records that the assembly reviewed numerous petitions from chaplains claiming that Congress owed them money. In 1778, Washington forwarded one such petition to Congress for consideration.

I take the liberty of transmitting to Congress, a Memorial I received from the Reverend Mr Tetard. From the certificates annexed to it, he appears to be a Man of great merit—and from every account he has suffered in the extreme, in the present contest. His attachment—services and misfortunes seem to give him a claim to a generous notice; but according to the now establishment of the Army, it is not in my power to make any provision for him. I therefore recommend his case to the attention and consideration of Congress. 

George Washington to Henry Laurens, 4–5 September 1778

As the war progressed, Congress lost the ability to pay even the debts it recognized. One American chaplain held prisoner by the British wrote Washington to complain about his imprisonment and his lack of pay. Washington replied that the Americans and the British had already agreed to set captured chaplains free, but that there was nothing he could do about the pay. Things were tough all over. The pay issue almost led to a mutiny shortly before the war’s end.

I have received your Letter of Yesterday—It is a fact that, by particular Agreement with Sir Hry Clinton, the Chaplains both of the American & British Armies, are exempted from Detention by Capture, or Parole—pleading therefore that Stipulation, I know no Reason the Enemy can have for detaing you a Prisoner of War—or holding you under Parole—but should suppose you at your Liberty—several of their Chaplains have been released without any Compensation.  As to Want of Pay—it is the comon Misfortune attending the Army—& which cannot at present be relieved by me—Measures are however, taking to put the Pay of the Troops upon a better Footing, than has for some Time past been experienced.  I have found it very difficult to obtain a few Horses which were wanted for myself & some Gentlemen of the French Army—so that it is not in my Power to afford you Assistance in that Respect.

George Washington to John Hurt, 25 September 1781

In 1782, Washington forwarded documents from a Chaplain Barlow to then Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln requesting a “warrant”.

I inclose you a Certificate of Mr Barlow, Chaplain to the 3d Massa. Brigade—He wishes to be favored with your Warrant. 

George Washington to Benjamin Lincoln, 13 September 1782

I can’t tell from this context whether the chaplain is wanting pension documents or an active duty appointment. The former seem more likely.

Exoneration

One piece of correspondence between Washington and an individual chaplain needs an introduction. In 1779, Commissary of Prisoners Elias Boudinot wrote Washington to complain about a James Hallet, a one-time infantry officer (and recruiter) now serving as a chaplain on the Continental frigate Confederacy.

I must beg leave to trouble your Excellency once more, with a matter, I think worth Communicating—Some time ago, a Person of a very loose & suspicious Character, who was a mere Gambler in & about this Quarter, was employed as a recruiting Sergeant, or an assistant in this Business for some of our Officers—His Behaviour was such as to give great disgust to our Friends here, and he was repeatedly taken up and examined by the Magistrates—He soon after deserted to the Enemy, calling himself Major Hollet, and was so mentioned in the York Papers, giving an Account of his desertion—He was taken notice of in the City and all Persons forbid to molest him under pain of Military Execution—He soon appeared in a Scarlet Coat with the uniform of Ritzma’s regiment and said that he had a Warrant to raise a Company. He Continued in the City untill last Summer when he again left the City, and to my great Surprize, I am now informed, appears as Chaplain on Board the Continental Frigate Confederacy, which by this Time, is arrived in Philadelphia.

Elias Boudinot to George Washington, 19 May 1779

Ritzma’s regiment was a British regiment consisting of American deserters. If Boudinot’s claims were true, Hallet not only deserted, he collaborated with the enemy to fight against the American army. Hallet’s name shows up a few times earlier in the record as well, perhaps suggesting a reason for his desertion. He had difficulty getting along with other officers, making unfounded accusations against them, and he resented not being promoted to captain in the American army after recruiting a company of infantry. Now, Boudinot says, he’s back on the American side serving as a chaplain. Whether Hallet had actually been appointed as such is unclear. Perhaps he was engaging in espionage, or perhaps he was just a poser looking for a way back into the good graces of the Continentals.

Washington forwarded Boudinot’s letter to the Board of War.

The inclosed is the Copy of a Letter from Mr Boudinot. If the facts are true which it contains, the Chaplain on board the Confederacy appears to be a very improper person for such a Trust—and to merit a different kind of notice.

George Washington to the Board of War, 22 May 1779

The Board arrested Hallet, and the ersatz chaplain appealed to Washington, arguing his side of the case and offering Washington documents that he believed proved his innocence. Washington replied:

Sir , I have received Your Letters of the 10th & 12th Instant—both of the same tenor, with a Certificate and the Copies of Two more. I know nothing myself of your merits or demerits; but if reports are true—your conduct has been very unwarrantable to say no worse. You should make your appeal to the Honorable the Marine Committee or the Honbl. the Board of War for a hearing—before whom or persons properly authorised for the purpose your case will be examined— and when you will have every opportunity in your power to make your defence & evince your innocence in case you are not guilty of the matters objected against you. I return you the Certificates which you transmitted, that you may derive every advantage from them that they can give you.

From George Washington to James Hallett, 22 July 1779

Washington refused to become involved in settling the matter. The Board of War, Washington declared, would hear the evidence and decide the chaplain’s fate.


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

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