Civil War past to paints life for a present-day chaplain
By John E. Usalis | Republican & Herald, Pottsville, Pa. (MCT) | Published: March 24, 2014
The role of chaplain in the military has changed to some degree since the American Civil War, but its basic mission of providing spiritual aid, support and encouragement continues into the modern era unchanged.
The Schuylkill County Historical Society held its Civil War Roundtable on Wednesday evening that featured guest speaker Ron Long in his re-enactor's role as a Civil War Union Army chaplain with the 2nd PA Reserves from the Reading/Hamburg area in Pennsylvania.
"I've only been doing this for about four years, and this is only my first year in going out and speaking," Long said before his presentation. "My biggest regret is that I didn't start it sooner."
A resident of Schuylkill Haven, Long, 71, was making his third presentation, the previous one at the Auburn Historical Society about two weeks ago, and the first on Veterans' Day at the Church of the Nazarene, Schuylkill Haven.
"My philosophy is that most presentations are about the battles and the strategies, which is good, but a lot of people don't know about the people in the background, such as your chaplains, nurses, doctors, townspeople," Long said. "That's why I want to keep this alive, and the chaplains played a very important part in the war."
Long said that chaplains during the war held the rank of captain.
"All chaplains were captains so they could get the pay of that rank," Long said. "When they started out, they only got the pay what a regular soldier got paid. As usual, politics, back then as today, got involved in some way that led to them to get the rank and the captain's pay. However, being a captain didn't mean you could give any orders."
Long said he is still learning about chaplains and does research on the Internet. He said his daughter found a book with stories from Civil War chaplains.
"One of the neat things about this is that I get to meet people from all over," Long said. "I was at the 150th anniversary in Gettysburg and met a gentleman who had moved from England to Boston. He was a heart surgeon and was dressed as a Civil War surgeon. There were people from New Zealand and Australia. While other people sat in the stands for the re-enactments, I was up on the hill with some of the troops because the chaplains pray over the troops before they go into battle."
Long wore the traditional uniform of a chaplain. The clothing was mainly all wool. He said the cost for the entire uniform is $800 to $900. Since chaplains didn't carry a gun, he didn't have one.
Long spoke on a difference between the 19th century and 21st century chaplains.
"One of the biggest differences is the language that was used back then," said Long. "They used big words that I wouldn't be able to pronounce. And then there are the sermons and how they were presented. Some of those chaplains sometimes had sermons lasting two to three hours. Today the whole service is an hour."
Long said President Abraham Lincoln was interested in chaplains in the service, although not every general was.
"When the war first started, Lincoln asked for about 75,000 volunteers and also felt the need for chaplains so that the soldiers could have moral and spiritual guidance," Long said. "In the beginning, there was no set qualifications for chaplain. You had illiterates and guys to went to college. Their ages ranged from about 19 to 60. The average was about 40 years old. Pay was about $1,400 a year."
Long said that most chaplains were Methodists, with some being Catholic, Lutheran and other Protestant denominations, and Jewish. About 2,500 chaplains total served in both armies during the war. He is not aware of any female chaplains.
"The Confederacy also had chaplains, but President (Jefferson) Davis didn't want any chaplains," said Long. "He put his high priority on the men being ready to fight and they would be well-equipped. He said he didn't want any Bible-toting chaplains walking around the battlefield, but later on his cabinet said that we believe that God is with us, that God will win the war for us, and we should put chaplains in there. So they did. There was no shortage of chaplains down south. They had maybe 200 to 300 men who had certificates of being a preacher, or some just said they could do it. Most of the chaplains in the south were about 35 years old."
Long said about 41 Confederate chaplains died in the war, most from either exhaustion or disease. He read a quote that described what a chaplain needs to be.
"This was interesting: 'A chaplain needs the skin of a rhinoceros. He needs the nine lives of a cat.' That was because what they saw and what they had to go through," Long said.
"At first," he continued, "none of the higher ups - generals and so forth - wanted chaplains in their units. The generals were saying, 'Look, go out and kill your enemy. You hate your enemy.' The preacher would stand up there on Sunday morning and say, 'Love your enemy. Turn the other cheek.' There seemed to be a lot of conflict there, but after awhile the generals ... accepted chaplains because they needed to talk to someone. They had to vent, you might say, with all the troops they had to send out to be killed. They needed to talk to and the chaplain was the man to do it."
Long said there were two types of chaplains, hospital and regimental. Those in a hospital held prayer services, helped surgeons with the amputations and helped the nurses take care of the men who were bedridden. They also helped in writing letters to home.
"One of the worst things for a chaplain was to write to someone at home telling them that their loved one was killed," Long said.
Army Capt. Christopher S. Butera, 35, is a Catholic chaplain and serves with Field Artillery Squadron, 2d Cavalry Regiment in Afghanistan.
"While deployed, we are known as Task Force Hell, Combined Task Force Dragoon," said Butera in an email interview.
A native of Pottsville, Butera is a graduate of Pottsville Area High School. He attended Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Va., graduating in 2001 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He also attended St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook, and earned an master of divinity in pastoral theology in 2006 prior to being ordained a deacon and earning a master's in moral theology in 2007 prior to being ordained a priest by former Allentown Diocese Bishop Edward P. Cullen on June 2, 2007.
On March 16, Butera was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan.
"I am in a cavalry unit in which the battalions are called squadrons," Butera said. "My duties as a chaplain involve being a personal staff officer to the squadron commander. I answer only to him, in which I advise him on moral and ethical decisions that he may make or have to take into advisement. That is very important here in Afghanistan where religion plays a major role in military decisions, as well (as) keeping the pulse of the squadron. I have absolute confidentiality as a chaplain, almost like the seal of confession, and I counsel soldiers and families from everything from personal problems to discipline problems, marriage counseling, marriage retreats and suicide awareness training. We live by three tenets: Nurture the living, care for the wounded and honor the dead.
As a priest chaplain, he continued, "I also run the equivalent of a parish for the military Catholic community such as daily/weekend Mass, confessions, youth groups, RCIA, etc."
Butera said the chaplaincy has changed since it began in the Revolutionary War.
"The history of the chaplaincy has evolved tremendously through the years," he said. "The chaplaincy has been around for a long time as one of the oldest branches in the Army since it was authorized by George Washington. In the early days, chaplains provided religious services and were paid by the U.S. government, but weren't really regulated such as attire, etc.
"As the corps began to develop, it started to incorporate itself into the profession of arms - more so than just performing religious services but as a staff officer who has official responsibilities to brief the commander on a regular basis. We wear military uniforms just like all other officers and carry rank with all its perks and privileges. If you've ever seen the monument to Father William Corby at Gettysburg, he is positioned standing with his arms outstretched and a confessional stole around his neck giving general absolution to both the Union and the Confederate soldiers. I think a good comparison would also be Father Mulcahy from MASH, who just sort of popped in and out as needed for some point of reflection and sort of did his own thing."
His point, Butera said, "is that, originally, chaplains were sort of 'attached' to the military as ministers, but are now a completely integrated corps just like the infantry or ordinance corps, another corps that makes up the U.S. Army."
Being a Catholic chaplain in Afghanistan keeps Butera busy.
"As a Catholic chaplain, I am what is called a 'high demand, low density asset,' " he said. "This means that there are a lot of Catholics in the military, which makes me high demand, but there are only a few Catholic chaplains in the military, so low density, so I travel a great deal.
"I am the only Catholic priest for the 2d Cavalry Regiment in Regional Command-South. While in Afghanistan, I travel to more than 17 Forward Operating Bases and Command Outposts, which includes CIA and Special Forces posts, on a regular weekly basis, in addition to maintaining my duties to my squadron and FOB Walton."