The Life of a Civil War Chaplain

I didn’t personally know any of the men (or women) of the cloth in my family tree, but I can tell you there sure were a lot of them. Ordained ministers of just about every persuasion — Baptist, Presbyterian, Unitarian, Methodist, Christian, Assembly of God, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Congregational, and Episcopalian. Today I am going to tell you about a clergyman who probably helped more people face death than most pastors, and urged their comrades and families to be strong and fight on when The Reaper had taken their loved one or friend.

James Craig Rush was my great-great granduncle, little brother of my great-great grandfather who was the father of Josie and Rhody that I’ve told you about — he was Josie and Rhody’s uncle, if that helps clarify it any.

James was born in Meade County, Kentucky in 1815. He graduated from St. Josephs College in Bardstown, Kentucky, in 1834. The first U.S. Census that listed an occupation for registrants was the one taken in 1850, and James Rush was at that time practicing law in Hart County, Kentucky. We don’t know what persuaded him to start pontificating in the sanctuary as well as the courtroom, but in 1858 he became licensed and ordained by the Baptist church and became a pastor in Munfordsville, Monroe County, Kentucky.

It was not long afterward that Rev. Rush joined the cause of the Union in the Civil War, ministering to troops as a Chaplain. In November of 1861, a new infantry regiment was formed in western Kentucky — the 9th Kentucky Infantry — which also included 129 Tennesseans from nearby Macon County in the Volunteer State. Rev. Rush volunteered as a chaplain for this infantry division, until he mustered out on November 7, 1862.

The Kentucky 9th Infantry Regiment was in service from 1861 to 1864.  During that time, eight officers and 96 enlisted men from the unit were killed or wounded; three officers and 250 enlisted men were lost to disease.  In the year that Chaplain Rush served, this unit fought in the Battle of Shiloh, the Battle of Perryville, and the Battle of Stones River, so he no doubt saw a great deal of death and suffering.


Chaplains’ duties in the Civil War were primarily pastoral, although some clergymen did fight in battle alongside the troops — sixty-six Union chaplains are known to have died in service, due to wounds or disease. But these clerics’ most important duties were to see to the spiritual needs of the soldiers in their regiments. This included such things as counseling, comforting the sick and wounded, settling disagreements among the troops, writing letters on behalf of soldiers to people back home, administering last rites, and, of course, burying the dead and writing letters to the bereaved families. Sometimes the chaplains were called upon to be ambulance drivers and hospital assistants.

When they were in circumstances that allowed, the clergymen conducted worship services — in tents, outdoors, or around campfires.  Typical themes were patriotism to the cause and admonitions against evil behavior (such as swearing, gambling, drunkenness and so on). These services were always subject to interruption — by bad weather, army movements, inspections and drills, and other non-combat activities that soldiers found preferable, such as playing cards and sleeping.

Commissioned chaplains did receive some financial compensation – $100 a month (plus a horse and food) for those serving Union forces and $85 per month for Confederate chaplains.

Service as a Civil War chaplain was not easy duty. There were 620,000 casualties in the Civil War, more than American military casualties in WWI and WWII combined. And because of the nature of weaponry and warfare in the Civil War, fighting was down and dirty and death was often extended and excruciating.

Marcus Woodcock of Macon County, Tennessee, just across the Kentucky border, was a member of the 9th Kentucky Infantry (Union).  He wrote in his memoirs (included in A Southern Boy in Blue, Kenneth W. Noe, Ed.,1996) the following story about Rev. Rush:

Religious ceremonies were held every Sunday by parson (James C.) Rush of the Methodist or Baptist church, and whose residence was Munfordville.  After a few Sundays some of the boys got tired of listening to them uninteresting services, and in all probability they may have cherished a personal dislike for the parson also.  At any rate on the first Sunday after I arrived, a goodly number considered they would stay at home and do their own preaching for their own special benefit, and as a consequence when the services were over I looked accidentally toward the guard-house and saw about 50 men ‘marking time’ at common, quick, and double-quick time ‘first one and then t’other,’ rendering the affair rather amusing.

Obviously, not every soldier in Rev. Rush’s unit felt the need to seek spiritual preparation for fighting the Rebs, and to their immediate (and perhaps future) detriment. Interestingly, in the years following the war, Marcus Woodcock’s faith grew. In 1870 he became Baptist Sunday School superintendent, thereafter rising in the church to become treasurer of the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Baptist State Mission Board.  “In these positions, he became one of the most recognizable and beloved Baptists in the state,” according to A Southern Boy in Blue.  Who knows what seeds Parson Rush sowed in those Sunday morning messages to the young infantrymen?

After the war, Rev. Rush returned to farming and pastoring  in Kentucky Baptist churches. He and his wife raised six children. His Last Will and Testament gives us a hint that life, even after the Civil War, was not care free for this family. His Will, executed April 24, 1899, provides: “First, if my unfortunate son James P. Rush who is now confined in the asylum for the insane should die before I do I want him plainly and decently buried and the amount for same deducted from what would be coming to him from my Estate.” James Peter Rush was born May 5, 1854, in Hart County, Kentucky, but no other information is known.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, 28 Oct 1899, “The Rev. James C. Rush died at the home of his son-in-law, J. M. Dinwiddie, 2611 West Chestnut street, yesterday morning, at the advanced age of eighty-four years. The Rev. Mr. Rush was a Baptist minister at Bloomfield (Nelson Co), but had not engaged in ministerial work for several years.”

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