Revolutionary War Chaplain

The Revolutionary War

The Revolutionary War provided Abraham Baldwin with a different type of education than Yale. He met people and had experiences that would affect him for the rest of his life. The war shaped his political career as well, for he came to believe that federalism, the idea of a strong central government, could best help all citizens of every state, as well as fulfill the ideals of the Revolution.

The Decision to Join

Why did Abraham Baldwin join the army? His father must have instilled a sense of duty and patriotism in him, for while Michael Baldwin lived in North Guilford he belonged to the Connecticut militia, where he eventually became a lieutenant in a local unit. Abraham Baldwin’s association with Yale also helped, for the school wielded incredible influence, having educated most of Connecticut’s clergy for decades. Baldwin served as a part-time chaplain with Connecticut forces during 1778. He resigned from Yale to enter the military as a full-time chaplain on February 1, 1779, replacing another former Yale tutor, Timothy Dwight. He served in Brigadier General Samuel H. Parsons’ brigade, and was only one of two brigade chaplains in Connecticut’s forces. After American forces reorganized in 1781, he became part of the Connecticut Brigade, and stayed there until June 3, 1783, when a preliminary peace treaty was announced and the army was demobilized.

Baldwin’s brigade operated mainly on the banks of the Hudson River near West Point and southeastern New York, as well as in Connecticut and northern New Jersey. The Connecticut brigades helped secure communication along the Hudson, freeing up General Washington to pursue the British elsewhere. The conditions they faced could sometimes be very harsh. During the winter of 1779-1780 near Morristown, New Jersey, Baldwin wrote of their hunger, “and I think is very like to continue for the winter—nothing to eat or drink for men or cattle or at least not half allowance and no prospect of that much longer.” Hardships like this tested even the most loyal patriot, which is why chaplains were so important. One of Baldwin’s famous sermons as army chaplain was to the Connecticut Line in 1782. There had been some talk of mutiny and, in response, he preached about the obligation to defend liberty.

Baldwin visited his family and friends in New Haven as often as possible during the war, preaching at Yale and keeping in contact with President Stiles. In 1781 Yale offered him a position as professor of divinity, which he declined, partly because of salary. He had also met and befriended many of the war’s famous personalities, including George Washington and Nathanael Greene, who had expanded his vision beyond Yale, and this might have also influenced his decision.

The Role of the Chaplain in the Revolutionary Army

At the beginning of the war, without a formal system in place, ministers volunteered to work with the troops, but soon each colony initiated a plan to establish and maintain the chaplaincy. At first, this lead to many inconsistencies in the way army chaplains were chosen by various colonies and various divisions of the military. In Connecticut, Abraham Baldwin’s home, the governor appointed regimental chaplains.

Army chaplains received official recognition from the Continental Congress on July 29, 1775, when they voted to pay chaplains $20 per month, the same amount paid to captains and Judge Advocates. As this was the first official recognition by the American government, it is considered to be the birth date of chaplaincy in America. Over the course of the war, brigade chaplains replaced regimental chaplains, and their new pay of $40 a month equaled that of colonels. Four or five regiments could make up one brigade, so the amount of work they did more than doubled. Army chaplains lived with the officers at the headquarters of their command.

In serving the roughly 1500 men of many faiths in a brigade, chaplains were challenged to respect their various religious beliefs. Chaplains had a greater variety of duties than one might expect. They educated officers and soldiers through sermons and in conversation, helping them to understand the reasons for the war in order to build morale and instill a sense of patriotism. They served as political advisers to brigade officers. Chaplains not only remained in camp, but also accompanied soldiers into battle and on the march. Among their more conventional responsibilities, they preached, held prayer meetings, wrote letters for soldiers, officiated at marriages and funerals, and visited the sick, wounded, and dying. Of his duties, Baldwin wrote, “I read French, write, and make visits from morning till night, and then sleep from night till morning.” All the responsibilities during the war clearly prepared Baldwin to be a leader in the following years.

Transition to Georgia

Abraham Baldwin studied law as time permitted during the war. He appeared before Examination Counsellors in Fairfield, Connecticut on April 12, 1783 and obtained a license to practice law in Connecticut. Soon after his discharge from the army in June 1783, he moved to Georgia and became a resident. Although he left the ministry behind, religion remained an important part of his life.

After the Revolutionary War ended, many of Baldwin’s fellow citizens sought a new life and new opportunities in the western frontier or in the southern frontier. This idea may have helped him decide to leave Connecticut, but he may have also had personal connections that lead him to choose Georgia. Some people think that Nathanael Greene, a friend of Baldwin’s from the army, suggested that Baldwin move to Georgia. Greene, a Rhode Island native, had been granted Mulberry Grove, a large plantation on the Savannah River for his service during the war. Others believe that Georgia Governor Lyman Hall, a Yale graduate, asked him to come to Georgia to help set up an educational system. Whatever the reasons, Baldwin’s move took his life in an entirely new direction.

Baldwin’s first year in Georgia laid a strong foundation for the rest of his work in politics and education. On January 14, 1784, he asked the House of Assembly, then located in Savannah, for a license to practice law in Georgia. This was granted six days later. He immediately began a very successful practice specializing in land matters as well as other disputes. On February 25, the legislature made him a trustee of the future state university. On October 22, “The Governor in Council granted 200 acres of land in Wilkes Co. to Abraham Baldwin.” This grant was made because of an earlier law, which gave land in that county to settlers under certain conditions. At the beginning of December, his fellow citizens of Wilkes County elected him as one of their representatives to the state legislature. His amazing rise to prominence would only continue in the following years. His talent, his knowledge, and his deep understanding of human nature helped him to become one of the founding fathers of our state and of our nation.

Continue to Abraham Baldwin: Congressional Years