The Christian Commission

The New York Times’ Disunion feature scores again, this time laying out the history and role of the United States Christian Commission.

Over the next four years, the 12-member commission, a private organization wholly separate from the Army’s overworked chaplain corps, provided soldiers in the field with regular access to chapels, religious reading materials and preaching. It served Northern and Southern soldiers equally; it even offered special religious services for African-American camp workers and soldiers, a group largely neglected by other spiritual leaders.

It was an astounding success. As one observer, a surgeon attached to the Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, acknowledged in a November 1864 letter, “If the Christian Commission fails to do the work it contemplates it will be left undone.” The commission, though largely forgotten today, played a central role in the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. And its story reveals how critical religion was to both the soldiers’ morale and their commitment to fight for the Union.