First Army Female Chaplain

“To the Union belongs the distinction of authorizing the first female military chaplain. After first receiving encouragement from President Lincoln upon expressing a desire to become an Army chaplain, Mrs. Ellen E. Hobart did not receive the same welcome from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton–despite a signed note of approval from Lincoln himself. Though Hobart was an ordained minister and married to a regimental chaplain, Stanton bristled at the notion, stating he did not want to “set a precedent” and then bluntly refused Hobart’s petition.

Chaplain-Hobbart-CW“But Hobart, coming from a rather liberal theological background, had been trained to challenge traditional notions of Christian service and dogma. She continued to work with various Christian aid societies on behalf of soldiers and eventually won the support of Wisconsin Governor, James T. Lewis. After obtaining the endorsement of several other ministers, as well as gaining the confidence of a number of Union soldiers, Ella Hobart was elected chaplain of the 1st Wisconsin Heavy Artillery on November 22, 1864, thus becoming the first female chaplain in the United States military.

“Governor Lewis later recanted his original support and refused to commission her, “if Stanton won’t muster you” and the war ended with Hobart’s status in limbo. After several years of political wrangling, Congress would eventually pass a joint resolution on March 3, 1869 that authorized Hobart’s right to receive the full pay and recognition of a U.S. Army chaplain.”

“The [1869] bill stopped short of awarding [Hobart] an actual Army commission. that injustice would not be remedied until 2002 when Congress ‘authorized and requested’ that the President ‘posthumously appoint Ella e. Gibson [Hobart] to the grade of captain in the Chaplains Corps of the Army.’ This is slightly ironic, since at the time of her service, chaplains did not hold formal military rank at all. Thus, chaplain Hobart, as a ‘captain,’ gained a privilege not shared by her civil war peers.”2

Chaplain-Alice-henderson

Chaplain Alice M. Henderson

However, “it would be more than 100 years before the first female chaplain was officially commissioned into the military, when Reverend Dianna Pohlman Bell became a Navy chaplain in 1973.

“This was the time of early feminism, a time to create new roles for women,” Bell said about becoming the first official female military chaplain in a 2013 Orange County Register article. “I was attracted because I’m a creative, strong woman who believes women are partners with men and bring fresh gifts. I felt we could be equal with men during those very specific cultural times.”

“Reverend Alice M. Henderson, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, became the first woman to officially serve in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps in July 1974. She was sworn in at a ceremony at U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM) at Fort McPherson, GA and served for 13 years.”3

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1From The Essential Civil War Curriculum website.

2Robert C. Stroud, “The first Female Military Chaplain: Ellen Elvira Gibson Hobart,” Curtana,-Sword of Mercy, Vol. 5, Issue 1 (2014), p. 15.

3By Ms. Megan Doyle (Chaplain Corps), originally published 24 March 2014 at www.army.mil.

Photo of Ellen E. (Gibson) Hobart:  “The first Female Military Chaplain: Ellen Elvira Gibson Hobart,” Curtana,-Sword of Mercy, Vol. 5, Issue 1 (2014), p. 28.

Photo of Chaplain Alice Henderson: http://www.army.mil/women/profiles/historical.html.

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