The history of the American Civil War often focuses on famous generals, important battles, and political maneuvers. While those are elements of the war we should never forget, some of the most remarkable contributions were made by people who go less noticed. One of those people is Chaplain Horatio Howell — the Union Army’s chaplain slain at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Though his name is often omitted from the story, he played a role in many of the most critical chapters of the Civil War.
Today, we’re going to reveal five little-known facts about Howell, including his military service, his position as a prominent abolitionist, his outstanding oratory skills, his powerful emotional and spiritual support to soldiers, and his recognition by the Union Army.
Fact 1: Chaplain Howell was a prominent abolitionist
Before the war, Howell worked as a reverend after graduating from the Union Theological Seminary in New York. After being ordained in 1846, he worked in a wide range of Presbyterian churches across Maryland and Pennsylvania.
During this time, the abolition of slavery was a divisive issue, but not for Howell. He became deeply convinced that slavery was a great sin taking place in the nation. He became an outspoken critic of the practice while working in Elkton, Maryland where he witnessed the practice up close.
Inspired by the anti-secessionist teachings of Reverend James Wilson, Howell became an outspoken critic of slavery. Wilson, renowned for his passionate sermons, had a profound influence on Howell's perspectives on abolition. His beliefs were rooted in the fundamental Christian doctrine that all humans were created in God's image, a belief that led him to the conclusion that no individual should ever be reduced to the status of property.
This made Horatio Howell a fellow traveler with many other famous Christian abolitionists of the time, including:
William Lloyd Garrison
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Through his tireless efforts and powerful sermons, Howell challenged the moral and ethical implications of slavery, becoming a notable and prominent abolitionist of his time.
Fact 2: Chaplain Howell was an educator
Before making his mark as a chaplain in the Union Army, Howell made a significant impact in a much different field: education.
Nestled in the picturesque Delaware Water Gap, he ran a private boys’ school. There he looked after the development of young minds, instilling values and beliefs that aligned with his view of human equality in the eyes of God.
Moral and spiritual development were no doubt important elements of his educational approach, and he committed himself for years to inspiring his students. This in some ways helps to inform his character — a committed man of religion who sought to inspire others with belief.
A man in his early 40s during the Civil War, many of the soldiers he ministered to were no doubt little older than the boys in that school. In the faces of these young men, he must have seen the students whom he shepherded only a few years before. This must have placed a heavy weight on Howell, yet being a fierce Unionist, he persisted.
Fact 3: Chaplain Howell provided spiritual and emotional support to the soldiers
Like all chaplains, Howell’s duty was to provide spiritual and emotional support to his fellow soldiers. This essential function was especially critical during the Civil War, which caused profound psychological wounds given that the fighting happened between people who only a couple years earlier were fellow citizens.
It is in this challenging context that Howell worked endlessly to provide some kind of internal peace for people trapped inside the harsh realities of war.
Many soldiers were ill equipped and suffered privations that would be inconceivable to most modern day Americans. On top of that, they were having to engage in either combat or difficult, long distance marching. This led to physical exhaustion, of course, but it was also an endless drain on their hearts and minds.
The role of chaplains is generally underreported when discussing war, as historians generally favor a focus on the fighting. But the efforts of clergy is essential, including keeping up the morale of soldiers and helping them process the extreme things they witness and must do from day to day.
Fact 4: Chaplain Howell died tragically in the Battle of Gettysburg
One of the most striking moments in Howell’s life is its tragic end. The manner of his death remains a poignant reminder of the scourge of warfare and the high cost of the American Civil War.
Chaplain Howell died during the Battle of Gettysburg, but he did not die in active duty.
On July 1, 1863, the Union forces were using the College Lutheran Church as a field hospital. It was here that Howell used his skills to try and mend soldiers wounded in the carnage. But by the afternoon, the Union troops were retreating past the church, leaving it undefended. As Confederates moved up the street, sounds of shots could be heard. Howell stepped outside to see what was going on.
Immediately upon seeing him, a Confederate troop demanded Howell surrender. The chaplain tried to explain that he was a noncombatant. But while he tried to explain the situation, he was shot and died.
This might have been due to Howell’s habit for wearing military garb — earning him the nickname of “chaplain militant.”
Fact 5: Chaplain Howell's work was recognized by the Union Army
While Chaplain Howell’s life was tragically cut short during the Battle of Gettysburg, his influence and impact continue to resonate. While his story is not widely known, those who learn about it are struck by the way it reminds us of the devastation of the war and the role of noncombatants in the fighting.
In the years that have followed his death, both veterans and historians alike have honored his contributions. This reaches its apex with the establishment of the Chaplain Howell Monument — erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1889. It stands at the steps of the church where he was shot (now called the Christ Lutheran Church) on Chambersburg Street. If you are looking to visit, it is only one block west of the main square.
This monument stands at the exact play where Howell was killed, serving as a stark and moving reminder for his service. It also stands in for all the non-combatant casualties of the Civil War.
Final Thoughts on Chaplain Howell
The story of Chaplain Howell is a little told part of the Civil War, yet it reminds us how people from the entire tapestry of American life were pulled into the conflict. There were soldiers and generals, yes, but reverends, too.
That he died among the chaos of the fighting, most likely due to a simple misunderstanding, helps to illustrate a large part of what makes warfare so tragic, so devastating. But his commitment to the righteousness of his cause also inspires us to follow our own moral convictions — even if it takes us into dangerous situations.
If you are visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park to see the battlefield and its many monuments, consider visiting the Chaplain Howell monument as well. He stands in for all those who supported their side and paid the ultimate price, even if they did not pick up arms themselves.