March 7, 2013

Gibson as chaplain: it seems rather novel

It was not until March 7, 1876, that Ella Elvira Gibson received payment from the United States Treasurer for her services as a chaplain during the Civil War. Though born in Massachusetts, she was living in Wisconsin and organizing charitable societies for soldiers' aid. This work, along with her lecture experience (she reportedly gave nearly 300 lectures in 1858 alone) inspired a recommendation for a chaplaincy with the First Wisconsin Heavy Artillery Regiment, then stationed at Fort Lyon in Virginia. The governor of Wisconsin himself, James T. Lewis, advocated the appointment.

When President Abraham Lincoln heard of this possibly appointment in 1864, he wrote to the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, "Miss Ella Elvira Gibson would be appointed chaplain... only that she is a female.The President has not legally anything to do with such a question, but he has no objection to her appointment."

Stanton apparently did not offer his approval. Even so, Gibson stepped into the role and performed its duties admirably — without pay but with the full support of the soldiers and officers until she was officially granted the title — but still no pay. Her job included offering three sermons every Sunday and on various weekdays (outdoors, as there was no chapel) as well as oversight of funerals and support in the hospitals. The soldiers reported on her efforts positively; one wrote home, "It seems rather novel to have a female chaplain, but I suppose if [she] is suited, we ought to be."

In 1869, Congress passed a bill authorizing payment to Gibson. The move, however, was controversial and met with several delays. Finally, 15 years after she first began her services, she received $1,210.56. Her health, however, was greatly affected by the exposure to the elements she endured without an indoor space; her appeal for a pension as an invalid, however, was denied. Gibson was also a published poet and an advocate for Free Thought after the war.

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