244 years of Army Chaplains

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

U.S. Army Chaplains and Chaplain Candidates training at Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Ky., Sept. 3, 1919. Army chaplains have served alongside Soldiers in every conflict since the Revolution.(Photo courtesy of www.thechaplainkit.com)

July 29th marks the 244th anniversary of the U. S. Army’s Chaplain Corps, one of the oldest and smallest branches of the Army, dating back to 1775.  As long as there have been armies, military chaplains have served, providing for soldiers’ spiritual needs, improving moral, and aiding the wounded.

The Bible tells of the early Israelites bringing their priests into battle with them.  Pagan priests accompanied the Roman legions during their conquests; as Christianity became the predominant religion of the Roman Empire, Christian chaplains administered to Roman soldiers.

In the United States, during the American Revolution, the Continental Congress authorized one chaplain for each regiment of the Continental Army, with pay equaling that of a captain.  Since the War for Independence, chaplains have served in every American war.

In Kentucky, the first documented Chaplains served with Kentucky Militia regiments during the War of 1812.  These first Kentucky Chaplains were established by Federal law which stated that each militia regiment was authorized one Chaplain, and this often times was at the discretion of the regimental commander.  An 1814 Act of Kentucky, “provided that Chaplains shall not be compelled to appear in uniform.”

A number of these men of the cloth would actually serve in the ranks of their local militia company and when the occasion arose, they would administer to the spiritual needs the men of the regiment in the capacity of Regimental Chaplain.

One of Kentucky’s War of 1812 Chaplains, was Reverend James Suggett.  Prior to the War of 1812, Suggett was already serving in the Kentucky Militia, appointed a lieutenant June 25, 1798, in the Rifle Company of the 1st Battalion, 12th Regiment, from Scott County.

Suggett was born in Orange County, Virginia,  May 2, 1775, a son of John and Mildred Davis Suggett.  At the age of six his family moved to Kentucky, initially settling at Floyd’s Fort and later Bryan Station.  In August 1782, young James and his father were among the defenders of Bryan Station against Indian attacks.  Additionally, his mother was one of the women who brought water to the station during the siege.  Known to be wild and reckless in his youth, Suggett married Sarah Redding, daughter of Reverend Joseph Redding, in 1794.  Suggett was baptized by his father-in-law May 2, 1800, and soon began preaching.  Ordained Oct. 1, 1810, Suggett was chosen as pastor of the Great Crossings Church, Scott County, Kentucky, a position he held until his removal to Missouri in the 1820s.  According to Suggett family history, in November 1811, Reverend Suggett was serving with the Kentuckians at the Battle of Tippecanoe, in the Indiana Territory.  There is no official documentation to verify this claim.

During the War of 1812, Reverend Suggett served as a second lieutenant in Capt. James Johnson’s Company, 3rd Regiment Kentucky Mounted Militia (Sept. 1, 1812-Oct. 15, 1812), and as 3rd Major (Regimental Chaplain and Chief of Spies and Scouts) on the Field and Staff, Colonel Richard M. Johnson’s Kentucky Mounted Infantry (May 20, 1813-November 19, 1813).  Suggett was the uncle of James and Richard Mentor Johnson, the two brother’s mother was Jemima Suggett Johnson, Reverend Suggett’s sister.

On October 5, 1813, in Upper Canada, near present-day Chatham-Kent, Ontario, Major Suggett and his Spies and Scouts participated in what would become known as the Battle of the Thames or Moraviantown.  At the battle, Suggett and his men were the advance guard for James Johnson’s Battalion.  Johnson had been ordered by General William Henry Harrison to make a frontal attack on the British Regulars with his mounted Kentucky Riflemen.  After drawing up in line several hundred feet from the British lines, in four columns of double files, with Major Suggett’s scouts in the lead, the command was given, “Forward…Charge!”  The men immediately charged towards the lines of the British infantry shouting “Remember the Raisin!”

Despite the flanking fire of the Native Americans, Johnson’s riflemen broke through the British line.  The exhausted, dispirited and half-starved British soldiers fired a single ragged fusillade before retreating.  British General Henry Procter with about 250 of his men fled the battlefield, while the remainder of his men threw down their weapons and surrendered.  One of the weapons captured by Johnson’s men was a three-pounder brass cannon, known as the “Burgoyne Cannon” which had originally been captured by the Americans at the battle of Saratoga, Oct. 7, 1777, during the American Revolution.  It was in use by the American Army until it was taken by the British when General Hull surrendered Detroit, in 1812.  Today, this cannon, presented to Gov. Isaac Shelby, is on display at the Kentucky Military History Museum, along with a drum captured at the battle by the Kentuckians from the British Forty-first Regiment of Foot.

This battle would be the decisive victory of the Americans in the Old Northwest during the war against Great Britain and their Native American allies.  It would see the death of the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, and the fall of the Tecumseh Confederation.  This battle would also stir-up controversy for his nephew, Richard M. Johnson concerning who actually killed Tecumseh during the battle.  Although Johnson never admitted or denied that he had killed the great Shawnee Chief, he used it to his political advantage.  In 1837, Richard Mentor Johnson would become the 9th Vice President of the United States under President Martin Van Buren, with the campaign slogan, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey, Dempsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”

The Battle of the Thames would see the end of the military career of Reverend Suggett, During the war the Reverend earned the nickname, “The Fighting Parson.”  After this battle Reverend Suggett returned to his Kentucky home, he would extensively travel throughout the State, preaching as an evangelist, until moving his family to Missouri, in the 1820s.

In the book, History of Kentucky Baptist, it states that, “he [Suggett] would keep a company in a roar of laughter for hours, with his anecdotes which he gathered while he was in the war of 1813.”  A fellow minister made the following statement, “When I see Suggett in the pulpit, I think he ought never to come out of it, and when I see him out of it, I think he ought never to go into it.”

Suggett, died in New Bloomfield, Missouri Nov. 11, 1851, and was buried with his wife, Sarah, in the Old Providence Cemetery.

In his life-time Reverend Suggett had witnessed the development of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, from a frontier county of Virginia, to statehood, and had participated in a number of significant battles which eventually secured the state as part of the Union.  He had done his full duty as a soldier in the defense of his country, as well as a soldier of the Cross.

The legacy and tradition established by these Soldiers of the Cross during the War of 1812, is carried on by the current members of the Kentucky National Guard’s Chaplain Corps.  There are currently 17 Chaplains (15 Army Guard and 2 Air Guard), three Army Chaplain Candidates, 14 Religious Affairs Specialists and three Religious Affairs Airmen, administering to the Soldiers, Airmen and families of the Kentucky National Guard.  Although their mission has evolved over the years, their basic role remains the same as their predecessors, administering to the spiritual and moral issues facing Kentucky’s Soldiers, Airmen and their families.