Louis Napoleon Nelson: The First Black Chaplain of the Civil War
When the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment requested a chaplain, there were not enough clergymen to assign to every military unit in the Confederate States Army. Fortunately, there was a man called of God in their midst. Louis Napoleon Nelson was well versed in Scripture and traveled to war as the bodyguard of two Oldham brothers.
Answering the call, Louis Napoleon Nelson conducted a spiritual service for the soldiers. They so thoroughly enjoyed the sermons until the field officers appointed him as the honorary chaplain of the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment during the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862.
How could this be? How could Confederate field officers assign an African-American as their regimental chaplain? This was indeed possible because President Jefferson Davis delegated the appointment of chaplains to Confederate States Army field commanders.
Also, Confederate States Army chaplains did not have a formal title. As an example, some chaplains were called Brother, Father or Reverend. During this period in American history either South or North , African-American men were not addressed as “Mr./Mister”. Therefore, the common title for African-American men who were held in high regard was “uncle.” Therefore, the troopers of the 7th Tennessee Cavalry Regiment affectionately called Louis Napoleon Nelson, “Uncle Louis.”
After several revival services, word spread throughout the camp. On September 10, 1863, a correspondent for the Religious Herald wrote, “Uncle Louis is heard with respectful attention, and for earnestness, zeal and sincerity, can be surpassed by none.”
Also in September of 1863, Henry McNeal Turner, pastor of Israel AME Church (Washington D.C) became the first Union African-American chaplain of the 1st United States Colored Troops (USTC).
Thus Confederate Chaplain Louis Napoleon Nelson is noted in history as the first black military chaplain with white parishioners during the American Civil War.