William Emerson

Chaplain William Emerson, Continental Army and Colonel Jonathan Reed’s New Hampshire Regiment

William Emerson was born in Malden, Massachusetts on May 31, 1743, the son of Joseph Emerson and Mary Moody.  He graduated from Harvard in 1761.  On February 18, 1765, the church in Concord chose Emerson to be their pastor, and the town concurred in March.  Emerson was ordained on January 1, 1766, and on August 21 of that year, he married Phebe Bliss.

Emerson served as chaplain to the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774, and participated in the Battle of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.  According to legend, Emerson walked along the front, firelock in hand, helping to calm the fears of the soldiers.  One veteran recalled years later that Emerson put his hand on his shoulder, saying, “Don’t be afraid, Harry; God is on our side.”  After the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Emerson served the newly formed army at Boston’s siege line and elsewhere as chaplain while remaining the pastor at Concord. 

On June 15, 1775, the Second Continental Congress offered George Washington a commission as commander in chief of the Continental Army, and he accepted the following day.  Shortly thereafter, Washington requested that Congress officially recognize chaplains as part of the Continental Army, and provide them with a salary.  At the time of Washington’s request, many ministers, like Emerson, were already volunteering alongside colonial troops, and Washington recognized their importance to morale and the war effort.  In response to Washington’s request, on July 29, 1775, Congress authorized chaplains to be paid $20 per month, the same as a captain in the infantry.  The Army Chaplaincy Corps celebrates July 29, 1775 as its founding.

Following authorization from Congress, some regiments added a chaplain to their ranks, but not all did so.  In a letter to John Hancock, President of the Second Continental Congress, Washington expressed concern that the pay allotted by Congress for chaplains was “too Small to encourage men of Abilities,” and asked Congress to increase the pay to $33.33 per month.  The new pay scale was the equivalent of a major’s pay.  In exchange for higher pay, Washington agreed to reduce the number of chaplains to one for every two regiments.  On January 16, 1776, Congress agreed to Washington’s proposal.  The new arrangement did not work in practice, however, and Washington soon realized that each regiment needed its own chaplain.  As a result, Washington wrote to Hancock again, asking that Congress “remedy the evil . . . by affixing one [chaplain] to each Regiment with Salaries competent to their support.”  On July 5, 1776, Congress passed the following resolution:  “That a chaplain be appointed to each regiment in the continental army, and their allowance be encreased to thirty three dollars and one third of a dollar a month.”  Washington spread the word to his officers in his General Orders on July 9, 1776, writing, “The Honorable Continental Congress having been pleased to allow a Chaplain to each Regiment, with the pay of Thirty-Three Dollars and one-third per month – The Colonels or commanding officers of each regiment are directed to procure Chaplains accordingly.”

Shortly thereafter, Emerson was offered a commission in the Continental Army as chaplain, and he sought leave from both the church and Town of Concord to “go as a Chaplain into the Continental Army, they to supply the pulpit.”  (Diary Entry, Aug. 4, 1776).  Both the church and town approved Emerson’s request, and he left on August 16, 1776 to join Colonel Jonathan Reed’s regiment as Chaplain. 

Emerson’s grandson, the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his famous oration on the bicentennial of Concord on September 12, 1835, wrote of his grandfather’s commission:

William Emerson, the pastor, had a hereditary claim to the affection of the people [of Concord], being descended in the fourth generation from Edward Bulkeley, son of Peter [Concord’s first minister].  But he had merits of his own.  The cause of the Colonies was so much in his heart that he did not cease to make it the subject of his preaching and his prayers, and is said to have deeply inspired many of his people with his own enthusiasm.  He, at least, saw the pregnant consequences of the 19th April. . . . To promote the same cause, he asked, and obtained of the town, leave to accept the commission of chaplain to the Northern army, at Ticonderoga, and died, after a few months, of the distemper that prevailed in the camp.

Emerson traveled north to join the Northern Army under General Gates at Ticonderoga.  Once there, Emerson ministered to the troops, and General Gates invited to him to dine with him at Headquarters.  In a letter home, Emerson noted that Gates “looked upon a Chaplain as a very necessary officer in the Army.”

August was a rainy month, and the conditions were very unfavorable.  The troops were dying in great numbers from various diseases, and Emerson developed camp fever.  He became so ill that, upon advice of the physicians, he applied for a “dismission from the Army” on September 18, 1776.  His letter states in full:

Sir, My ill state of health is such that I am not able to perform the duty of a Chaplain, and am advised by the Physicians to apply for a dismission from the Army, and should be glad of your consent & assistance thereto.

The original of the letter is in the archives at Harvard, and includes, on the reverse, General Gates’s reply: “The Reverend Mr. William Emerson has my Discharge from the Northern Army of the United States of America, Ticonderoga, 18th September 1776 – Horatio Gates Major General.”

Emerson began the journey home, but only got as far as Rutland, Vermont, when he became too ill to travel.  He stayed with the Rev. Benjamin Roots, and died in his home on October 20, 1776.  He was buried the following day with military honors by a detachment from Colonel Vandyke’s regiment commanded by Major Shippen.

In the official history of the United States Army Chaplaincy, published in 1978 by the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, William Emerson is listed as a Chaplain in the War of Independence, with the note that he “Died in service, 1776.”  Emerson is widely recognized as the first chaplain of the United States Army, and in 1991, the Military Chaplains Association created the Emerson Foundation Award in his honor.

Sources: Corey, Deloraine P., Births, Marriages, and Deaths in Town of Malden, MA 1649-1850 (Cambridge: The University Press, 1903), 351 (birth of William Emerson); Births, Marriages, and Deaths. Concord, MA, 1635-1850 (Boston, Beacon Press, n.d.), 221 (marriage of William Emerson and Phebe Bliss),, 245 (death of William Emerson, “in his Return from the Public Service”); Thompson, Parker C., The United States Army Chaplaincy: From Its European Antecedents to 1791 (Office of the Chief of Chaplains, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., 1978), 1:90-96, 251; Emerson, Edward Waldo, A Chaplain of The Revolution (Boston: Printed Courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922); Emerson, Ralph Waldo, A Historical Discourse at Concord, included in The Complete Works, (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1904), vol. XI; Shattuck, Lemuel, A History of the Town of Concord, (Boston: Russell, Odiorne, and Co., 1835), 186-88;Brown, Abram English, Beside Old Hearth-Stones (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1897), 359-363; Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War (Boston:Wright and Potter Printing Co.), 5:352 (noting Emerson’s service as Chaplain in Colonel Reed’s regiment; credited with 84 days allowance (June 27, 1776 to September 19, 1776); Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, ed. Worthington C. Ford et al. (Washington, D.C., 1904-37), 2:91; 2:220; 4:61; 5:522; “General Orders, 9 July 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, National Archives, accessed July 29, 2019; Lewis, Mitchell, George Washington and Continental Congress Support for Chaplains; Letter from William Emerson to Lt. Col. Brown (September 18, 1776); Letter from General Horatio Gates to William Emerson (September 18, 1776).

Compiled by Richard D. Batchelder, Jr., who has represented William Emerson in the New Hampshire Society since 2019.