Chaplain George Ward Dunbar
A Biographical Sketch
Extracted from an article by The Reverend Arthur Mavrode, OC, entitled Fort Concho Chaplians
The West Texas frontier in the 1870s was a wild and dangerous place. There was little law enforcement and Indian depredations had caused widespread terror among the settler population. In order to bring a semblance of stability to the region, the federal government established a line of frontier forts in the post Civil War period. The challenges were of course enormous. Incredible extremes in weather, isolation, frequent Indian raids, bandits, and racial tensions caused by the imposition of military law and order by Buffalo Soldiers on a defeated population of a Confederate state made the situation impossible. Such was the environment in which Chaplains of the United States Army ministered...
George Ward Dunbar was born in Moravia, New York in the year 1833. A registered Son of the American Revolution, his Great Grandfather who was of the Jewett clan of Lyme, New York was killed in the war of independence when according to Bancroft: "Among the Jewett of Lyme, Captain of Volunteers was run through the body by the officer to whom he gave up his sword."
Dunbar attended Hobart College of Geneva, New York in 1855 and was graduated valedictorian of his class. He then went on to his seminary studies, attending the general Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City, and graduating from there in 1860. On July 1, 1860, he was ordained and went on to minister parishes in New York, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
It was while serving as Rector of Christ Church in Janesville, Wisconsin that he answered the call to serve as a Chaplain in the United States Army. He was commissioned as an officer in 1876 and served in his career in Texas, Dakota, California, and Virginia.
It should be noted that Army Chaplains in these frontier forts were also expected to supervise the post education program, administer the post treasury, serve as post librarian, manage the post bakery and supervise the maintenance of the post garden. There would be great frustration for the chaplains as supplies were always slow to arrive and there never seemed to be enough funds to carry on any effective education program. Adding to the frustration Chaplain Badger found himself often at odds with the newly assigned post commander Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson. Colonel Grierson, a hero of the Civil War, expressed his feelings concerning Chaplain Badger in a letter he wrote to his wife after Badger had died on post and after receiving word that Chaplain Dunbar would replace him:
"I am sorry that this Chaplain Dunbar has not a loud call to go somewhere else… but the powers that be have ordered him here possibly because this is a chaplain's post or may be on account of the supreme wickedness of this locality. He will be good to occupy the quarters and eat commissary stores and to attend strictly to every body's business but h is own. I hope he will succeed in saving a great many souls, his own included."
Grierson's remarks not only reflected his opinion toward Badger but toward all chaplains. Fortunately, when Dunbar arrived at Fort Concho, he did make a favorable first impression on his commander. After attending a Sunday morning service, the colonel again wrote to Mrs. Grierson:
"The Chaplain preached quite a good sermon. He has an easy delivery, and set forth some plain, sensible, conservative, democratic, religious ideas in an effective agreeable manner. He is to preach tonight again, more especially for the soldiers and colored people. There were a good many soldiers present today. He, the Chaplain, takes hold of matters as if he was determined to put forth his very best 'endeavor' to make himself useful in every possible proper way and I am rather inclined to think that he will be quite successful. A new broom is apt to sweep clean for a time, however, and he may hereafter get to playing the Old Soldier."
Though Grierson's comments reflected unfavorably upon Badger by comparison, others thought differently. In the summer of 1871 the post surgeon made an entry in his monthly record that Badger was "very zealous in every duty" and managed the post garden efficiently. "
There were probably many letters and reports sent by the Chaplains of Fort Concho to both their military superiors and Bishops. Regrettably, few have survived. Chaplain Dunbar wrote a number of reports during his tenure at Fort Concho.
Fort Concho, Texas, May 15, 1877
To the Rt. Rev. E.R. Wells, S.T.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Wisconsin
I have the honor to report, that after the resignation of the Pastorate of Christ Church, Janesville, in consequence of my acceptance of a Post Chaplainship in the U.S. army, which occurred in September last, I came at once to this post, where I have ever since remained, in the steady performance of such duties as appertain to my office. I hold services on Sunday morning, for the officers and their families, and on Sunday evenings, for the men. On the evenings of the week, I hold night-school for the soldiers. I have married three couples; buried four soldiers, and three persons not belonging to the post.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. W. Dunbar
In the following year, Chaplain Dunbar issued the following report:
Fort Concho, Texas, June 11, 1878
To the Rt. Rev. E.R. Wells, S.T.D., Bishop of the Diocese of Wisconsin
My Dear Bishop: Since my last annual report I have been constantly at this post. The hardest work of any army Chaplain is usually the teaching. This is likely to be increased by a recent order, which makes the chaplain the Principal of a school, which shall include soldiers, children at the post, and citizens' children. His only assistants are to be detailed soldiers.
Besides this he must visit the sick, bury the dead (too often murdered dead); hold his Sunday services (usually in an airy ward of the hospital); and write his sermons – fifteen minutes should be limit of the longest.
Then he must usually act as Post Treasurer, and superintend and be responsible for library and reading room. These duties to say nothing of taking ones turn on Boards of Survey and Receiving Boards, show that the life of an army Chaplain cannot be the life of luxurious idleness that some have pictured it.
Yours in the Church of Christ, G.W. Dunbar
Post Chaplain, U. S. Army
In February 1879, Chaplain Dunbar reported to the Adjutant General. It was that year the new post chapel/school was constructed:
Sir: I have the honor to report that I passed the month of February in the performance of my duties at this post.
A post school was formally established Feb. 22 and placed under my charge. The new schoolroom is about 40 by 20 and is by far the best finished room in the post. A very promising teacher was found in Sergeant Howell, of Co. A, 25th Infantry. He is very patient, and very ambitious and will in due time become an excellent teacher. [note: Sgt. Howell was a Buffalo Soldier]
In the children's department of the school, only the children of Officers and employees, 21 in number, have so far been admitted. The studies pursued are reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, geography, and U.S. history. The children's hours for school are from 9:30 to 1 p.m.
The school for enlisted men is held from retreat to tattoo. Some 45 men have attended the school. The studies, so far, are reading, spelling, writing, and geography and U.S. history. Arithmetic will be added as soon as we can get desk and slates.
Very Respectfully, your Obedient servant,
G.W. Dunbar, Post Chaplain, USA
Chaplain Dunbar's last known report to his Bishop while serving at Fort Concho:
I have spent the year which has elapsed since the last session of the Diocesan Council, in the performance of the usual multifarious duties of a post chaplain. A little preaching and a good deal of teaching. A little watchfulness concerning the old leaven of sin, and a good deal with regard to that which enters into the soldiers' rations. Much secular work without wholly neglecting the pastoral – such is my daily record.
I regret to say, that the state of my health for the past year, has been such as to make it impossible to speak or read at any length in a standing position, so that I have been compelled to very much abridge my Sunday services.
I have obtained a leave of absence for five months, beginning with to-day. This will bring me to Wisconsin just too late to attend the Council. My address during the summer will be Janesville, Wis.
Chaplain Dunbar's service to Fort Concho would indeed end that summer but not his service to his God, or to his country. One can sense the toll the chaplain's ministry could take on the individual. I can say with confidence and joy that most of those who respond to God's calling to ministry do so with great zeal. I believe Chaplains Badger and Dunbar were no different. From what I know of Chaplain Dunbar in his days of ministry prior to his Chaplaincy, the settings of his assignments were typical of parish life of the time. Nothing very unusual and not fraught with danger or many secular issues.
Could Chaplain Dunbar ever have been prepared for….
The isolation of a frontier fort?
The lack of adequate supplies?
The racial tensions brought about by the introduction of Buffalo Soldiers to a defeated Confederate people and land?
The harsh environment scotching Texas summers or fringed winters?
The lack of a place to worship or to teach?
The lawlessness of the small town across the river known as Saint Angela were prostitution and murder were rife?
The many duties that were not normally expected of a pastor in a civilian parish but were now demanded of his chaplaincy?
In one sense I don't believe that anyone could have been prepared for this – but then again, God often calls us to places we may not want to go or people whom we may not wish to deal with.
I can say that with this brief insight into the life of army chaplains in the western frontier, I have come to a great appreciation of what the calling to ministry truly entails. Sacrifice, fearlessness, perseverance, hope and most of all faith ruled their lives during these most difficult times.
Their ministry should never be forgotten, but remembered and told for generations to come.
Arthur J. Mavrode+
Chaplain, Fort Concho National Historic Landmark
[i] James T. Matthews, “Fort Concho” 2005, Pages 47-50
A good deal of the information contained in this paper was derived from a number of archival collections. A major portion of the information came from an excellent book on Fort Concho written by James T. Matthews. You can find more information about this book by going to the following link: http://www.tamu.edu/upress/BOOKS/2005/matthews.htm