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Conscientious Objectors In The Civil War

        Members of several pacifist religious groups conflicted with Union and Confederate officials to defend their conscientious scruples against bearing arms. They tended to suffer most severely in the South, where manpower shortages, a martial spirit, and invading armies left little sympathy for men unwilling to fight. But under each of the opposing governments they sometimes endured violent persecution by civilians, brutal punishment by military authorities, and death by firing squad.
        The membership of smaller sects such as Dunkards, Amanists, and Schwenkfelders varied between 800 and 1,200. The largest politically active sects, the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Mennonites, counted well over 200,000 members in 1860; most lived in the North.  Shaker and Quaker leaders sought blanket exemptions for their draft-age men, but most cases throughout the war were resolved individually. Often draftees reported voluntarily to instruction camps, then either refused to serve in any military capacity or requested assignments in hospitals; others expressed willingness to support the war effort by furnishing supplies to the army. Lincoln accepted these alternatives and encouraged objectors to apply for exemptions, thus delaying any legislative attempt to address the problem until the draft became an issue in August 1863.
        After passing the South's first Conscription act, 16 April 1862, which made no provision for pacifist exemptions, Confederate politicians were prodded into finding solutions acceptable to dissenting religious groups. Some states tried to deal with the problem locally: North Carolina accepted objectors for hospital duty or substitute work in salt mines. But the revised Confederate Exemption Act of Oct. 1862 included a national solution, exempting Quakers, Nazarenes, Mennonites, and Dunkards, provided they furnished substitutes or paid a $500 exemption tax. Some pacifists objected to supplying either men or money to support the fighting, but most complied until the increasing scarcity of both made the alternatives nearly impossible. The difficulty of collecting the exemption fee finally forced the government to abandon the attempt. The October act placed pursuit of conscientious objectors under army control, where pacifists found unexpected sympathy from military leaders who believed using force against them to be a wasted effort. Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson recommended allowing pacifists to produce supplies or serve as NonCombatants.
        Pacifists in combat-torn regions such as the Shenandoah Valley hid or fled with their families to escape being hunted by home guards. By war's end Kentucky Shakers at Pleasant Hill reported having fed at least 50,000 soldiers from both armies and estimated losses in supplies, stock, and buildings at $1 00,000. Some Southern pacifists did enlist voluntarily for combat positions, among them a few Shakers and 6-20 Quakers; 2 companies of Moravian men from Forsyth Cty., N.C., were also mustered into the army in June 1861. Most were expelled from their sects during the war but were readmitted afterward.
        Greater manpower resources and more tolerant attitudes in general eased the pressures on Northern pacifists. Congress objected to exempting specific religious sects for fear of missing the smaller ones, and a blanket exemption for all conscientious objectors would have invited abuse. Yet the compromise, providing a substitute or paying a $300 commutation fee, violated the principles of men who considered either alternative a contribution to the bloodshed. The Militia Act of 1862 made no provision for conscientious objectors; though the Draft Act of 1863 did, it failed to define "conscientious objector," again resulting in a flood of individual petitions from draftees. In December 1863 Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton eased the situation by paroling all conscientious objectors held in custody and ordering no more to be called.
        143 Quakers reportedly enlisted as Union soldiers, but the majority of their brethren and of all pacifists served in hospitals, cared for sick soldiers in their homes, or worked among the Contrabands. Finally, in Feb. 1864, Congress dealt with the question by ruling pacifists subject to the draft but assuring noncombatant assignments to members of those religious groups whose articles of faith clearly expressed opposition to bearing arms. They were also given the option of paying $300 for the relief of sick and wounded soldiers.
        Though neither government solved the problem of how to deal with conscientious objectors, officials for the first time debated the issue at the national level, offering the option of noncombatant service which remained in effect through World War 1.
Source:  "Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War"

This Page last updated 02/16/02

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