Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Un-Civil War

A Quaker diary tells a hair raising tale ...

Thanks to the Internet Archive I recently discovered a remarkable historical document. It's called The Record of a Quaker Conscience, and it consists of the diary of one Cyrus Pringle who appealed to the government for the status of Conscientious Objector during the US Civil War. (To find it, just do a search on the archive's website.)

The small book was published by MacMillan in 1918 and comes with an introduction by Rufus Jones, a prominent Quaker historian and theologian of that era. With no other preamble the journal begins with the receipt of the author's draft notice -- an event familiar to any of us who grew up prior to the end of the Vietnam War. Unwilling to buy his way out by paying someone to take his place (which was perfectly legal at the time), Pringle and some of his friends dutifully reported and immediately made their claim for exemption due to their religious beliefs, as provided by law.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has tried it (as I did myself back in 1968) that the exemption was not granted. Regardless of their community support, and the long-standing Quaker opposition to war in any form, Pringle and his few friends were declared to be in the army and were hustled off with the latest batch of recruits.

Apparently back then there was no oath given at the time of induction, so there was no such moment for anyone to refuse. In later years this was the opportunity for anyone who objected to opt for a trial and a prison sentence instead, which at least made their status clear. But in those days they were simply bundled along on the train with everyone else.

At every turn, whenever they came under the jurisdiction of a new officer, they would inform him of their position. But time and again their problem was referred up the line to higher officers, or kicked back down to non-coms. No one seemed willing to make a decision.

Meanwhile, their civilian clothes were taken from them so that they had to put on uniforms. When they refused to accept the rifles that were issued to them, the guns were strapped to their backs anyway. Finally they ended up in a series of prison camps where they often suffered severe mistreatment.

By "mistreatment," I mean for example that Pringle was stripped of his shirt and staked to the ground outdoors in the sun for hours on end. He and the others were also threatened with execution, sometimes at the point of a gun. But I suppose that nowadays, in this era of "extraordinary rendition" and "waterboarding," this should not give us cause for alarm.

Finally they were offered substitute service in a military hospital. But when they saw that their presence there released others to go to the front lines, they felt that their beliefs also compelled them to refuse this compromise, so it was back to prison again.

At length Pringle and his friends were freed to return home by the intervention of President Lincoln himself. Grateful and moved by his long correspondence with some other Quakers, Lincoln, when he learned of their plight, immediately instructed his war secretary, "It is my urgent wish that these Friends be released."

So the story has a happy end. We can only wonder how many others suffered their fate in silence, without the benefit of the President's aid. And how many more will have to endure the same struggle now, and in the future.

[For more, refer to my story about contemporary Conscientious Objector Camilo Mejia. I will have another example from World War II in time for Veterans Day.]

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