Pennsylvania Civil War Conscientious Objectors

 

Pennsylvania's Civil War Conscientious Objectors
by Jonathan R. Stayer, Head, Reference Section, Pennsylvania State Archives


Provided here is a database of names of Pennsylvania men who refused military service during the American Civil War for reasons of conscience--primarily religious convictions. Volunteers of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania transcribed these entries from the "Register of Aliens & Persons Having Conscientious Scruples Against Bearing Arms, 1862," (entry #3168); Records of State and District Offices, 1861-72, Pennsylvania (Part IV), Western Division; Records of the Provost Marshal General's Bureau, Record Group 110; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.   This register serves as an index to original requests for exemption on file as "Conscientious Objector Depositions, 1862" (Series #19.15); Records of the Adjutant General; Records of the Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs, Record Group 19; Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg, PA. In some instances, the depositions show the age and the occupation of the objector, and each one is signed by the man seeking exemption. These papers are arranged first by county and then roughly in alphabetical order by the individual's surname, similar to the entries in the Register. Copies of the depositions may be obtained for a fee from: Reference Section, Pennsylvania State Archives, 350 North Street, Harrisburg, PA 17120-0090 (www.phmc.state.pa.us).

The depositions and the register resulted from the 1862 Civil War draft. Recognizing the need to bolster the Union ranks, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered a draft of 300,000 men from the state militias on August 4, 1862. At the direction of Governor Andrew Curtin, preparations for the draft proceeded in Pennsylvania throughout the late summer and fall of that year, with the actual draft being held on October 16, 1862. Draft commissioners were appointed in each county and given instructions for conscripting white men between the ages of 18 and 45 years. Among the instructions was a directive to secure an oath or affirmation from those seeking exemption for conscientious scruples based upon a provision in the State Constitution. Article VI, Section 2, of the 1838 Constitution, in effect at the time of the Civil War, stated that "those who conscientiously scruple to bear arms shall not be compelled to do so, but shall pay equivalent for service."

 

In some instances, the depositions show the age and the occupation of the objector...

 

The largest numbers of depositions were taken in the counties with traditionally large Quaker or Mennonite populations such as Lancaster, Bucks, Chester, Philadelphia and Montgomery-with 667 in Lancaster County alone. Since most of them came from religious backgrounds that prohibited taking oaths as well as performing military service, many of the documents indicate that the person "affirmed" his conscientious scruples.

Members of the Historic Peace Churches-Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites (including the Amish), and Dunkards (Church of the Brethren, Brethren in Christ and related groups)-comprised the majority of Civil War conscientious objectors. As J.P. Vincent, member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, noted during debate on the floor of the State House, "the Quakers, Mennonists and others of like belief, not only refuse to bear arms in time of war, but they refuse to attend militia trainings; they refuse to have anything to do with the semblance of a military organization" (George Bergner, The Legislative Record: Containing the Debates and Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Legislature for the Session of 1863, Harrisburg, PA, 1863, p. 761). Some smaller religious groups such as the Schwenkfelders and the Christadelphians also held convictions against military participation. All believed that military service contradicted the teachings of the New Testament, particularly those of Jesus.

Although the Quakers were more politically active and the Mennonites were more numerous, the Dunkards frequently attracted particular attention by their distinctive practice of baptism of the convert by complete bodily immersion in water. At the end of the war in his report on the federal draft, Provost Marshal George Eyster, writing from his district headquarters in Chambersburg, observed that "preachers were known to go with indecent hast to the nearest creek to administer baptism to some trembling conscript" (George Eyster, Chambersburg, PA, "History of the operations of the Board of Enrolment [sic] of the 16th District since its commencement," 24 July 1864, p. 28; Historical Reports of State Acting Assistant Provost Marshal Generals and District Provost Marshals, 1865, Entry #50, Pennsylvania {National Archives Microfilm Publication M1163, roll 5}; General Records; Records of the Central Office; Records of the Provost Marshal General's Bureau, Record Group 110; National Archives Building, Washington, DC).

 

The largest numbers of depositions were taken in the counties with traditionally large Quaker or Mennonite populations...

 

Because the Pennsylvania Constitution did not establish the amount "equivalent for service" to be paid by conscientious objectors, the state House of Representatives took up the question in January of 1863. After considerable acrimonious debate in which "great differences of opinion" were expressed, the chamber passed House Bill 774, setting the commutation fee at $300.00 (Legislative Record, p. 796). The state Senate considered the bill, but adjourned for the afternoon on April 14, 1863, without voting on it (Legislative Record, p. 892). No further mention of the bill is found probably because the federal government took over the draft process as a result of the enrollment act passed by Congress on March 3, 1863. The federal drafts did not allow exemption specifically for religious reasons; however, draftees were permitted to pay a $300.00 commutation fee or to provide a substitute.

Pennsylvania's records of Civil War conscientious objectors are unique. So far as is known, Pennsylvania is the only Northern state to have an extant file of depositions of men who refused military service on the basis of their religious convictions.