Even governments have priorities. All things being equal, Washington politicians would love to control our bodies, minds, souls and money. In practice, they can get along without the first three. But the latter? Never.
Consider two Delaware County Quaker cousins, Edward and William Smedley, who refused to join the Union army in 1863. Authorities were willing to give them a pass on that. But the Smedleys wouldn’t pay to be released, then a standard practice. It was there that the powers-that-were drew a line—from which Washington has never retreated.
“They would not be satisfied to have the money paid for them,” William Smedley’s brother, Samuel, told a marshall. “It was a matter of principle.”
The Smedleys were descendants of George Smedley, a Quaker who arrived here in 1682 and settled northwest of Media. Edward and William’s fathers were brothers, and the two grew up not far apart on farms in Edgmont and Middletown townships, respectively.
Details about the cousins’ boyhoods are few. As the sons of farmers and Orthodox (conservative) Quakers, their lives likely revolved around farm chores and the church. Education was important, in part because it had been hard for their fathers to obtain. A sketch of William’s father described how he became a teacher despite being “kept at home to assist in the farm duties, so that school days were limited to a few months in the winter.”
Cousin Edward attended the Westtown School for several sessions but left due to ill health. He returned toward the end of his life to serve as its superintendent for 10 years.
At home, the Smedleys were raised on tales of the family’s Quaker heroes. Edward and William’s grandmother, Deborah L. Smedley, traced her lineage to Thomas Lightfoot, a teenage Quaker street preacher who’d traveled England on foot in the 17th century.
In a 1901 genealogy, the Smedleys took pains to mention that Lightfoot had been a companion of George Whitehead, a leading early Quaker whose advocacy of religious freedom had influenced England’s 1689 Bill of Rights. The sharing of such tales at home and in church served to maintain group unity and impress upon the youngsters the importance of Quaker beliefs.
As a group, the Quakers’ sympathy for the Union cause was virtually unanimous. A Philadelphia Quaker newspaper condemned secession as “a wanton and unjustifiable attack on the Union” rooted in “the abominable system of human slavery.” Still, in Philadelphia, Orthodox Friends begged young men not “to betray the cause of the Prince of Peace.” In Ohio, a minister named Anne Branson lectured recruiting officers, telling them it was wrong to oppress those who refused to bear arms. “I used great plainness of speech,” she said, despite a law against interfering with military recruiting.
Meanwhile, at Wilmington, abolitionist Thomas Garrett encouraged a former slave to join the Union army. “Am I naughty,” he asked a friend, “being a professed non-resistant, to advise this poor fellow to serve Father Abraham?”
In Kennett Square, the writer Bayard Taylor wrote to a friend after Fort Sumter fell that “all the young Quakers have enlisted. The women are heroes. Old Quaker women see their sons go, without a tear.”
In truth, all young Quakers had not enlisted to fight.
Passed by Congress in July 1862, the draft arrived here in August, when marshalls went out to list every male aged 18-45. The total was 13,289 men, whose names were all published in the papers. The county’s quota was 2,204. If fewer volunteered, the draft would make up the balance.
Another article geared to Quakers highlighted the following passage from the Pennsylvania constitution: “Those who conscientiously scruple to bear arms shall not be compelled to do so, but shall pay an equivalent for personal service.”
Newspapers reported merrily on attempts to avoid military service. In October, the Village Record told of a conscript allegedly so bothered by a toothache that he had all front teeth pulled. (Soldiers were required to have their front teeth to tear open paper gunpowder cartridges while loading their muskets.) The paper observed that the man had lost his teeth for nothing. “Such a man would be placed in the artillery,” it reported. “Such persons answer very well for this arm of the service.”
The draft missed the Smedleys in its first round, but caught them in the second. The following summer, both received a notice to report “on or before the 13th day of July 1863 at the place of rendezvous in West Chester, Pa., or be deemed a deserter.” Edward received his notice from a neighbor and former schoolmate. “Having consulted several Friends,” he later wrote, “it was thought best for us to appear and give reasons for not serving in the army, and abide the consequences.”
In August, the cousins arrived at Camp Wayne, whose site is now part of the West Chester University campus. Edward Smedley carried a signed 150-word statement of his position that “he cannot conform himself to the draft, procure a substitute, pay the $300 provided by law or any other sum as a commutation for military service or for the free exercise of his natural right to liberty of conscience.”
It wasn’t well received. The Smedleys were given uniforms and ordered to put them on. They refused. “As we declined to do it ourselves,” Edward Smedley later wrote, “we were dressed in soldier’s attire.” One who assisted in forcibly stripping and dressing the two men said he “had always felt it was a glory to dress a man in the United States uniform. But, in this case, it was the most unpleasant duty of his life.”
Turned over to a guard, who carried the Smedleys’ knapsacks, the cousins arrived that evening at Camp Philadelphia, a barracks for conscripts at 22nd and Wood streets (now the site of the Rodin Museum). William Smedley’s brother, Samuel, described their reception:
“A sub-officer, seeing William and Edward standing there, told them to take up their knapsacks and march upstairs. He asked them harshly what they came there for if they did not intend to fight. William said, ‘We were brought here against our will, and are conscientiously opposed to war.’ The officer said, ‘Ain’t you voters of the United States?’ They said they were. ‘Then,’ he replied, ‘you will have to fight and there’s no use in taking such capers as this. We will make you fight.’”
When the Smedleys still refused to pick up their knapsacks, the officer ordered them put in irons. A corporal reported that they had no irons. “Then we will bind them with ropes,” screamed the officer. At that moment, however, 50 new conscripts arrived, and the officers suddenly had other work to do. The Smedleys were sent to the third floor, where they turned in for the night among several hundred draftees.
Meanwhile, other Quakers were work-ing the levers of power. One wrote to Edwin Stanton, secretary of war. Others called on Gen. John Porter Hatch, the officer in charge of draft operations in the region. Hatch told the Quakers he had no authority to release the Smedleys, but he agreed not to ship them off to the Army of the Potomac just yet.
As a compromise, the colonel in charge of the barracks proposed sending the Smedleys to a camp on Ridge Avenue. “The men there were picked men,” he said, “who would be retained for guard duty, and probably never called on to fight.” This was refused; the cousins “could have nothing to do with the system of war.”
The wheels ground slowly. Hatch told the Quakers that he was “in communication” with Washington. In the meantime, he granted permission to send in the Smedleys’ meals. On Aug. 23, Quaker David Evans, the future founder of Malvern, wrote in his diary of seeing the cousins when they were released for the day to visit relatives. “Edward,” he wrote, “attended his brother William’s wedding last fifth day (Thursday).”
Back at the barracks, the cousins continued their refusal to fall in when ordered. They slept on the floor rather than lie in army bunks, and there were occasional trips to the guardhouse—all as hundreds were sent to the troop trains daily.
In his diary, Edward described the other conscripts as rough customers. “Our room is very full again this evening of noisy men,” he wrote on Aug. 26. “And what is worse, many of them are under the influence of liquor.” The next day, the appearance of a fiddle led to dancing, which ended in a fight “which brought up the officers with five or six armed men, who drove them to their bunks.” That night, four men escaped by sliding down from windows on knotted blankets; a subsequent search turned up rope ladders and hidden civilian clothing. The Smedleys made no effort to escape.
On Aug. 27, an officer whispered that the Smedleys would soon be sent south. But he may have only been teasing. On the 29th, the cousins were released from the barracks with passes requiring only that they report daily. This went on for a couple of weeks until, in mid-September, a “special order” from Stanton directed they be “honorably discharged from the service of the United States”—presumably with the status of veterans, which exempted them from paying a fee and avoided setting a precedent. Apparently, this was officials’ way of disposing of the problem with a wink.
“Authorities in the North—particularly Lincoln and some members of his administration—showed on many occasions both consideration and a large measure of understanding for the Quaker position on the war,” according to Peter Brock, author of Pacifism in the United States.
There has been no draft since 1973, though its machinery (and exemptions for conscientious objectors) still exist. But there is still no mercy for those who, like the Smedleys, object to paying for war.
In 2006, U.S. Tax Court rejected a Philadelphia Quaker’s claim that forcing her to support the military violated her rights under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Supreme Court, it noted, “has established that uniform, mandatory participation in the Federal income tax system, irrespective of religious belief, is a compelling governmental interest.”
Adams was an employee of the Quakers, who had escrowed her taxes rather than send them to Washington. The IRS still wants that money, so a lien remains on Quaker real estate.
Don’t look for that to change soon. Money remains a top federal priority.
Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.
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