Home | Battles | Descendants | Find A Soldier | Monuments | Museum | Towns | Units | Site Map
4th Vermont Infantry
The Record of A Quaker Conscience
Cyrus Pringle's Diary
(U.S. Census Bureau)
The body of this little book consists of the personal diary of a young Quaker named Cyrus Guernsey Pringle of Charlotte, Vermont. He was drafted for service in the Union Army, July 13th, 1863. Under the existing draft law a person who had religious scruples against engaging in war was given the privilege of paying a commutation fine of three hundred dollars. this commutation money Pringle's conscience would not allow him to pay. a prosperous uncle proposed to pay it surreptitiously for him, but the honest-minded youth discovered the plan and refused to accept he well meant kindness, since he believed, no doubt rightly, that this money would be used to pay for an army substitute in his place. The Diary related in simple, naïve style the experiences which befell the narrator as he followed his hard path of duty, and incidentally it reveals a fine and sensitive type of character, not unlike that which comes so beautifully to light in the Journal of John Woolman.
This is plainly not the psychological moment to study the highly complex and delicate problem of conscience. The strain and tension of world issues disturb our judgment. We cannot if we would turn away from the events and movements that affect the destiny of nations to dwell calmly and securely upon our own inner, private actions. It is never easy, even when the world is most normal and peaceful, to mark off with sharp lines the area of individual freedom. No person ever lives unto himself or is sufficient to himself. He is inextricably woven into the tissue of the social group. His privileges, his responsibilities, his obligations are forever over-individual and come from beyond his narrow isolated life. If he is to be a rational being at all he must related his life to others and share in some measure their triumphs and their tragedies.
But at the same time the most precious thing in the universe is that mysterious thing we call individual liberty and which even God himself guards and respects. Up to some point, difficult certainly to delimit, a man must be captain of his soul. He cannot be a person if he does not have a sphere of power over his own act. To treat him as a puppet of external forces, or a mere cog in a vast social mechanism, is to wipe out the unique distinction between person and thing. Somewhere the free spirit must take its stand and claim its God-given distinction. If life is to be at all worth while there must be some boundary within which the soul holds its own august and ultimate tribunal. That Sanctuary domain within the soul the Quakers, ever since their origin in the period of the English commonwealth, have always guarded as the most sacred possession a man can have.
No grave difficulty, at least in the modern world, is involved in this faith, until it suddenly comes into conflict with the urgent requirements of social efficiency. When the social group is fused with emotion and moved almost as an undivided unit toward some end, then the claim of a right, on the ground of conscience, for the individual to deviate from the group and to pursue another or an opposite course appears serious if not positively insufferable. The abstract principle of individual liberty all modern persons grant; the strain comes when some one proposes to insist upon a concrete instance of it which involved implications that may engender the ends which the intensified group is pursuing. A situation of this type confronts the Quakers whenever their country engages in war, since as a people they feel that they cannot fight or take any part in military operations.
They do not find it an easy thing to give a completely rational ground for their opposition to war. Nor, as a matter of fact, is it any more easy for the militarist to rationalize his method of solving world difficulties. Both are evidently actuated by instinctive forces which lie far beneath the level of pure reason.
The roots of the Quakers' opposition to war go deep down into the soil of the past. They are the outgrowth and culmination of a long spiritual movement. They carry along, in their ideas, emotions, habits and attitudes, tendencies which have been unconsciously suck in with their mother's milk, and which, therefore, cannot be held up and analysed. The mystics, the humanists, the anabaptists, the spiritual reformers, are forerunners of the Quaker. They are a necessary part of his pedigree, -- and they were all profoundly opposed to war. this attitude has become an integral part of the vital stock of truth by which the Quaker lies his spiritual life, and to violate it is for him to stop living "the way of truth," as the early Quakers quaintly called their religious faith.
But the Quakers have never been champions of the negative. They do not take kindly to the rôle of being "antis." Their negations grow out of their insistent affirmations. If they are against an established institution or custom it is because they are for some other way of line which seems to them divinely right, and their first obligation is to incarnate that way of life. They cannot, therefore, stand apart in monastic seclusion and safely watch the swirl of forces which they silently disapprove. If in war-time they do not fight, the do something else. They accept and face the dangers incident to their way of life. They feel a compulsion to take up and in some measure to bear the burden of the world's suffering. They endeavour to exhibit, humbly and modestly, the power of sacrificial love, freely, joyously given, and they venture all that the brave can venture to carry their faith into life and action. In the American civil war, in the Franco-Prussian, the South African, the Balkan, the Russo-Japanese, small bands of Quakers revealed the same spirit of service and the same obliviouslness to danger which have marked the larger groups that have manned the ambulance units and the war-victims' relief and reconstruction work of their world war. In this present crisis they have gone wherever they could go, -- to Belgium, to France, to Russia, to Italy, to Serbia and Greece and Syria and Mesopotamia, -- to carry into operation the forces of restoration and of reconstruction. They have not stood aloof as spectators of the world's tragedy. They have entered into it and share it, and they have counted neither money nor life dear to themselves in their desire to reveal the power of redeeming and transforming love.
Slowly the sincerity of the Quaker conviction about war was made itself felt and limited legislative provisions have been made, especially in England and American, to meet the claims of conscience. The problem which confronts the law-maker; even when he is sympathetic wit the rights of conviction, is the grave difficulty of determining where to draw the line of special exception to general requirements and how to discover the sincerity of conscientious objection to war. The "slacker" is always a stern possibility. There must be no holes in the net for him to escape through. The makers of armies naturally want every man who can be spared from civilian life and can be utilized for military operations. It has consequently often seemed necessary for law-makers to be narrow and hard toward the obviously sincere for fear of being too easy and lenient with those suspected of having sham consciences.
During the Civil War in America, President Lincoln, eager as he was to win the war, was always deeply in sympathy with the Quakers, and he stretched his administrative powers to their full limit to provide relief for conscientious convictions. In the early stages of the great conflict the President wrote the following kindly note in answer to a message from New England Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends: "Engaged as I am, in a great war, I fear it will be difficult for the world to understand how fully I appreciate the principles of peace inculcated in this letter [of yours] and every where by the Society of Friends.1 both he and Secretary Stanton made many positive efforts to find some way of providing for the tender consciences of Friends without being unfair to the rights of others. They even requested American Friends to call a conference to consider how to find a satisfactory solution of the problem. Such a conference was held in Baltimore, December 7th, 1863, and the Friends there assembled expressed great appreciation of "the kindness evinced at all times by the President and Secretary of War." A delegation from this conference visited Washington and, in co-operation with Secretary Stanton, succeeded in securing a clause in the enrolment bill, declaring Friends to be non-combatants, assigning all drafted Friends to hospital service or work among freedmen, and further providing for the entire exemption of Friends from military service on the payment of $300 into a fund for the relief of sick and wounded.2
On several occasions Friends in larger or smaller groups went to Washington for times of prayer and spiritual communion with the great President. These times were deeply appreciated by the heavily burdened man.Tears ran down his cheeks, we are told, as he sat bowed in solemn silence or knelt as some moved Friend prayed for him to Almighty God. Writing of the visit of Isaac and Sarah Harvey of Clinton County, Ohio, in the autumn of 1862, Lincoln tenderly said: "May the Lord comfort them as they have sustained me." A letter written by the President in 1862 to Eliza P. Gurney, one of a small group of Friends who visited him and prayed with him in the autumn of that year, reveals forcibly how he regarded these occasions:
"I am glad of this interview, and glad to know that I have our sympathy and prayers. we are indeed going through a great trial -- a fiery trial. In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid; but if, after endeavouring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, his will is otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced.If I had been allowed my way, this war would have been ended before this; but we find it still continues, and we must believe that he permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe that he who made the world still governs it."
Somewhat later President Lincoln wrote again to Eliza P. Gurney requesting her to exercise her freedom to write to him as he felt the need of spiritual help and reinforcement. Her letter of reply so closely touched him and spoke to his condition that he carried it about with him and it was found in his coast pocket at the time of his death, twenty months after it was written. In the autumn of 1864, President Lincoln, still impressed by the message which he had received, wrote a memorable letter to Eliza P. Gurney. It was as follows:
"I have not forgotten -- probably never shall forget -- the very impressive occasion when yourself and friends visited me on a Sabbath forenoon two years ago. Nor has your kind letter, written nearly a year later, even been forgotten. In all it has been your and consolations; and to no one of them more than to yourself. the purposes of the Almighty are perfect, and must prevail, though we erring mortals may fail to accurately perceive them in advance. We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise. We shall yet acknowledge his wisdom, and our own error therein. Meanwhile we must work earnestly in the best lights he give us, trusting that so working still conduces to the great ends he ordains. Surely he intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay. Your people, the Friends, have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle and faith opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this dilemma some have chosen one horn and some the other. for those appealing to me on conscientious grounds, I have done, and shall do, the best I could and can, in my own conscience, under my oath to the law. That you believe this I doubt not; and, believing it, I shall still receive for our country and myself your earnest prayers to our Father in heaven."
It is, then, not surprising that President Lincoln was "moved with sympathy" when he heard the story of Pringle's suffering for conscience, or that he quietly said to the Secretary of War, "It is my urgent wish that this Friend be released."
RUFUS M. JONES.
1. Nicolay and Hay: "Abraham Lincoln," Vol. VI, p. 328.
2. Secretary Stanton endeavoured to provide that this commutation money should be made into a fund for the care of freedmen. This suggestion was, however, not adopted by Congress.
[Return to Diary]