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Mary Bettle Letters - Introduction and Index

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Introduction to the Mary Bettle Letters

By George Rugg

The two letters in this group, each dated 4 October 1862, were transmitted in a single cover to Mary Bettle (1833-1912), a Philadelphia native then touring Europe with her family. The authors are two of Bettle's aunts, Elizabeth Williams and Sophia Jones; both, like Bettle, were members of the Society of Friends. Traveling with Mary Bettle in Europe were her parents, Samuel Bettle, Jr. (1809-1880) and Mary Ann Jones Bettle (1809-1883), and her two younger brothers, Edward (b. 1841) and Henry (b. 1843). The Bettles were a prominent mercantile family, staunchly Orthodox in their religious beliefs; Samuel, Mary Ann, and Mary Bettle were all ministering Friends. A letter written by Mary Ann Bettle from England on 4 August 1862 (Seymour Adelman Letters and Documents Collection, Special Collections Department, Bryn Mawr College Library) indicates that the family had been in Europe since at least July; the same letter states that a reason for the journey was Samuel Bettle's health. Whether the trip was motivated by other circumstances, including issues arising from the war, must remain a matter of conjecture. In her letter, Elizabeth Williams does suggest that had recent events turned out otherwise, the Bettles might have chosen to prolong their stay in Europe:

[W]hen I last wrote, the tide of war seemed so against us, I hardly knew where we should be, before the week was ended; but now all danger of the rebels invading our state is over, and the drafting is postponed, so that, we have come to the conclusion that you will keep to your intention of retu[r]ning in the 11th month . . . .

Williams is referring, of course, to Lee's Northern "invasion" of September 1862, which caused considerable alarm in Pennsylvania before it was thwarted at Sharpsburg in Maryland. She also alludes to a second event, of particular concern to Quakers and members of other pacifist sects: the introduction of conscription as a means of recruiting men into the army. Pursuant to the Federal Militia Act of 17 July 1862, the War Department's General Orders No. 94 of 4 August stipulated "[t]hat a draft of 300,000 militia be immediately called into the service of the United States, to serve for nine months unless sooner discharged. The Secretary of War will assign the quotas to the States and establish regulations for the draft." (Official Records, ser. iii, vol. 2, pp. 291-2). The government understood "militia" to mean "able-bodied male citizens between the ages of eighteen and forty-five;" all such men were to be enrolled, with the actual draftees chosen by lot. Prior to the draft, all enrollees claiming exemption from military duty, for whatever reason, could appear before the county draft commissioner and "make proof of such exemption" (General Orders No. 99, 9 August 1862; see Official Records, ser. iii, vol. 2, pp. 333-5). Across the North, Quakers sought clarification: would the 1862 draft provide exemptions for those conscientiously opposed to bearing arms?

Throughout the 19th century members of the Society of Friends had been subject to the militia laws of the states and territories in which they resided. Since their testimony against bearing arms was long established and widely recognized, some manner of relief from militia service was often written into state law. The 1862 Federal draft regulations did not directly address the issue of conscientious objection, but did allow for the exclusion of "all persons exempted by the laws of the several States" (the states being responsible for administering the draft, in any case). In the Bettles' home state of Pennsylvania, for example, a passage in the 1838 state constitution (Article VI, Section 2) provided that "those who conscientiously scruple to bear arms shall not be compelled to do so, but shall pay equivalent for service" (a payment which typically took the form of a levy upon goods). County draft commissioners were instructed to secure an oath or affirmation from draftees so objecting, which included members of the Society of Friends. The actual draft, originally scheduled for 3 September (and described by Williams as having been "postponed"), was held in Pennsylvania on 16 October 1862. The Bettle sons, in Europe, would not, presumably, have been enrolled.

The letter to Bettle written by Sophia Jones likewise emphasizes the trials and tribulations of the preceding weeks. As memorable as the family's travels in Europe doubtless have been, she writes, ". . . they would sca[r]cely repay it seems to me, for the loss of the life long memory of scenes and feelings we have passed through especially the last month . . . ." After describing the fortitude of hospitalized soldiers at Antietam, as reported by an attending surgeon, she asserts her pacifism:

[It] makes one feel sad to think of such men being sacrificed amid the horrors of the battle field; and if such a noble army as is now in the field had only all learned that all wars and fighting are wrong and freedom the inallienable right of all, these scenes would never have been and doubtless this country remained a united people.

Jones goes on to mention that she is including with her letter a copy, in her own hand, of ". . . an account of an interview those Ohio friends I alluded to in my last letter had with the President . . . E. Nicholson got the letter for me through Samuel Rhoads . . . ." The author of the document copied by Jones was an unidentified member of the Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends (Orthodox), who with a colleague, John Butler, traveled to Washington—almost certainly in September 1862—to present Lincoln with a memorial or petition expressing the Meeting's concerns about the recently instituted draft. The content of the memorial (not quoted in Jones's account) was probably consistent with that of a letter sent by the Ohio Friends to Lincoln that same month:

The Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends convened at Mt. Pleasant Jefferson County Ohio 9th month 1862 respectfully represents.—That owing to the present unhappy condition of our country and the enrollment of names in order to draft therefrom some thousands to be placed in the Army—Many of our members who are now sharing in common with other good citizens the trials of the times are subject to the still greater trial of having for conscience sake to decline in this particular to obey the authorities of a government under which we enjoy many privileges and blessings and to which we hope ever to be found loyal. We would briefly call the attention of the President to the fact with which he is no doubt acquainted that our Society has from its rise (a period of more than two hundred years) borne a testimony against all wars and fightings believing them to be at variance with the pure and peaceable dispensation of the Gospel of Christ—and have constantly under all governments felt constrained to refuse to bear arms or pay an equivalent in lieu thereof—Also to the legislation of various States of this Union in which our members are exempt from military services—And therefore respectfully submit whether there cannot be something done by the authorities of the general government for the relief of all members of our Society not already exem[p]ted by state enactments.—In conclusion we would express our deep sympathy with the President in the various difficulties which press upon him in this day of sore calamity. (Quoted in James L. Burke and Donald E. Bensch, "Mount Pleasant and the Early Quakers of Ohio," Ohio History 83, no. 4 (Autumn 1974), 251).

Ohio's policy regarding conscientious objection was not unlike Pennsylvania's. It extended exemptions to members of pacifist sects, but only in exchange for a payment of $200 per man. (In a letter to Stanton of 10 October 1862, Governor David Tod sought Federal approval of this policy, saying that "[t]housands of dollars" had already been paid; see Official Records, ser. iii, vol. 2, p. 662). Though opinion varied, most Friends opposed the payment of commutation money in lieu of personal service, especially when the money was put to some patently military use. The Ohio Friends were thus requesting relief from all draft-related obligations, for "all members of our Society not already exem[p]ted by state enactments." As described in Jones's letter, the delegation went first to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, of Ohio, who facilitated the audience with Lincoln. Lincoln thought the blanket exemption requested by the Friends a bad precedent, but agreed to talk the matter over with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, whom the delegation then proceeded to seek out (Stanton was a native of Jefferson County, Ohio, in the heart of the region from which the Ohio Yearly Meeting then drew its membership, and had Quaker forebears). Stanton and Lincoln ultimately agreed to release drafted individuals upon submission of an affidavit testifying to his religious affiliation and pacifist convictions; whether this was to apply only to members of the Ohio Yearly Meeting is not clear.

The effective consequences of Stanton and Lincoln's rather improvised response to the Ohio Friends' memorial are unknown. The number of men actually drafted in 1862 is difficult to determine, but it was certainly far short of 100,000 (as opposed to the 300,000 initially stipulated). The main point of the draft, from the government's perspective, was to threaten men into volunteering, and in this it was successful. Douglas Harper notes that in Ohio, 12,200 men were drafted: as of 13 December 1862, 2900 of these had been discharged, mostly for medical reasons, one assumes; 4800 had enlisted in three-year regiments, or provided substitutes; 1900 remained at large; and only 2400 went to the field as draftees. The Federal attitude towards conscientious objection entered a new, more deliberative phase in the winter of 1862-63, when the matter was debated in Congress in the course of the development of new draft legislation. In the form in which it was ultimately signed into law, however, the Federal Conscription Act of 3 March 1863 remained silent on the issue of conscientious objection.

Provenance note: The Mary Bettle Letters were purchased by the Hesburgh Libraries via ebay in 2005, from Schmitt Investors Ltd. of Northport NY.

Bibliographic note: For an overview of the Quakers and conscientious objection see Edward Needles Wright, Conscientious Objectors in the Civil War, Philadelphia, 1931, esp. pp. 49-57. For the militia draft of 1862, see: Douglas Harper, "Northern Draft of 1862," accessible online at; and James W. Geary, We Need Men: The Union Draft in the Civil War, Dekalb IL, 1991. Other papers of the Samuel Bettle, Jr., family are located at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College (Bettle Family Papers, RG 5/103); Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections (Seymour Adelman Letters and Documents Collection); and the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan (Quaker Collection: Samuel Bettle, Jr., Journals).

Index of Letters

MSN/CW 5029-01LetterOctober 4, 1862Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaElizabeth Williams
MSN/CW 5029-02LetterOctober 4, 1862Philadelphia, PennsylvaniaSophia Jones

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