A Quaker Memorial Day

A Quaker Memorial Day

While much of the U.S. population is involved in or watching Memorial Day events centered on those killed taking part in our wars, I hope Quakers will make room for a different approach to this observance.

Jesse Buckner, from North Carolina.

To be sure, Friends also have much to remember, and many to memorialize who fell in combat. For one thing, there were many Quakers who, despite what is called the Peace testimony, felt obliged to take up arms in one war or another; we are best advised not to deceive ourselves about that. (One account of how a once-strong peace testimony was largely abandoned in the face of actual war is in the book, Remaking Friends.)

At the same time, in all these wars, where Quakers were present, significant numbers have stuck to the testimony and declined involvement in combat. The specifics vary with the wars, and personalities. But many war refusers underwent awful ordeals, and not a few paid for their testimony with their lives.

Reflecting on what I know of this, my thoughts turned to the most lethal of U.S. wars (so far), the Civil War of 1861-1865.

A region where many young Quaker resisters were found is around the meeting I now attend, Spring, in Alamance County, North Carolina. Friends had settled there and in nearby counties since the mid-1700s. For several generations, what were then referred to as “the principles of peace” had been handed down among them, along with the plain dress, language, and the rest of the distinctive Quaker religious identity.

This book was published in 1895, thirty years after the end of the Civil War.

Many stories from this region were later recorded by Fernando G. Cartland, for his 1895 book about Quaker war resistance in the Civil War, Southern Heroes. (You can read Southern Heroes, full text online, free, here.)

In this post I will focus on only one, adapted from his Chapter Seven:

Jesse Buckner, of Chatham County, NC, was a Baptist at the  beginning of the Civil war, and a colonel in the militia. He had never given the principles of peace much consideration, and he began very early to raise volunteer companies. But he was surprised to find that no Friends from this area would volunteer, or join in any military parade. Their refusal to do so led him to examine their doctrines, and he was brought to sympathize with them so far as to hesitate to order the captains of his different companies to enroll Friends. This doubtless stirred up a  feeling of dissatisfaction on the part of others, and in the fall of 1861 Jesse was replaced in the militia by an ambitious and less scrupulous neighbor. The conviction continued to grow upon Jesse that war is contrary to the Gospel, and that to slay one’s fellowman is a sin.

One dark night as he was going to attend a political meeting, he lost his way, for that district of the country is heavily covered with forests, and in some parts the road passes for miles through woods, with no house in sight. [Jesse, Bro — I’ve been there!] The position of the Friends, and the unrighteousness of war, were much in his thoughts.

The spring, at Spring Meeting, NC.

Finally he came to a “big road,” and crossed it to the steps of a building, which he soon discovered was the Friends’ meeting-house at Spring. He seated himself to rest, and he states that there, alone in the darkness of the night, meditating upon Friends’ principles, the serious condition of the country, and the awfulness of war, he became satisfied that it was his duty to unite himself with the people who worshiped in that house. This he resolved to do, but delayed for a time.

Cane Creek Meetinghouse, from the early 1800s. This is much closer to what the Spring Meetinghouse that Jesse Buckner stumbled into looked like.

On the 6th of March, 1862, Jesse was drafted for duty in the Confederate army; but he had resolved that he would not fight;  instead, he “bushwhacked,” that is, he left his home and hid out in the wilderness, living as best he could in caves, in the woods, and bushes. After “lying out” [or, more plainly, hiding] for five months, longing for knowledge of home and loved ones, he returned, and was for some time unmolested. He then applied to be admitted into membership with Spring meeting. He was received, and, as the Confederate Congress had passed a law exempting Friends from service upon payment of $500, he paid it, and received his exemption papers.

But his action had aroused the enmity of some neighbors, who thought he should no more be excused from the army than they. And they were determined to have him conscripted into the Confederate army

So early in 1863 his exemption papers were re-examined and declared void by a sub-officer, and he was arrested, then sent to Camp Holmes, near Raleigh, and then on to Wilmington, where he suffered much abuse. But the spirit of the Lord Jesus had been given him, and he had learned to obey the injunction, “I say unto you, resist not evil.”

Spring Meeting, today.

Friends at Spring and other meetings did all they could to have Jesse released. Petitions were sent to the authorities, but to no avail. Jesse soon concluded that if a chance to escape arose, he would take it. This he soon did, and started on a journey of  a hundred and seventy-five miles from Wilmington to his home, which, after much suffering from exposure, hunger, weariness and anxiety, he finally reached, foot-sore and exhausted. His family welcomed him, but with fear and trembling. And he was allowed only one night of rest and rejoicing with them, for the vigilant eye  of the “home guard” had seen him. Early the next morning he was  captured and taken back to Wilmington, where his treatment was more severe than before.

Many war objectors from North Carolina were forced to work in the state salt works near Wilmington, on the Atlantic coast, boiling sea water in large kettles.

Deciding that he had made a mistake in trying to escape, Jesse became even more humble and resigned to his fate, whatever it might be, and submitted with wonderful meekness to the indignities and abuse of the soldiers. Before long he became very sick, and the officer, fearing he would die, and wishing to be rid of him, sent him home.

But Jesse Buckner was not to be freed, either by sickness or death, from bearing his testimony to the Prince of Peace. Others were watching for his recovery besides the anxious Friends around his bedside. A deep-seated enmity and determination remained in the minds of some of his neighbors, who had resolved that he should be kept in the army. As soon as he was able to walk, he was again conscripted and taken back to jail, where he was kept a week, and then taken from army camp to army camp as a prisoner. At each new place there were attempts to force him to bear arms; but amid sneers and taunts and cruel treatment, he persevered.

For nearly three long years, Jesse Buckner endured privations,  peril and hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ, being driven from place to place, often at the point of the bayonet, because he had acknowledged himself to be a soldier whose weapons were not carnal.

Confederate General Joseph Johnston, at right, surrenders his army to U.S. General William Tecumseh Sherman, in blue, near Greensboro NC, on April 26, 1865.

He held out faithfully until General Sherman marched into North Carolina and demanded the surrender of General Joseph Johnston’s Confederate army. Then Jesse was no longer under the command of Johnston’s subordinates.

Following the end of the war, Jesse Buckner returned to Spring, where he later served as a longtime elder and weighty member of the Meeting.

There are many other Quaker stories like this which could profitably be remembered today, and any other day as well.

CO-Memorial-Sign-UKIn England, near Friends House, there is a memorial for British Conscientious Objectors. Wouldn’t it be a good idea for some kind of memorial to American COs and resisters to be constructed here?

An exhibit about British Conscientious Objectors in World War One.

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3 thoughts on “A Quaker Memorial Day”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. I was searching for something that sat right with my spirit and found it here.

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