1838 - 1911
Cyrus Pringle was a Quaker botanist who spent 35 years cataloguing the plants of North America, particularly Mexico.
As a young man, however, he was caught up in the American Civil War and like many Quakers before and since, wrestled with the idea of what came to be called conscientious objection. He had to decide the degree to which he could cooperate with the military authorities without compromising his conscience. In a statement of his pacifist principles, he wrote:
“Asking no military protection of our Government and grateful for none, [we] deny any obligation to support so unlawful a system, as we hold war to be, even when waged in opposition to an evil and oppressive power and ostensibly in defence of liberty, virtue and free institutions.”
He received his draft papers in July 1863 and along with two other Vermont Quakers, attended the Board of Enrolment to plead his case. Many of his friends and family urged him to pay the ‘commutation money’ which would secure his release, but he refused, saying it was, ‘a means we held even more sinful than that of serving ourselves, as by supplying money to hire a substitute.’
Pringle and his fellow Quakers were taken with other conscripts to Battleboro, where they were searched and shut up under guard. Pringle’s diary records how, ‘Twenty-five or thirty caged lions roam lazily to and fro through this building hour after hour throughout the day… Many… are engaged with cards… some read, some sleep, and so the weary day goes by.’
Receiving no response from their appeal to the Governor of Vermont, they were sent under guard to a military camp in Boston Harbour, ‘feeling very much like convicts’.
On their refusal to perform fatigue duty, they were taken before the major in charge, who first argued with them and then confined them to the guardhouse. There they were amongst men who had taken part in the New York Draft Riots, who showed “hatred to the blacks… and exhibit this in foul and profane jeers heaped upon these unoffending men.” That night, sleeping on the floor and sharing one blanket between three, they were kept awake by a man suffering from violent delirium tremens.
Many tried to persuade them to accept alternative service. President Lincoln wrote saying, though he sympathised with those in their situation, he felt bound by the Conscription Act and could only ‘detail them from active service to hospital duty or to the charge of coloured refugees’. Even other Quakers wrote that they might enter the hospital without compromising their principles. ‘Oh, the cruellest blow of all comes from our friends,’ Pringle wrote.
Eventually they were sent into active service in Virginia, where each man was supplied with a gun. When they refused, the equipment was buckled about them and they were marched through country ‘made dreary with the war blight’. The guns ‘slipped down and dragged painfully on our shoulders’ and they grew so thirsty they drank from brooks scummy with soap. Once at the camp, they refused to present arms and were tied up and left for several hours, before being released and left to sleep on the ground.
Again they were urged to serve in the hospital, and they now began to question whether they had the right to refuse this ‘act of mercy and benevolence’. They consented to a trial but at once became troubled in their consciences and told the officer in command to proceed with a court martial.
Instead, in an attempt to weaken their resolve, the three were split up. Ordered by a junior officer to clean his gun, Pringle refused and was staked to the ground, with his arms and legs outstretched ‘which left me… so weak that I could hardly walk or perform any mental exertion.’
At last, word came that they were to be sent to Washington. Finally, on the 7th of November 1863, they were released from service at the ‘urgent wish’ of President Lincoln himself. By this time, Pringle was quite ill and the journey home led to a ‘delirium from which I only recovered after many weeks, through the mercy and favour of Him, who in all this trial had been our guide and strength and comfort.’
Photograph of Cyrus Pringle reproduced by kind permission of the copyright holders The University of Vermont.