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Postscripts: For Quaker Civil War objectors, Perry’s persuasion was life-changing | Guest Columns

How stories come my way is ever a story in itself, but rarely is one traced to idling where I shouldn’t be — in the chips and snacks aisle at McQuade’s Marketplace in Westerly on a recent Sunday morning.

Sarah Perry, with whom I had exchanged pleasantries moments before by the fruits and vegetables, was prudently pushing her cart along when she stopped to ask whether I’d be interested in a story indirectly involving her husband, Harvey, the well-known retired local banker and co-founder and director emeritus of the Westerly Land Trust.

Central to the story is Charles Perry, Harvey Perry’s great-great-grandfather and chief executive of the Washington Bank, now the Washington Trust Co. He was also a farmer, whose farm grew from the Pawcatuck River nearly to Granite Street and East Avenue.

He was a Quaker, an ardent abolitionist and, along with another Quaker from Rhode Island, his cousin, Ethan Foster, he successfully lobbied President Abraham Lincoln, in person, for relief from the Civil War draft of 1863 for four young men on grounds that as faithful Quakers they were conscientious objectors.

It was no easy mission.

An account of this episode is found in the book “Abraham Lincoln, the Quakers and the Civil War: ‘A Trial of Principle and Faith’” by William C. Kashatus and published by Praeger in 2014. The narrative of the episode, written by Ethan Foster in 1883, has been printed in pamphlet form, copies of which were provided to the Westerly and Rhode Island historical societies.

The story, essentially, concerns four men from New England belonging to the Society of Friends, or Quakers, a religious denomination opposed to war — and, for that matter, one of the first in this country to condemn slavery — who were nevertheless drafted to fight and, after resisting based on religious principles, were consigned to be held at Governor’s Island in New York, then a military installation.

The men, according to Foster’s narrative, were: “Two members of the Rhode Island Quarterly Meeting (a Quaker designation) (and) two others — one a young man from Maine, then at the Providence Boarding School, and the other a Rogerine, so called, a sect which also renounces war, and is principally located in Groton, Connecticut.”

Perry and Foster, members of the South Kingstown Monthly Meeting, were appointed to take on the cases of the young men.

After meeting with the governor of Rhode Island, James Y. Smith, and understanding that the state law that exempted Quakers from military service had been suddenly repealed, the two men were advised to take the matter directly to Abraham Lincoln.

They met with him in Washington, D.C., not long after the Battle of Gettysburg.

“President Lincoln received us kindly but said he did not see how he could grant our friends exemption from military service, without so far letting down the bars as to render nugatory all his efforts to crush the rebellion,” wrote Foster. Lincoln added that if he made an exception for the four young Friends, there would be no stopping place for others seeking relief.

Already there were riots over the draft, and widespread application of the law that allowed, for the payment of $300, a draftee to avoid serving.

“At length, however, he said that he should be very unwilling for any truly conscientious person to be made to suffer,” Foster wrote. “… ‘But I don’t see what I can do.’ I replied that our governor suggested that he might think it would do to release these men on parole; to hold them subject to call.

“At this he was silent for some time and made no reply to the remark; but I thought it struck him favorably, and that if anything was ultimately done, this course might be pursued.”

Lincoln told the men he would welcome another visit from them, and sent them off to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who told them his parents were Quakers but offered little encouragement. Secretary of State William H. Seward then entered the War Office, and instead of bestowing any sympathy, turned on them.

“ … He suddenly and with much vehemence asked, ‘Why don’t the Quakers fight?’ Charles replied, ‘Because they believe it is wrong, and cannot do it with a clear conscience,’ “Foster wrote. Seward became more angry and agitated.

“‘Why then don’t you pay the commutation?’ he asked. We told him we could see no difference between the responsibility of doing an act ourselves and hiring another to do it for us,” Foster replied.

“On this he sprang from his seat and strided in a circle of some eight to ten feet across, exclaiming, ‘Then I’ll pay it for you,’ and thrusting his hand into his coat pocket, added, ‘I’ll give you my check.’”

Saddened by Seward’s hissy fit, they called on Lincoln at his home, and found a degree of sympathy, and a Lincolnesque quip about Seward’s behavior, but still no exemption.

The men moved on to Philadelphia, where they met five Friends who had served in the Confederate Army but refused to bear arms. They were not mistreated except for one who escaped the firing squad only because the soldiers refused to shoot.

Eventually Perry and Foster traveled to Governor’s Island with the four young men from New England who’d been conscripted. These four were to be held there, free to roam the island on their word they would not leave. They were spared being locked in the prison where they might be harmed.

The Governor’s Island commandant directed Perry and Foster to General Edward Canby, who was in charge of the troops in New York City. Canby proved sympathetic and decided to write to Lincoln about the four men.

Two weeks later, Perry and Foster, hearing no response from Canby, traveled back to Governor’s Island, where they were greeted by four happy men who had been told an order had come from Washington for their release. They were to be discharged on parole, until they were called up. They never were.

“We took the evening boat home,” wrote Foster. “I have never spent a more joyful day and night in my life. My peace flowed as a river, and a song of thanksgiving unutterable was raised to Him whose Almighty Hand was clearly discernible throughout these remarkable occurrences.”

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington. He may be reached at

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