The first experience of the American people with conscription came during the Civil War. In the North, the 1863 Congress first provided for exemptions if men furnished an acceptable substitute or paid $300 towards hiring a substitute. Among conscientious objectors (COs), this provision was not satisfactory, because it seemed inconsistent to hire another person to do what you would not do yourself.
A second draft act was passed that provided three alternatives to military service for COs: assignment to duty in hospitals to care for soldiers, assignment to care for the freedmen, or payment of a fee for the benefit of sick and wounded soldiers.
The period prior to the Civil War was one of overall spiritual decline in the Mennonite church; no peace literature had been produced and in many cases young men were not educated on peace positions. A number of young men did accept military service during the Civil War, which prompted a new round of peace teaching and awakening in the Mennonite Church.
The period prior to the Civil War was one of overall spiritual decline in the Mennonite church; no peace literature had been produced and in many cases young men were not educated on peace positions.
The only Mennonite group of any size in the South during the Civil War lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, directly in the area of many battles. Southern conscription laws were more stringent than those of the North. Some were drafted into the army under protest, with the understanding among themselves that they would not shoot. This no-shooting pledge was carried out by enough Mennonites to cause General Stonewall Jackson to say, “There lives a people in the Valley of Virginia that are not hard to bring to the army. While there they are obedient to their officers. Nor is it difficult to have them take aim, but it is impossible to get them to take correct aim.”
Some men tried to leave Virginia to avoid taking up arms, but they were captured and imprisoned, and released when a new law was enacted by the Confederate Congress allowing the men to pay $500 or hire a substitute. Thus the Civil War period can be seen as a period of compromise among Mennonite conscientious objectors and some suffering by those who could not, in good conscience, go along with society.
At least one Mennonite woman during this period was actively involved in a type of loving non-resistance to the government by aiding runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad. In a secret place under her bedroom floor, Margaret H. Rhodes of Virginia hid up to six people at once and providing them with supplies. In Mennonites in the Confederacy (Herald Press, 1967), Samuel Horst notes that Margaret, whose husband had been killed in the war, was one of the well-recognized “postmasters” through whom escaped refugees could communicate with family and friends in the South. She would risk traveling alone as far as six miles to deliver letters, leaving her five children at home with her mother-in-law.