Defending Quaker Consciences in the Confederacy

ECW welcomes guest author Max Longley

John Bacon Crenshaw was clerk (chief executive) of the small Cedar Creek Meeting, a Quaker congregation in Richmond. During the war, he became an uncompensated lobbyist who strove to alleviate the sufferings of Quakers and others in the Confederacy, mostly in the Quaker-heavy region of central North Carolina. The people he tried to help, for reasons of religious conscience, fell afoul of the Confederate military. After the war, Crenshaw risked defying a rich and weighty fellow-Quaker to help the Confederate official who had so often helped him.

Quakers in Virginia and elsewhere in the South held to the Quaker teachings (“testimonies”) against military service and slavery. Their antislavery attitudes made life tough for Quakers in antebellum Virginia – Crenshaw’s father suffered for his opposition to slavery. Most Virginia Quakers simply got up and left – departing for what is now the Midwest to take up farming in these economically-growing free states. The Cedar Creek Monthly Meeting, with reduced numbers, found it convenient to relocate from Hanover County to next door Henrico County – Richmond. It seems that Crenshaw was able to cross religious and political barriers to the extent of getting to know some influential people in the Virginia capital.[1]

Castle Thunder, Richmond Confederate prison where Crenshaw sought to persuade Tilghman Vestal to pay his conscientious-objecor tax.

As the leader of the Cedar Creek Monthly Meeting, Crenshaw oversaw the affairs of his diminished flock. During the war, “Our poor little meeting [was] nearly broken up,” but Crenshaw remained busy in Richmond.[2]

Appeals to Crenshaw began to pour in earnest in 1862 when the Confederate Congress passed a conscription law. Southern Quakers mostly held to the Peace Testimony and the tradition of refusing military service.

Two developments somewhat improved the situation. For one thing, the Confederate Congress passed a law exempting four traditional peace sects – Quakers, Dunkards, Nazarenes, and Mennonites, from conscription. What the conscript had to do to get out of service was to pay a special $500 tax. Also, the conscript would have to get a certification from his religious congregation attesting that he was a member in good standing as of October 11, 1862, the date the exemption law was passed. Crenshaw arranged to pay the taxes of several conscripts – both Quakers and Dunkards – and obtained their release.[3] Crenshaw founded a paper, the Southern Friend, to keep the Confederacy’s Quakers informed of developments, and to appeal to the sympathies of non-Quaker readers.[4]

Usefully for Crenshaw, the man placed in charge of handling religious exemptions was sympathetic to young pacifists. John Archibald Campbell was a former U. S. Supreme Court justice who had resigned his justiceship, moved to Richmond, and become Assistant Confederate Secretary of War. Campbell handled the administration of the Confederate draft, and he and Crenshaw somehow formed a sympathetic relationship.[5]

Most of the remaining Quakers in the Confederacy lived in central North Carolina, and it was from this region that Crenshaw got most of his correspondence pleading for aid. In some cases, young men joined the Quakers after the legal cutoff date. Crenshaw often persuaded Campbell to stretch a point and get discharges for these latecomers.[6]

Another problem had to do with the tax on conscientious objectors – in some instances, conscripts had scruples of conscience about paying a tax, which presumably would be spent on war. And if a young conscientious objector didn’t pay the tax, he could be seized and brought directly into the army. Crenshaw endured a lot of headaches on account of one such conscientious Quaker, Tilghman Vestal. Young Tilghman refused to pay the exemption tax, so he was drafted and subjected to piercings by the bayonets of fellow soldiers. Crenshaw wrote to Vestal to urge him to pay his tax, but Vestal was not persuaded. The Confederate army court-martialed him, and Vestal was sent to Castle Thunder, Richmond’s notorious Confederate prison. Crenshaw visited the prison and had a talk with Vestal, finally persuading the young man that he could conscientiously pay the tax. It took some effort to get the authorities to accept the late payment, but Vestal was ultimately allowed back into civilian life.[7]

Thomas Kennedy, a Quaker pastor, had been active in the Underground Railroad in antebellum North Carolina. This antagonized some of the locals, and at the outbreak of the war, Kennedy was arrested and put in the Salisbury (NC) prison camp for allegedly helping a Yankee soldier. Kennedy’s family and supporters thought the charges were a setup. Still, Kennedy remained in the camp as Crenshaw got updates on his status. Finally, Kennedy was sent to the North as part of a prisoner-of-war exchange – Kennedy’s wife Isabella wanted Crenshaw to see him in Richmond but Kennedy had already been sent into the Northern lines. Word reached North Carolina that Kennedy was sick in Washington, D. C.

Isabella asked Crenshaw to get Isabella’s nephew released from the army to work on her farm now that her husband’s labor had been taken from her. Shortly after this, Isabella wrote Crenshaw in strict confidence about her wish to escape to the North in order to see her sick husband. She wanted Crenshaw’s advice – if she fled, would the Confederates confiscate her land? Kennedy soon died (or had already).[8]

In another case where an appeal reached Crenshaw, De Witt Clinton Benbow was a member in good standing of his Quaker meeting well within the time of the cut-off date, and he duly furnished the necessary documentation. However, the local Confederate authorities ordered Benbow conscripted anyway, deeming him a bad Quaker. They cited two points: Benbow marrying a Presbyterian rather than a Quaker, and his ownership of a slave, whom he sold due to pressure from his wife, who considered the slave troublesome (supposedly Benbow then repurchased the slave on the quiet).

These offenses would normally get a Quaker disowned by his Meeting, so the ruthless Confederate draft official, Major Peter Mallett – allegedly prompted by Benbow’s enemies – decided Benbow should not get his draft exemption. Confederate Congressman John A. Gilmer wrote to North Carolina governor Zebulon Vance about the case, saying that the law left it up to the Quaker meetings, not the Confederate government, to decide who was legitimately a Quaker. Someone sent Crenshaw a copy of this letter, presumably because it would be the Confederate government, not Vance, who would have the last word on Benbow’s fate. It seems Benbow got his exemption. He became a dentist and a prominent hotelier in Greensboro after the war.[9]

One young man named Nathan Winslow, raised in a family with a Quaker father, a non-Quaker stepmother, and pacifist brothers, yielded to peer pressure and joined the Confederate army, provoking his Monthly Meeting to disown him. Apparently embarrassed by his non-Quakerly behavior, Nathan deserted, only to re-enlist after authorities took his father as a hostage for Nathan’s return to the army. Then Nathan deserted a second time during the invasion of Pennsylvania and came back to North Carolina to hideout again. Family and neighbors wrote to Crenshaw, asking for Crenshaw to get Winslow belatedly recognized as a conscientious objector.[10]

A white Raleigh couple, Jefferson and Julia Fisher had apparently received permission to cross the military lines to move to Union-occupied Baltimore. The Fishers wanted to bring their slave Harriet Lam with them, along with Lam’s daughter Fanny. One of Crenshaw’s North Carolina correspondents, Delphina Mendenhall, wrote Crenshaw to ask if he could get the necessary passes for Lam and her daughter. Mendenhall and the Fishers did some paperwork to make Crenshaw the “owner” of the Lams so that he could easier work in Richmond to get the needed passes. The effort did not work, and the Lams for the moment remained in North Carolina.[11]

Fort Pulaski, where Crenshaw’s erstwhile ally John A. Campbell was imprisoned by victorious Union forces.

After the war, Union authorities arrested John A. Campbell and imprisoned him in Fort Pulaski in Georgia. Now the shoe was on the other foot – the official who had helped Crenshaw rescue so many from the clutches of the Confederate military was now in the hands of the U. S. military. A powerful and wealthy Quaker promptly warned Crenshaw not to work for Campbell’s release. Francis Thompson King was a retired merchant in Baltimore who was the moving force behind the Baltimore Association – a private philanthropic group trying to rebuild war-devastated Southern Quaker communities. Writing to Crenshaw, King said Campbell was a traitor on the order of Jefferson Davis, and no more entitled to release than Davis. Seeking to get Campbell out of prison, King suggested, would “place Friends in an unsound position.”[12]

Crenshaw would not have wanted to alienate such a powerful and benevolent protector as King. Nonetheless, Crenshaw heeded the demands of gratitude, and he intervened on Campbell’s behalf. Virginia and North Carolina Quakers sent a petition to President Johnson making the case for Campbell’s release. Campbell, said the petition, had defended conscientious objectors “earnestly and faithfully,” and God had clearly used him to “care for and defend the religiously scrupulous non-combatants of the South.” After receiving numerous petitions for Campbell’s release, including the Quaker memorial, President Johnson released Campbell after a few months.[13]

Max Longley is the author of Quaker Carpetbagger: J. Williams Thorne, Underground Railroad Host Turned North Carolina Politician (McFarland, 2020), For the Union and the Catholic Church: Four Converts in the Civil War (McFarland, 2015), and many articles.

[1] Mrs. Douglas Summers Brown, “Cedar Creek Monthly Meeting and Its Meeting House,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Jul., 1939), 293-298.

[2] Our Quaker Friends of Ye Olden Time, (Lynchburg, VA, J. P. Bell Company), 157; “Diary of John B. Crenshaw,” in Our Quaker Friends, 266-75.

[3] Edward Needles Wright, Conscientious Objectors in the Civil War (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1961), 106; Patrick Sowle, “The Quaker Conscript in Confederate North Carolina,” Quaker History, Vol. 56, No. 2 (Autumn 1967), 90-105;  “Diary of John B. Crenshaw”

[4] Cf., “Great tenets of the Quakers,” Southern Friend (undated), quoted in Our Quaker Friends of Ye Olden Time, 200-08.

[5] Robert Saunders, Jr., John Archibald Campbell, Southern Moderate, 1811-1889 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 109-11, 124-132, 146-59;, 141; “Diary of John B. Crenshaw,” in Our Quaker Friends, 266-75.

[6] “Diary of John B. Crenshaw;”  Sowle, 99.

[7] Stephen T. Rogers. “Tilghman Vestal: Tennessee Potter and Civil War Conscientious Objector,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 2-17.

[8] Isabella Kennedy to Crenshaw, February 26, 1863, March 17, 1863, Crenshaw Papers; Brenda Chambers McKean, Blood and War on my Doorstep: North Carolina Civilians in the War Between the States (Xlibris, 2011), 840.

[9] John A. Gilmer to Gov. Zebulon Vance, April 16 1864, Crenshaw Papers; “Gilmer, John Adams,” https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/gilmer-john-adams; Maria Johnson, “Benbow’s Beauty,” O. Henry Magazine (September 2019), http://www.ohenrymag.com/benbows-beauty/; Joe Speranza, “Major Peter Mallett,” Civil War Era NC, https://cwnc.omeka.chass.ncsu.edu/items/show/240.

[10] Petition to Crenshaw, November 25, 1863, Crenshaw Papers; David V. Henley to Crenshaw, November 27, 1863, Crenshaw Papers; S. S. Winslow to Crenshaw, December 2, 1863

[11] Delphina E. Mendenhall to Crenshaw, April 4, 1863, April 20, 1863, Crenshaw papers, also excerpted in Brenda Chambers McKean, Blooe and War on my Doorstep: North Carolina Civilians in the War Between the States (Xlibris, 2011), 838-39.

[12] F. T. King to Crenshaw, May 29, 1865, June 6, 1865; Crenshaw papers; Francis Charles Anscombe, I Have Called You Friends: The Story of Quakerism in North Carolina (Boston: The Christopher Publishing House, 1959), 139-41, 145-47; Saunders, 185, 187, 189

[13] Undated memorial to President Andrew Johnson from the Society of Friends in North Carolina and Virginia, Crenshaw Papers.

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1 Response to Defending Quaker Consciences in the Confederacy

  1. Mike Maxwell says:

    It can be claimed that religious fervor in the North led to the Civil War: the actions of Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and his followers, and associates (and sister) in raising the “wrong” of Slavery to national awareness; the complicity of Quaker communities in the North in facilitating the operation of the Underground Railroad; the actions of a religious zealot, John Brown, in pushing the Nation ever closer to war… And yet, bad as the war of 1861 – 1865 actually was, the continuation of slavery would have been worse.
    Interesting to hear about the operation of Quakers inside the Confederacy: Unexpected connections, with unanticipated outcomes. Well Done Max Longley.

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