Symposium focuses on Quakers in Civil War

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 9, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Gwen Erickson gave those attending the 14th annual Salisbury Confederate Prison Symposium on Saturday a glimpse into how the Civil War affected Quakers.
The Guilford College librarian and archivist said many Quakers who refused to take up arms to fight in the war ended up behind bars.
“In the 1660s, in early England Quakers, became very committed to the belief that they should not harm another human being,” Erickson said.
Erickson said when the Civil War began Quakers were faced with a choice to remain peaceful, support their anti-slavery stance by fleeing to fight with the Union Army or remain in the South as pacifists.
“You’ll find examples of Quaker families who made all those different decisions,” she said.
Tilghman Vestal was 18 years old when he was conscripted to a Tennessee regiment.
“His belief was very strong that to fight in the war would be wrong,” Erickson said.
Vestal refused to bear arms or do anything his commanders told him to do.
“He did help out his fellow regiment member with tent maintenence, foot binding and things like that,” Erickson said. “But he made it very clear that he was doing those actions for those individuals not for the strength of the regiment in fighting the war.”
Vestal eventually ended up at Salisbury Confederate Prison after being court martialed.
While at the prison he was beaten with a stick, sustaining a wound on the side of his head that he describes as an “inch long and probably to the skull” in a letter to family members.
Erickson said it’s unclear if he was beaten by a guard or another prisoner.
Vestal stayed in the prison for four months and 16 days before being released to work with a potter in Richmond, Va.
Soloman Frazier was conscripted to be a guard at the prison.
“As a pacifist refusing to be armed, he then became a prisoner himself,” Erickson said.
He was tied down and beaten on three occasions, but Erickson said, again, it’s unclear who beat him.
Frazier ended up being excused from military and returned home.
Erickson said some Quakers served as medics or chose to work in alternative services, such as salt mines, during the war.
“The Confederate government was quite open to the idea of giving these kinds of opt out options for Quakers at the start of the war,” she said. “Each individual chose where to draw the line.”
There were six lectures presented at Tom Smith Auditorium on the campus of Catawba College during the Salisbury Confederate Prison Symposium on Saturday.
Don French traveled from Michigan for the three-day event.
He’s been to the symposium several times because his great-great grandfather, William Ferdinand Bowdish, was held in Salisbury during the war.
“He kept a diary when he was a prisoner here so I like to compare what I learn here to what he wrote,” he said.
Annette Ford said she’s been at the event every year since she stumbled upon it 14 years ago while visiting the prison to see where her great-great uncle, Maj. John H. Gee, was held.
“I just feel like I’m part of it now,” she said.
This year’s event takes place during the first of the five-year nationwide Sesquicentennial observance of the war.
The Salisbury Confederate Prison received its first prisoners 150 years ago in December 1861.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.