Glimpse of Yesteryear
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I, which was then called The Great War or even The War to End All…
On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I, which was then called The Great War or even The War to End All War. Shortly thereafter, the Amish faced the first real challenge to their pacifist existence in the United States. When only 73,000 volunteers enlisted out of the initial 1 million target in the first six weeks of the war, the administration of Woodrow Wilson decided to rely primarily on conscription, rather than voluntary enlistment, to raise the necessary military manpower.
It was not the first draft in American history. Conscription had been used several times at the local level during colonial times to raise troops for militias, but the first draft ordered by the U.S. government was during the Civil War. Both the North and the South instituted drafts. Neither draft was well accepted. The Union draft, in fact, was so unpopular that it sparked working class riots in New York City. These riots remain one of the largest civil disturbances in American history. To make the draft pill less bitter, both sides allowed draftees to hire a substitute soldier to fight in their place. In all, the draft affected relatively few people. It is believed only between 2 and 3 percent of those who fought in the Civil War were draftees.
The Great War was not popular and the Wilson administration, although it thought a draft was a must, did not want to make matters worse. Also, there was the matter of the First Amendment to the Constitution that protected religious rights. So, the Selective Service Act of 1917 was carefully drawn to remedy the defects in the Civil War system and by allowing exemptions for dependency, essential occupations and religious rights to honor liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Conscientious objector exemptions were allowed for the Amish, Mennonite, Quakers and Church of the Brethren only. All other religious and political objectors were forced to participate.
The act authorized a selective draft of all those between 21 and 31 years of age and prohibited all forms of bounties, substitutions or purchase of exemptions. Administration of the draft was entrusted to local boards composed of leading civilians in each community. These boards issued draft calls in order of numbers drawn in a national lottery and determined exemptions.
In 1917, 10 million men were registered. This was thought to be inadequate, so age ranges were increased from 18 to 45 and exemptions reduced. Twenty-four million men were registered by the end of 1918 with nearly 3 million inducted. Thanks to a determined campaign by the government to build support for the war (and to shut down newspapers and magazines that published articles against the war), opposition to the war decreased.
Some 64,700 men claimed conscientious objector status; local draft boards certified 57,000, of whom 21,000 were inducted into the U.S. Army. Another 3,989 drafted objectors refused to serve. Most belonged to historically pacifist denominations; about 15 percent were religious objectors from non-pacifist churches.
Since the local draft boards had the right to certify or not certify conscientious objector status while some Amish men received exemptions for farm deferments as conscientious objectors, others were required to report to Army camps. Drafted Amish who refused to enter armed service were sent to the Army camps for noncombatant service and while some were treated with respect, others faced contempt. Some members of the Amish community expressed concern over Amish men being pulled away from the church and, perhaps, not returning to their home communities following their service. But, there is no record of any Amish casualty at that time and most of the men did return.
For information on the events at the Geauga County Historical Society’s Burton Century Village Museum, call 440-834-1492 or visit www.geaugahistorical.org.
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