The War Tax Resistance of John Wesley Pratt

, I related as much of the history of John Brown Smith and his tax resistance as I was able to uncover. In Smith’s utopianist book The Brotherhood of Man he noted that at the third annual convention of the New England Anti-Tax League a resolution was presented that praised the tax resistance of Henry David Thoreau, Benjamin Ricketson Tucker, John Wesley Pratt, and John Brown Smith, all of who “vindicated Anti-Tax faith by going to jail.”

The cases of Thoreau and Tucker I’d heard of before, and of Smith I was then investigating, but Pratt was a new name to me, or at least I thought it was.

It turns out that I had come across the name before, when I was researching Quaker war tax resistance in Peter Brock’s books on the history of pacifism. As far as I remember, he didn’t mention anything about Pratt’s tax resistance in those books, but did mention him as a celebrated example of Civil War conscientious objection.

Brock quoted from the letters of a Shaker, Horace S. Taber, who was drafted into the Union Army in :

“There is a man named Pratt who came here  — and does not believe it right to fight, or to bear arms. He says he cannot do it. He says the officers put the uniform on him. They also placed a pen in his hand, & moved it along so to compel him to receipt for it. He comes from Quincy, and was taken as a deserter the same as I was. He does not profess to be a Quaker Friend, but a believer in Christ’s teachings. I bid him God speed in the right.”
“We have a man here, who refuses to drill on account of his faith of the wickedness of war, so they have set him to digging a hole, & then he has to fill it up again. I told some here, before I would drill or take up arms I would dig too.”
“Friend Pratt wants I should tell you that he dug some new ideas out of that hole, he sends his best respects to you &c.”

The story of Pratt’s conscientious objection was told in The Boston Liberator, . This was reprinted in the History of the Twelfth Massachusetts Volunteers (Webster Regiment), from which I take the following excerpts:

Quincy, Mass., .

Friend [William Lloyd] Garrison.

The subjoined letter, with the personal narrative of my experience as a conscript in the hands of the American Government, is sent to you with the request that it be published, if agreeable. The language of the officers is simply the substance without the attempt to quote the exact words, although, in many instances, it is correct to the letter.

Headquarters Twelfth Mass. Infantry,
Camp near Kelly’s Ford,

To Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War.

I have the honor, in compliance with the accompanying indorsements in communication in relation to John Wesley Pratt, Company D, Twelfth Massachusetts, to report as follows: — 

The day following his arrival he positively refused to do any duty. I reported his case to my brigade commander; and he issued orders to punish him, and make him do his duty. He continued to refuse; and I caused him to be tied to a wagon near my headquarters, telling him, that, when he consented to do his duty, I would release him; at the same time calling the attention of the regimental surgeon to the case, and requesting him to examine the man, and if punishment was too severe, or in any way endangering his health, I would release him.

At my request he consented to do his duty in the Pioneer Corps, and was released. Soon after the regiment moved, he abandoned his gun, equipments, and pioneer tools, and straggled.

When he joined his regiment, he was arrested, and placed under guard. I received communication from said Pratt, which I forwarded at once to the regular military channels. Gen. Newton, commanding corps (First), returned the communication with indorsements, with which I have complied. The result of Pratt’s behavior in the regiment caused another man in the same company to refuse to do duty. Charges have been preferred against Pratt for uttering treasonable language among the men of his company, such as, “The South ought to be let alone,” or words to that effect. The statement that he was tied up in the woods among mules is false; neither was he tied so that his feet barely touched the ground. He had the same shelter that the government furnishes other conscripts.

I have the honor to be,
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Benj. F. Cook, Major Comm’d’g Reg’t.

, I was drafted in Taunton, and was notified to appear at that place for examination. Was examined by Dr. Hubbard, who made the following remarkable statement: — 

“You don’t look like a very well man; but the fact is (turning to his assistant), we must take some of these men, or we sha’n’t get any soldiers:” and he pronounced me “sound.” The provost-marshal then allowed us to return home, saying, “I won’t be hard with you, but will allow you time to make up your minds what to do.” Paying no further attention to the matter, I received a letter from Capt. Hall, ordering me to report immediately, as I had not been discharged from the draft. I immediately addressed a letter to Capt. Hall, provostmarshal, which was as follows:—

Sir, — Up to the breaking out of the present rebellion, I was earnestly for peace. The excitement consequent on the firing on Sumter carried me away in its almost irresistible might, until I found myself advocating the carrying on of a war more cruel and relentless than any yet recorded in history.

Two years have passed away; and no definite result has been reached, save one: the passage of a law which, in its cruel and despotic enactments, commends itself to the Autocrat of Russia and the Sultan of Turkey; unblushingly declaring in the last half of the nineteenth century, and in the face of all the sublime doctrines of the age (doctrines enunciated by Him who died on Calvary’s cross), that Peace and Christianity are ideal names. “O Shame! where is thy blush?” I repudiate, I denounce such infidelity, such practical atheism. I will obey none of its requirements: in the midst of all this I am for Peace. I loathe, I detest, war. I shall neither evade nor obstruct the government except in the performance of my duty to Humanity; but I cannot fight.

J. Wesley Pratt,
Conscript Second District.

On I was waited on by two officers, White of Weymouth, and French of Quincy. White, as I have since learned, being armed with pistols and handcuffs, prepared to take me “dead or alive,” to Taunton. On learning their business, I asked for one day, in order to finish some work which was begun, but was told by White that he could not comply, as his business would not permit it; but he advised me to go to Taunton with him, and he had no doubt Hall would grant me a furlough for a few days.

Question By White. What kind of a letter did you write to Hall?

Answer. I wrote in substance, that war is opposed to the spirit of Christianity, and I will obey none of the requirements of the conscription acts. He took from his pocket the letter from Hall, and read, “You can ascertain from Wyman Abercrombie about this man Pratt. I conclude by his letter to me that he is either a fanatic, a fool, or a dangerous man.”

Reply. I expect to be called a fanatic; I may be a fool; but my friends and acquaintances can decide whether I am a dangerous man.

White. Well, what do you intend to do?

Reply. I shall go to Taunton as a prisoner.

White. Will you meet me at the depot in time for the cars? To which I answered, “Yes;” and after supplying myself with a letter from Abercrombie, recommending me for a furlough, I did go, and went with White to Taunton.

On arriving in Taunton, I was taken at once to the office of the “Capt.,” — that worthy giving me a somewhat reserved greeting, — and without any words handed my letter to him to White, for his perusal and criticism. He pronounced it “a very strange letter,” which very sage conclusion was responded to by Hall as follows: “Now, Pratt, what induced you to write so foolish a letter? Explain yourself, sir!”

Reply. It was written from convictions of duty, — duty to myself, to freedom, and to humanity.

Hall. But you say you do not intend to evade or obstruct the government. Why, this government, I calculate, is pretty strong: do you expect you can evade or obstruct it?

Reply. Every man’s power to do either is just in proportion to his natural or acquired abilities.

Hall. You say you will obey none of the requirements of the conscription act. Why, then, are you here?

Reply. I am here as a prisoner; and a prisoner, not in consequence of violating “Law,” but in obedience to a power which I cannot resist.

Hall. Do you intend to pay three hundred dollars?

No, sir.

What then?

Does not my letter explain? I am conscientiously opposed to bearing arms: in other words, I am a non-resistant.

He (Hall) then went into the causes of the present strife; describing in a graphic manner how, “for fifty years, it had been the determined purpose of the South to destroy the noblest government which the world ever saw; culminating in the attack on Fort Sumter”

Reply. Listen for a moment to the great Teacher: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

Hall. Why, sir, Jesus Christ teaches obedience. He says, “Servants, obey your masters.”

Reply. Are you not mistaken? I supposed it to be St. Paul who uttered that.

Hall. Well, it matters not, as Paul was a believer in Jesus Christ.

Reply. Then, we are to consider the language of a devout “believer” to be as authoritative as that of Christ?

Hall. I wish you to understand, that, when you attack a law which I am sworn to protect, I shall protect it and enforce it if it is in my power.

Reply. Now, captain, you are not the government. Your language and manner would seem to convey the impression to your hearers that you are, in fact, the government itself, instead of a mere servant of the government, charged with certain duties.

Hall. Yes: and I intend to do them! and to-morrow you will have to put on a uniform, depend upon it, if it takes six men to put it on.

I then asked for a furlough; and, after making some inquiry concerning my object in going home, he replied, “Yes, I will give you a furlough; but you must first take the oath.”

Reply. I shall take no oath, sir.

Hall. Then you can affirm: it is all the same.

Reply. I know it is, and for that reason I shall do neither.

Hall. Now, Mr. Pratt, you will gain nothing by such a course; besides, your friends will think less of you than they would if you do your duty like a man.

Reply. The warrior may gain the applause of the multitude, as he rides over human hearts. But who wins the approbation of his own soul? The man who dares to do right.

The morrow came; and at about ten o’clock I was taken to the clothing-room, to be arrayed in the costume of our venerable “Uncle.” The officer in charge ordered me to put on the clothes: I refused. “Come, now,” said he, “I’ll have no humbuggin’.”

“Well, then,” said I, “put them on yourself: I shall offer no resistance.”

He then proceeded to strip me, clothed me in “army blue,” put a knapsack on my back, and marched me back to the office, where I refused to sign a receipt for clothing. We then started for Long Island.

While in the cars, my friend, Mr. Thayer, came to me, and said, “I wish to give you a word of advice”

Thayer. If you attempt to carry out the course you have begun, you will be court-martialled and shot.

Reply. Let ’em shoot.

Thayer. Have you taken the oath?

Reply. No.

On arriving at the island, I took up my quarters with the Thirteenth Detachment Massachusetts Conscripts.

On or about the , I went on board the steamer “Forest City,” bound for Alexandria, on our way to become a part of the Twelfth Massachusetts. Nothing occurred worth mentioning here on our way to Alexandria, except that Sergeant Snow of the Twelfth Massachusetts ordered me on guard-duty. I refused, but no notice was taken of it. We arrived on .

On , we were taken to the arsenal to get our guns; and the lieutenant who was charged with the duty of distribution offered me one, which I refused to accept, saying, “I have conscientious scruples against bearing arms.”

Lieutenant. Well, the government does not allow us to exercise our own discretion in the matter; so I shall have to strap it on your back. Lengthening out the strap, he placed the gun on my back. He then offered me a “roundabout.” On my refusing to take it, he merely remarked, “I think you are very foolish,” and proceeded to strap it over the gun: in that way I went to the Soldiers’ Rest. The next day we were ordered to put on our roundabouts, and “fall in.”

The last order I complied with, but I did not put on my roundabout. A corporal was detailed to distribute the guns; but I did not take one, and, of course, there was one left. The captain (Brady) came in soon after, and, seeing the gun, inquired whose it was. Nobody seeming to claim it, he tried to find the owner by looking up and down the line: I, being in the rear rank, he did not see me until we marched out of the hall. On seeing me he exclaimed, “Here is the man that ain’t got no gun. Here, take this gun!”

Reply. I can’t do it.

Brady. What is the reason you can’t take this gun?

Reply. Because I am conscientiously opposed to bearing arms.

Brady. What do you suppose I care for your conscientious scruples? Here! take this gun!

Reply. I will not.

Hereupon he ordered a “halt,” and proceeded to strap the gun on my back.

The Twelfth Massachusetts was then at Bristow Station, distant some thirty-five miles from Alexandria. We arrived in the afternoon; and I was attached to Company D, Twelfth Massachusetts, Lieut. Bachelder commanding. After pitching my tent, I called on the lieutenant and explained my position, — that I was “opposed to war as contrary to the spirit and teachings of Christ, and in violation of the best interests of mankind.”

Lieutenant. Well, you had better do your duty: for you will only make trouble for yourself; you will get in the guard-house, which is a dirty place; and, if you do not change your mode of action, you will be court-martialled and shot.

I replied, “Well, let them shoot.”

Lieutenant. I can’t argue the claims of Christianity in such a contest as this.

The next morning, at nine o’clock, I was waited on by the sergeant of the company, and ordered to “turn out” for drill. I answered, “No: I cannot drill.”

Sergeant. Why not?

Reply. I am conscientiously opposed to bearing arms.

Sergeant. But you must go on drill, or go to the guardhouse.

Reply. Then, I will go to the guard-house.

He reported me to Major Benjamin F. Cook of Gloucester, Mass., commanding the regiment. I was ordered to appear forthwith at his headquarters.

Major. Do you refuse to drill this morning?

Reply. I do.

Major. Why do you refuse to do your duty, and drill?

Reply. Because my conscience will not permit it.

Major (to his orderly). Take him out, and tie him among the mules.

I was taken out, and tied to the hind wheels of the regimental wagons; the major himself performing the operation, saying, at the same time, “I’ll see if you will refuse to do your duty.” I remained in this position from nine o’clock in the morning till five in the afternoon, without my dinner. I was then released. In regard to being “tied among the mules,” I will state that the mules were tied to the front of the wagon, while I was tied to the rear of the same.

While I was so tied, the major came to see me, and said, “Well, Pratt, are you ready to do your duty now?” — “Not military duty. sir.” — “Well, what are you here for?” — “Because I could not avoid it.” — “Why didn’t you pay three hundred dollars?” — “One reason is, I hadn’t it to pay.” — “Well, I want you to understand, that, while you are here, you have got to do military duty, or I will have you court-martialled.”

The next order was to go on dress-parade at sunset. I refused; but no notice was taken of it until the usual drill-time the next morning, when, refusing again to do duty, I was again summoned before the major.

Major. Do you still refuse to do duty?

Answer. I do.

Major. “Take him to his tent, put a knapsack on him, and drill him in the facings,” addressing a corporal, who had previously been detailed for that purpose.

After performing that feat for some minutes, and being advised by the corporal to “submit to a power that I could not resist,” I said, “It is useless to attempt to dissuade me from my purpose, for I will die rather than fight.” The major ordered me to take my gun, and drill in the manual of arms. Refusing, he said, “I’ll fix you so that you’ll not refuse again to drill!”

I was again taken to the wagon and tied to the same wheel, with my hands behind me, and drawn up between my shoulders so that my feet could just touch the ground. In about half an hour after I was tied up, he (Cook) sent his orderly to inquire if I was ready to do my duty. I answered, “I am not.” Soon the major came out, and asked me if there was no kind of duty that I was ready to do. I replied that I had never refused to go into the hospital, but that I should continue to refuse to bear arms from principle. He then offered to place me on the pioneer corps, for the time being, and to use his influence to get me a situation in the hospital. He said that the pioneers had no drilling or fighting to do; that there was an order requiring them to carry a gun, but it was not always enforced. I told him I should not carry a gun, but would try pioneer’s work. On these conditions I was then released; the major coming again in the mean time in company with the colonel of one of the Pennsylvania regiments, and Lieut.-Col. Allen of the Twelfth Massachusetts. As I had expressed a desire to talk with the major, he asked me what I had to say.

Reply. My religion is the religion of Christ.

Allen. Poh! That’s played out.

Soon after I was released, orders came to pack up, and march. Feeling quite unwell, and unable to carry a load, in consequence of an attack of lumbago, I went to the surgeon, and asked him to get my things carried. He replied, “I will if I can.” Soon after, I went to him again; and he said, “I will see you again. I cannot carry your things.” Weak and in pain I sat on the ground and waited, hoping that some friendly wagon would assist me; but they all left camp, and I was alone: then taking up my knapsack, haversack, and canteen, but leaving the gun on the ground, I dragged myself along in the direction of the train, arriving in camp at Catlett’s Station at eleven o’clock, and lay down completely exhausted till daylight.

The next day I addressed a letter to Gen. Baxter, brigade commander, of the same general import as my former ones, but received no response. On the following day, as we were about starting again, I went to the surgeon to get some relief from the incessant pain I was suffering, and also to have my load carried. He gave me some medicine, but said he could not get my knapsack carried. During the march of three days and two nights I slept in the open air. When we arrived at Brandy Station (the regiment arrived one day in advance of me) I felt more dead than alive. When we were again about to start, I applied to the surgeon to assist me by carrying my things; but he referred me to Cook, saying, “I will assist you if the major says so.” I appealed to the major, who said, “I told you I would try to get you a place in the hospital if you would do your duty; and is this doing it! Where is your gun?”

Answer. I left it on the ground at Bristow Station.

Cook. Is this the way to do your duty?

Answer. Did I not tell you that I would not carry a gun?

Cook. Well, I don’t intend to show many favors to a man that shirks his duty as you have done.

Answer. I have shirked nothing.

Finding I could get no assistance, I was obliged to march with the rest. Our course was back again, across the Rappahannock, as far as Bealton: here I placed myself under the surgeon’s care, expecting to find relief from my sufferings, and in a few days began to feel better.

One incident in passing. On the morning after our arrival in Bealton, I called on Lieut. Bachelder, commanding the company, and asked for a copy of the revised “Army Regulations.” He said he had none, but asked me what I wished to know, as he could give me any information necessary. I told him I wished to know if officers had a legal right to punish a private severely, by torture, without a trial. “Yes,” he replied, “to any extent that is necessary to enforce obedience.”

Reply. I thought there was at least a show of justice in the army; but, if your interpretation is correct, then I am mistaken.

Lieutenant. Who is defending your home from invasion, if it is not this same army? We are acting purely on the defensive. It is a case of life and death. What would you do if a madman should come into your house, and attempt to murder your family? Would you not fight? We came here to defend Washington. The rebels would have burnt it long ago, had it not been for this army. What kind of a government would you have, if you had your way?

Reply. In extreme cases that you mention, I know not what I should do. I would have a government where all foreign, all intestine, differences are settled by arbitration.

My answer caused dissenting replies from several members of the company gathered around us, the lieutenant saying. “Well, when you find such a government as that, the millennium will not be far distant. I believe I understand the position of the government: that it is battling against a horde of despicable, though powerful, traitors, who are seeking to rend asunder the fairest and best-organized institutions the world ever saw; that we are not mere neighbors, living side by side, but one great family of States; and, therefore, ours is an internecine war, and it must assert and maintain the majesty of the law, or to ‘night and silence sink forever more.’ ”

I saw plainly, that, by consenting to do “duty,” I was assisting directly in the war; and this, after weighing the matter thoroughly, prompted a letter to Cook, which time and space forbid publishing. After writing this letter I was thrown into the division guard-house, by command of Gen. Newton. Charges were preferred against me for “uttering treasonable language.” First, “mutiny and disobedience of orders.” But, finding that this could not be laid against me, it was so changed as to make it necessary to lay the matter before the government, and await the slow process of its complicated machinery.

On the the army moved beyond the Rapidan. On starting I had not even a crumb of bread or a morsel of meat in my haversack; and yet we are told by Cook “that Pratt received the same shelter and rations that government furnished the other conscripts.”

At this place (Kelly’s Ford) I applied for a trial, — once to Cook, and once to judge-advocate (Lieut. Meade), — but got only evasive answers from Cook, and downright incivility from Meade. On the I had orders to “pack up,” and report to the provost-marshal, Lieut. Mason of the Twelfth, who read to me an order from Secretary Stanton, requiring him to release J. Wesley Pratt from military duty, on giving my parole of honor to return when called for. I gave my parole, and came on to Washington.

From this you can see the sort of stubborn conscience that might lead someone to move on from conscientious objection to military service to conscientious objection to taxation. Unfortunately, other than the brief note in Smith’s book, I haven’t been able to find out anything more about the particulars of his tax resistance or of his imprisonment for it.

The “New England Anti-Tax League” didn’t make much of an impact, or at least such impact doesn’t seem to be reflected in any place I’ve been able to find by means of internet searches. And Pratt himself is rarely mentioned, and then usually only in passing as an example of a Civil War conscientious objector or a Garrisonian non-resistant.