Stonewall Jackson and the Mennonites Who Could Not Be Made to Aim

March 21, 1862 (Friday)

This typical Shenandoah Valley family had one slave. Slaves accounted for only 10.5% of the middle Valley population.

It must have been surprising, at least curious, that an entire Federal division, poised to move up the Shenandoah Valley, faced with a mere 700 cavalry, did not pursue the much smaller Rebel force under Stonewall Jackson. After their minor scrap with Turner Ashby’s troopers near Strasburg, Union General Shields’ Division had retired all the way back to Winchester, over forty miles north of Jackson’s camp near Mount Jackson.

Ashby noted this and reported it to Jackson. Through hawkish, blustery rain, the messenger rode south along the Valley Turnpike.1

At Camp Buchanan, near Mount Jackson, the small army had received a number of reinforcements, swelling Jackson’s strength to around 4,000. There was, however, a problem.

Quakers from the Shenandoah Valley

During the era of the war, German immigrants were more associated with the North, through commanders like Sigel, Steinwehr, Schurtz and Schimelfenig. A full 7% of the Federal army was made up of Germans, coming especially from Unionist Missouri and Pennsylvania. However, in the Shenandoah Valley, there lived an enormous German population.

Jackson’s regiments, culled from the Valley, showed this population well. In the 10th Virginia, for example, 51% of the boys had German surnames. They came mostly from Warren, Rockingham, Shenandoah and Page Counties, the areas around where Jackson was currently camped. While the volunteers offered a glimpse into the Valley population, the new recruits, forced in from conscriptions, offered the best cross-section.

When new conscripts came from Rockingham, Shenandoah and Page Counties, with them came the young Mennonites, Dunkers, and Quakers – all pacifists, refusing war due to their religious conviction that Jesus Christ was the Prince of Peace, not of War. These men, of course, did not volunteer, but were rather forced against their will to join Jackson’s army.

Hopewell Friends Meeting House, just north of Winchester, Virginia.

These were also not newly-immigrated Germans. The pacifist sects had been a staple of the Shenandoah Valley since before the Revolutionary War. In fact, they were some of the first settlers in the Valley, arriving in the 1730s. At the start of that earlier conflict for independence, the peace-loving Germans were exempted from service. As the war progressed, they were required to enlist, but not to fight. Towards the end of the Revolution, their enlistment was still compulsory, but they were allowed to hire substitutes at their own expense.2

Jackson took a similar approach, respecting the religious convictions of his new soldiers. While he was not about to excuse them from the duty he believed they held to Virginia, he understood his predicament. Though he must have known of the pacifist population before this time, he first discovered it in his army when eighteen new recruits were caught trying to escape. Some, he assumed, would hire substitutes, but those who stayed had already claimed that they wouldn’t shoot. “They can be made to fire,” wrote Jackson wrote to Richmond, “but they can very easily take bad aim.”

John S. Coffman, son of the Mennonite bishop. John had to escape into Pennsylvania to avoid the draft.

It was here that Jackson became an adept politician, striving for a compromise everybody could stomach. To give his command “the highest degree of efficiency” and to secure “loyal feelings and co-operation,” Jackson decided to file the pacifist recruits into full companies of 100 men each and assign them various noncombatant jobs.

Jackson realized that the Germans were both “good teamsters and faithful to their promise” of loyalty to the Confederacy. They would be put to work as teamsters and would be used to fill various staff positions that did not require the issuing of arms.

This arrangement would “not only enable many volunteers to return to the ranks, but will also save many valuable horses and other public property in addition to arms.” Due to their honesty and variety of work, Jackson even mused that “officers for these companies would be a useless expense.”

Map of Quaker Meeting Houses in the Middle Shenandoah Valley.

Of course, if they did not do their jobs, he would be compelled “to have them drilled, so that in case circumstances should justify it arms may be given them.”3

Jackson may have assumed that the German Christians were loyal to Virginia, but he was probably intelligent enough to understand they were just as opposed to slavery as they were to war. Many outside of the close religious communities looked down upon the sects as abolitionists. While many of the newly-immigrated Germans in the North fought from the beginning to end slavery, the institution of human chattel had been opposed by the pacifistic orders since the 1700s.4

Beaver Creek Dunker Church

Like many people of the border states, the Mennonite Church was split on how to handle the war and the draft. While some of the younger men volunteered prior to conscription, others hid themselves in mountain camps or in basements for fear of being captured by Confederate patrols. The Mennonite elders, however, preached that one could not enter the military and still remain loyal to the Church. Interestingly enough, the sect also preached neutrality, officially siding with neither the North nor the South, even though their opposition to slavery was well known.5

With the issue of the pacifists solved (at least temporarily), towards evening, Jackson received Turner Ashby’s message that Union General Shields had withdrawn back to Winchester. Jackson realized what this meant – that the Federals were drawing units from the Shenandoah Valley to reinforce the main body of the Army of the Potomac. Though he could not know that the main body was en route to the Virginia Peninsula, he was otherwise spot on.

Back Creek Quaker Meeting House

This realization meant but one thing to Jackson. Less of the enemy in front of him meant more of the enemy in front of Richmond. Though forty miles away from the nearest Federals, he knew he had to do something to convince them to stick around for a little while longer.

Jackson resolved that, at dawn, his army would march north to engage the foe. It was here that the Shenandoah Valley and Stonewall Jackson became forever bound.6

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  2. The German Element of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia
    by John Walter Wayland, 1907, p96, 122. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 3, p835. []
  4. The German Element of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia by John Walter Wayland, 1907, p128. []
  5. Mennonite Church History by Jonas Smucker Hartzler, Mennonite Book and Tract Society, 1905, p208-209. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 12, Part 1, p380-381. []
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Stonewall Jackson and the Mennonites Who Could Not Be Made to Aim by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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