Letter May 4, 1919 to Senator Robert M. La Follette

Date

1919-05-04

Title

Letter May 4, 1919 to Senator Robert M. La Follette

Date

1919-05-04

Subject

WWI conscientious objection / objectors

Coverage

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Source

Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Publisher

Swarthmore College Peace Collection

Rights

Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.

Format

image/jpeg

Language

English

Type

text

Identifier

DG117Sayre-027

Transcription

May 4th 1919

Ft. Leavenworth Deluge.

Senator Robert M La Follette

Washington, D C

Honorable Sir:

Many thanks for your telegrams and assurances. Perusal of the various reports, received through different channels, would consume too much of your precious time; a resume may prove lengthy enough. The facts which you already have I will amplify by quotations, and by analysis make them intelligible.

The Post Guard House is a jail intended for the confinement of petty offenders and military prisoners awaiting trial. It is not within the walls surrounding the Disciplinary Barracks, but about a half-mile distant. It is not under D B jurisdiction.

The cantonments are also outside the prison walls, but enclosed by a stockade, and are under D B jurisdiction.

In one of these cantonments – No 7 – under endurable conditions were confined 56 Conscientious Objectors, who took care of themselves and their quarters in a manner to elicit favorable comment from inspectors. They were objectors on religious and political grounds, about equally divided. All are “absolutists” and refuse to obey all military commands, as a protest against organized murder.

On April 22nd, during Commandant Rice’s absence in Washington 23 political and 2 religious objectors were suddenly transferred to the Post Guard House, already overcrowded with 25-30 General Prisoners and 33 Absolutists, recently released from solitary confinement. On the evening of the same day 119 “Working Conscientious Objectors” were transferred from the Disciplinary Barracks (within the walls) to Cantonment 6 within the Stockade. The latter was an improvement, the former was not.

The removal of the 119 cleared the D. B. of C. o’s; it spared them from contact with the criminal and the diseased, it also saved the Military Morale.

But moving the 25 could only result in complications; it meant disturbing a tranquil and tolerable situation at the Guard House.

There was no necessity for this move. The cantonment contained only 56 prisoners; it could accommodate 150. Those emerging from Solitary should have been placed there instead of in the Guard House. A possible fear, that the non-working C O’s would influence those working, would be groundless. The absolutists are not propagandists and were once voluntary workers, who earned the good will of their overseers. But as voluntary work dispensed with military commands and the exercise of authority, this arrangement was not to be tolerated, and so, Col J C Waterman, at Ft Riley was delegated to make conscripts of these volunteers. – It was this wholly unnecessary application of coercive measures, which forced the issue and compelled the absolutist attitude. Wilson’s and Baker’s orders, to place these men under “A specially qualified officer of tact and judgment”, may have been sincerely conceived, but their

[page 2]

authors failed to insure their execution. And there have [sic] been no one to stop benighted officers from trying to make soldiers of these enlightened men.

I will let one of my informants speak:

“There are 34 men in each of the big cage cells, down stairs in the Guard House. There is one toilet reserved for them. They have to get permission from the Corporal of the Keys to go to this one at a time. Likewise, during washing, they are led out one at a time. It is the old Riley conditions over again.

“Allowing a 4 min. toilet for each prisoner would require over four hours for the 68 men, and bearing in mind that most men require more than one visit, the resultant discomfort may be vaguely imagined.

“At Ft. Riley,” my informant adds, “we were often compelled to use the floor and live in the stench until removed. There are other stools, wash basins and also shower baths, but they are denied their use.”

“The food is brought to them and they are compelled to eat in their cells. These cage cells, about 20 by 25 feet, are down stairs, with light at a premium, air heavy and stifling, is no place for men from Solitary or Hospital, or whose resistence [sic] is lowered through previous suffering; and as they are not permitted to exercise either in corridors or outside, their health is in danger of being permanently undermined.”

“The guards are a bunch of rookies, “all orders and no brains”, with the result that petty tyranny is the order of the day. It seems a shame, after the wonderful fight these men have made, through the Reign of Terror at Funston and elsewhere, and the bread-and water shackles at the D. B. that they should be subjected to further torture. Even a day in that Guard House for these men is an outrage to America, and whoever ordered these men into such a hell-hole should be properly punished. The torture is not so obvious or so spectacular as the shackles, but nevertheless insidious and most cruel. The mental torture in itself is sufficient to make a man loose [sic] all balance and make him embittered for life.

“With the light, airy cantonment, capable of housing over 150 men comfortably, practically vacant except for the 31 left, it seems criminal to subject these C O’s who have broken no more prison rules than we have, to the intolerable Guard House conditions.

“Furthermore, the past few months have shown the authorities that the C O’s can look after themselves, without interference from the military. Colonel Willis[?] himself, commented on the order and cleanliness of their cantonment.

“If these men are to be sent to, Alcatras [sic], to be broken by the Iron Rule of that mediaeval Spanish prison, or any other prison for close confinement, vigorous protest should be made to head off any such move. God knows these men have suffered enough for conscience sake, and should be spared further torture.

This brings us to April 23d – Commandant Rice was in Washington and reported dismissed.

Col. H O Williams, from the Inspector General’s office, had been inspecting for several days, reputedly with a view of taking command, on the stipulation that he be permitted to run the institution unhampered, and it was presumably in

[page 3]

accordance therewith, that he dissolved the Prisoners’ Committee which grew out of the Great Prison Strike, January 30th, and has since been recognized as a valuable adjunct to the establishment. Col Williams announced that he would only hear personal complaints, but when such were presented he refused to listen. It is he who investigated the Ten Day Reign of Terror at Funston.

The Army Post and Disciplinary Barracks are under separate commands. The Guard House is under Post jurisdiction. The Post prisoners are upstairs, the C O’s or D B prisoners are downstairs. The “hydro-therapeutic” treatment, (meaning the water cure) was said to have been directed by the Post Officer of the Day, supposedly Capt Johnson’s 49th Inf. who had no jurisdiction over the C O’s. Did not also the D B officers exceed their authority in surrendering their charges to the Post authorities without adequate protection or assurances thereof? Iit is a technicality only, but may impress the military mind where common-sense logic fails.

If these movements of prisoners were a part of the stage setting necessary to make the ordeal of the 23rd appear justifiable, an investigation will probably reveal, either a fiendish plot of petty officers, or a wanton desire for diversion.

To amass men, unnecessarily under such condition is an unpardonable offence against individual comfort and general hygiene. Denied the most pressing necessities, it is conceivable that some of the men may have been up, awaiting turn at the comfort utensil; though their failure to be in bed after lights were out, may be cited as provocation for the outrage.

However, whether due to wantonness or wickedness, the culpability must rest on those who have committed human beings to the mercy of a system, lacking in necessary safeguards or inclination of its votaries to apply them.

If common sense only had prevailed, the white faced emaciated beings from Solitary could have been on the road to recovery; the others could have been spared the drenching, with attendant danger of pneumonia or a general break-down in those who are still suffering the consequences of Bloody Sunday at Riley and the Reign of Terror at Funston; a discredit to our War Department, a stain on our flag.

As for the rumor of their removal to Alcatraz, Colonel Williams evades the question by telegraphing me that it does not necessarily involve the C O’s – The location would be admirable for a repetition of the Hofer tragedy, being isolated from communication with the outside world, and too remote for prompt investigation and relief.

Why not liberate these men whom the military mind cannot understand, and therefore, fails to treat with decency? What end do reviewals [sic] and reduction of sentences serve, other than to waste good time, prolong the agony of the victims and defer the nation’s work. What possible gain can be derived from their confinement, the ultimate termination of which will render the whole performance farcical?

What right have unsympathetic militarists, whose human qualities are submerged in unintelligent patriotism, to experiment with noble, determined souls, and in the process wreck their bodies? What apology can we utter for permitting their further exposure to indignities and suffering? – Also, why discriminate against those, who have proven their sincerity?

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They are helpless; their rescue is our task!

Ernestly [sic] yours,


- I have dilated somewhat to ease my pain and indignation; I have indulged in a couple conjectures merely to equip you, should the anticipated argument be advanced. My experience with the War Department has not elevated it in my esteem; I warn you against the evasions and half truths with which they cover their shame.

Citation

“Letter May 4, 1919 to Senator Robert M. La Follette,” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed November 21, 2019, https://cosandgreatwar.swarthmore.edu/items/show/1493.

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