Letter January 1919 from Prisoners' General Committee (incomplete)




Letter January 1919 from Prisoners' General Committee (incomplete)




account of prisoner work strike and riot, possibly at Ft. Leavenworth


WWI conscientious objection / objectors


United States


prisoners in the U.S.D.B. (at Ft. Leavenworth?)


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


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[Ft. Leavenworth? – January 1919]

Trouble was brewing for a long time at this Institution due to the bad conditions and unjust sentences. As time lapsed the discontent continued to grow among the prisoners until finally the climax was reached by striking.

On Christmas Eve a near riot occured [sic] in the Mess Hall during the supper among 1400 men. The trouble came about because the Officer on Duty in the Mess Hall commanded the men to stop shouting for more bread. The prisoners simply ignored hmi and began to hiss the Officer who then sent for the Executive Officer who came with Armed Guards.

When the Executive Officer appeared a tremendous uproar followed by hisses was made and while he walked up the isle [sic] to speak to the men on prisoner shouted “His is the man who puts us in the hold” so the men all shouted “Hang him he is no good.” This was enough warning so the Officer retreated to the door.

Next came Col. Rice and the men again hollered and laughed. The attempts of the Colonel to speak were fruitless. The men became so inattentive and missiles of food and dishes were fired –some potatoes hitting the Colonel. However, the men began to calm and were taken out of their seats in rows of ten men.

The calmness was greatle [sic] due to the shutting of the doors so that the prisoners could not observe the guards outside who stood ready with guns.

On Christmas, the following day, the Chaplain attempted to smoothe [sic] over matters during general services but failed completely. The Chaplain told us that the Government had selected the most competent Officers to manage and elevate the prisoners, but hisses were the only replies.

From then on until the end of January the men grumbled and hundreds were being continuously tried because they dodged their gangs and consequently did not work.

On the 26th and 29th of January a race riot broke out. Heads were cracked and also rumored that some men died in the hospital as a result of the rioting. Many were carried on stretchers badly bruised and unconscious.

[page 2]

On the afternoon of the 29th the Negroes were forced into the 6th Wing despite their protests and demands for protection. No sooner they entered the Wing, they were hit with missiles and electric bulbs. When they ran out, the Colonel entered and said, “You men are all getting your sentences reduced but if you not behave I must compel you to. This had no effect as bulbs were thrown at the Colonel.

On the evening of the 29th the store house in the prison wall was burnt and the total loss estimated at $200,000. Papers state that it was incidental but there was no proof. Few men were injured but no one killed.

On the morning of the 30th after breakfast the sentries informed us that no gang would work that day until further notice, but the men who work inside of the walls can work if they so desire. The reason why the prisoners were not all told to work was due to the uncertainty of the boys as to whether they should work or not, and also because the Guards struck for rest as they overworked.

The same afternoon (the 30th) the 3,000 prisoners were lined out in the yard to work. When the Provost Sergeant called out the Gangs, nobody responded. He called the first gang and the reply was thusly: There isn’t a first gang any more.” The same occurred when he called the 2nd and 3rd and so he folded his sheet and informed the Officer that the men are on strike.

Col. Rice stepped forward with other officers and asked the prisoners “Why” are they striking? The prisoners shouted “Give us Liberty or give us death.” After some heated discussion between some prisoners and the Colonel, we were ordered to return to our wings.

The Colonel then received a telegram from Washington instructing him to remove Major Modessette and appoint Major Smith in his place as Executive Officer. The new Officer then visited the 4 wings and told us he would be square with us and also asked us to state our grievances.

After considerable discussion between the new executive officer and a few prisoners, the officer said “Unions are all right in their proper places but not in a prison.” The men said they are determined to buck until they receive their freedom. Give us liberty – liberty that’s what we want. The rest of the day was devoted to meetings in all the wings with speeches by prisoners. We were told to be men and behave.

[page 3]

On the 31st most of the men stayed in their wings so no one was asked to go out. We ate our meals, slept, read books and held meetings to pass the day. There were plenty of guards around but not in the honor wings. In fact some guards remarked that we were teaching them a lesson. We decided to let the cooks, waiters, bakers, and power and heating plant men work as their work is essential to our welfare.

At eleven A.M. of the 31st the second day of the strike, the new executive officer visited all the wings and told the prisoners that they should elect a committee of three men in each wing and come before the Colonel with their demands as he was prepared to arbitrate with us. This was done immediately. At our meetings the various speakers emphasized the fact above all, we must maintain peace and not use violence as that would give the authorities permission to shoot men down. This object was carried out wonderfully – in fact the men were more quiet than any time before the strike.

After the committee met they appointed a spokesman and visited the Col. and the new executive officer. They were in session for one hour with Col. Rice and much longer with the executive officer. The Colonel was very nervous and anxious to settle the trouble.

Note: The Colonel, during the conference with the committee at one time put his right hand up and exclaimed, [“]God knows, I did not want the C.O.’s in this prison.” Some weeks ago Col. Rice mentioned that “The C.O.s were demoralizing the discipline of the prisoners.”

The report of the General Committee, prisoners of the U.S.D.B.

We, the men in this Institution state the following as the only terms upon which we will resume work and restore normal conditions:

1. That the following telegram be sent to Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, at once: “General Prisoners confined in the U.S.D.B. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, petition with approval of Commandant for Amnesty for all men convicted by Court-Martial. Senators Chamberlain, Borah, the American Bar Assoc. and public opinion generally declare sentences unjust and amnesty as the proper redress. Our release is just as urgent as that of the

[page 4]

113 C.O.’s recently discharged. Democratic Military justice requires amnesty. (Signed) Prisoners General Committee.”

2. That the Commandant immediately release from solitary confinement all men now there for having participated in this movement from its beginning; and that he promise that no man involved in this movement shall be punished or discriminated against in the future for his part in the movement.

3. That the Commandant recognize a permanent Grievance Committee to be elected by the men and that this committee shall have the right to discuss with the authorities such improvements of conditions as seem in the committee’s judgment to be desireable.


prisoners in the U.S.D.B. (at Ft. Leavenworth?), “Letter January 1919 from Prisoners' General Committee (incomplete),” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed September 21, 2021, https://cosandgreatwar.swarthmore.edu/items/show/1720.

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