The Quaker Scout
The Quaker Scout: Testimony of a Civil War Non-Combatant of the Woodlawn Antislavery Society
As a pacifist Quaker who guided Union troops to the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) – within days of fleeing rebel assassins – Jonathan Roberts provides a compelling account of Secession, Civil War, and Reconstruction in Northern Virginia. His original first-hand narrative is transcribed in full, and introduced in Martha Claire Catlin’s extended essay, “The Quaker World of Jonathan Roberts.” Together, these portray the experiences of Roberts before and after becoming a Union scout; the activist spiritual basis of his Quaker colony’s endeavor to bring about a peaceful end to slavery; and the critical contributions of African Americans – enslaved and free – in providing intelligence to Union loyalists.
The Quakers of Woodlawn, well-educated progressive agriculturalists from northern states, were successful in establishing a colony of free-labor farms, uneasily surrounded by George Washington’s Mount Vernon heirs and others of the slaveholding planter elite. Among the new freeholders of the colony were African Americans descended from Mount Vernon’s enslaved population, manumitted by Washington at his death a half-century earlier. The Friends converted thousands of acres of plantation lands into productive free-labor farms, hoping their example would become a transformative influence throughout the South. Yet, with increasing sectionalism in the years leading up to war, even the faithful could see that the possibility of ending slavery by peaceful means – however strategically devised, and diligently practiced – was diminishing.
Never intending to participate in war, Roberts, in a moment of clarity of purpose, resolved to trust in Providence to guide him through the Quakers’ dilemma, once pondered by Abraham Lincoln: “Your people – the Friends – have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma some have chosen one horn and some the other.” By stipulating his refusal to bear arms – a condition surprisingly acceded to by Union authorities – Roberts’s decision to volunteer as a scout for the Union Army presented a way forward that he believed could be reconciled with his spiritual beliefs.
In his “plain spoken” self-portrayal, Roberts reveals his moral struggles and inner thoughts – and his mystical reliance upon Divine Providence. In the context of a great national crisis, his account testifies to the critical role of one Quaker’s faith, and personal conscience, when confronted with the twin evils of slavery and war.
Publisher: Quaker Heron Press
Paperback, 320 pages