World War I -- Life Histories/Section 019/Pierce T. Wetter

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Pierce Throwbridge Wetter (unknown – 1963) was a conscientious objector who refused to participate in the army during WWI.[1] Between 1919 and 1921, Pierce exchanged letters with his brother Telfair.


Family and background[edit]

Pierce T. Wetter grew up with two siblings, his brother Telfair and sister Alberta. He spent his childhood in Sharon Plantation, Chatham County, Georgia. They lived with their single mother. The Wetter inherited the shares of the plantation from Edward Telfair (1735-1807), a wealthy family ancestor. Edward had been a merchant, a member of the Continental Congress, and governor of Georgia. As adults, Pierce and Telfair became disdainful of the “Southern Plantation” way of life, and moved North.

Adult Life and War Opposition[edit]

Both Pierce and Telfair worked at the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) office in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1918, because of his objection to join the WWI army, Pierce was imprisoned at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, until 1921. He justified objecting to the war and the draft by claiming support for the labor rights movement. He believed the labor rights movement was a more worthy cause than a war in Europe. He also disliked the war because he thought the Allies were in it to promote capitalism and make profits. He received a lot of criticisms of being anti antipatriotic for refusing to fight in the war. Alberta, then wife of a Southern plantation farmer, tried to change his mind. Pierce scorned her advice and way of life and stopped writing her letters altogether.

Pierce shared his anti-war beliefs with his brother, Telfair. During Pierce’s imprisonment, Telfair ran the Baltimore IWW office. In their letters, they discussed IWW affairs, from IWW politics to the role of women in society to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Most importantly, the Wetter brothers denounced the evils of capitalism and wage labor. They also criticized established institutions such as the church and the government for maintaining an unjust political and social power structure.

After WWI[edit]

Pierce settled in New York around 1940 with his wife and his children. There, Pierce applied for multiple jobs, from a textile engineer to an employee at the Savage Arms Co. refrigeration plant in Utica. In 1945, after Telfair’s death, Alberta and other cousins convinced Pierce to partition Sharon Plantation. Pierce died in 1963. Today, he is mostly known for his conscientious objection during WWI.

Social Context[edit]

Conscientious Objector[edit]

Conscientious objectors are individuals who objected to participate in the army for religious, political or ethical decisions.[2] World War I was the first time that the federal government had to think about how to respond to the issue of conscientious objection.[3] Traditionally, conscientious objectors were told to hire a substitute or to pay a commutation fee. After the Selective Service Act of 1917, congress granted a small number of exemptions from draft primarily to religious objectors. This meant that many men who had reasons other than religious were forced to become noncombatants in the army. The extent of their refusals to engage in the war ranged from working in the army without using weapons to total hostility to all war efforts.[4] Soldiers even sometimes harassed and hazed conscientious objectors to try to change their minds.[5] Only later in March 1918, President Woodrow Wilson gave noncombatants the chance to serve instead in the Medical, Quartermaster or Engineering Corps. It is estimated that around 3,989 men were conscientious objectors by the time they reached the camps.[6] 450 out of them went to court and were sent to prison.

Industrial Workers of the World and Labor Union Rights[edit]

Formed in 1905 in Chicago, a group of labor workers formed the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also called “Wobblies."[7] It denounced the American Federation of Labor’s acceptance of capitalism and unskilled workers. IWW began after Gilded Age, a period of rapid economic development. It promoted workers rights and wanted to protect them against capitalism under “One Big Union.” IWW had a very strong propaganda team of writers and speakers. IWW’s orators such as Joseph Ettor, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Haywood defended the oppressed working people and received their sympathy. IWW’s political activists organized strikes and boycotts to demand workers’ rights. Prior to World War I, IWW members numbered up to 100,000 workers. During World War I, IWW became the only labor organization that opposed U.S. draft in World War I.[8] The government reacted by prosecuting war objectors with the Espionage Act of 1917. This lead to a decrease in IWW’s popularity and officials arrested more than 160 IWW leaders. After the war, the Red Scare further harmed IWW’s public image. The number of IWW’s members then decreased to about 10,000 by 1930. IWW became the precursor of the Congress of Industrial Unions. Counterculture songs such as “Casey Jones” or “I Dreamt I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” became some of the cultural icons of the union movement at the time.

  1. Series 1 Correspondence, Folder 1, 1918-1921, in the Wetter Family Papers #4678, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Cohen, Carl. Conscientious Objection, Ethics, Vol. 78, No. 4 (1968), The University of Chicago press.
  3. "World War I: The CO Problem." The Civilian Public Service Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
  4. Russell, R. R. “Development of Conscientious Objector Recognition in the United States.” The George Washington law review, 1951.
  5. "World War I: The CO Problem." The Civilian Public Service Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
  6. Yoder, Anne M. "World War I Conscientious Objection." World War I Conscientious Objection. Swarthmore College Peace Collection, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
  7. Barnhill, John. "Industrial Workers of the World." Encyclopedia of Politics: The Left and the Right: Volume 1: The Left and Volume 2: The Right. Ed. Rodney P. Carlisle, Ph.D. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2005. 240-41. SAGE knowledge. Web. 23 Mar. 2015.
  8. "Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 23 Mar. 2015