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During World War I, by the time of the first national registration on June 5, 1917, approximately 6,000 American men applied as conscientious objectors. Leroy Horlacher (1894–1981) was one of them.

Horlacher was born in Hazleton, Luzerne County, where he began working at an early age in the silk mills as a weaver. In 1915 he became a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or the “Wobblies”), a labor union with both socialist and anarchist tendencies that espoused the idea that all the world’s workers, whether skilled or unskilled, had more in common with each other than with the ruling class in their respective countries, and the only way for workers to better their lot was to form a single worldwide union. The goal was to destroy capitalism, which they viewed as a great exploiter of the working class. In 1916 the IWW passed a resolution against World War I.

The Selective Service Act was enacted in the U.S. on May 18, 1917. Horlacher was drafted and inducted into the Army on November 2 at age 23. By that time he was living in Philadelphia and working at Independence Ribbon Co. He was described as a single Caucasian male of medium height, slender build, with brown eyes and dark hair. At the time of his registration, he claimed exemption from military service on the grounds of “member of society Conscientious – opposed.”

During World War I several thousand conscientious objectors were sentenced to civil or military prisons. Threats, violence and physical injury were often endured by those being held. Solitary confinement, bread-and-water diets, and sleep deprivation were frequently reported by the prisoners.

The Selective Service Act made provisions for members of religious sects opposed to war only. About 4,000 of these objectors were offered noncombatant roles and accepted them. The remaining 1,800 to 2,000 objectors with nonreligious motives were ordered to be segregated.

On April 23, a War Department order permitted camp commanders to court-martial three classes of objectors: sincere, about 1,200 men who mostly received farm furloughs for agricultural service; insincere, mostly antiwar socialists who were ordered to combatant service, but if they refused were court-martialed and sent to a military prison; and absolutist, refusing even farm service, who were court-martialed and sentenced to disciplinary confinement.

Horlacher was initially assigned as a private in the 1st Separate Detachment Company, 154th Depot Brigade at Camp Meade, Maryland. Declared a conscientious objector on November 9, 1917, he was judged sincere in his objections to both combat and noncombat service by the Board of Inquiry. He was given a farm furlough on July 16, 1918; however, on July 20 he was told that because of his involvement with the IWW he was to be returned to camp. Although Horlacher’s work on the farm had been acceptable, the farm owners apparently worried that he would stir up the other workers with his socialist beliefs. Horlacher denied doing this and would have preferred to stay and work at the farm; however, he was sent back to Camp Meade. He was then transferred to the Medical Department, Base Hospital, on September 16.

Three days later, Horlacher was arrested for violating two articles of war by disobeying an order from a lieutenant to sweep the floor of an office at the hospital and an order from a sergeant to work in the detachment kitchen. Horlacher faced a court-martial on October 1, pleading not guilty to both charges. On the order to sweep the office, he stated, “I didn’t willfully disobey the order. I simply told him that because of my principles and my scruples, having been a conscientious objector, that I could not obey his orders and with all due respect to him as an officer, I could not obey that order.” On November 16 the court rendered its verdicts. Horlacher was found guilty on both counts of disobeying orders. He was sentenced to be dishonorably discharged from the service, to forfeit all pay and allowances due, and to be confined at hard labor for 25 years. He was first placed in the divisional stockade at Camp Meade.

Horlacher was then grouped with the radical nonreligious conscientious objectors and sent to the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, by Christmas 1918. On January 10, 1919, 113 sincere objectors were released outright from Leavenworth, but Horlacher remained, and in June he was sent to the federal prison at Alcatraz in California. He was eventually released from Alcatraz with a dishonorable discharge in April 1920, about 17 months after World War I had ended. He then returned home to Philadelphia.

By 1930 Horlacher was married with a daughter, living in Deptford, New Jersey, and working as a carpenter. Ironically, in 1942, he had to register again for the draft during World War II.

In 2015 Leroy Horlacher’s granddaughter donated an original copy of his courtmartial proceedings to the Pennsylvania State Archives for Manuscript Group 284, Leroy Horlacher Papers. The collection also contains correspondence from his sympathizing aunt, fellow conscientious objectors and IWW members; photographs and miscellaneous materials documenting barracks life (including the meal ticket from Fort Leavenworth shown here); and pamphlets, poems and newspaper articles relating to the IWW.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives. He is author of the national award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders.