"They can come and take me and put me in prison or kill me, but they can't make me fight. God's against war, and it isn't right.”
These words, uttered by Richard Francis Anderson in August of 1917, marked a six month, soul-searching battle for the young man from Wilton.
When his name was drawn in the draft, he refused to go, citing his moral convictions. Physically, he was a strapping six-footer and he easily passed the medical examination, but he sincerely believed that the taking of a man’s life was morally wrong. He did not belong to any religious denomination opposed to war, and he had no political convictions or leanings towards the Kaiser. When he appeared before the local draft board he calmly assured them that they could take him away, but there were not enough men in America to make him fight. He became North Dakota’s first conscientious objector.
At a time when patriotism was running high, and those who opposed the war were deemed “Slackers,” Mr. Anderson’s words were published in the newspapers across the state and he was condemned by the press. But he stood by his convictions. The local draft board, convinced of his sincerity, suggested leniency.
Perhaps it was the influence of family and friends, or perhaps the battlefield death of his friend, Louis Ousley, but on February 20, 1918, two days after the memorial tribute to Private Ousley, Richard Francis Anderson appeared before the Burleigh County draft board of his own volition and was inducted into the United States Army. He then boarded a train for Camp Dodge, Iowa and was assigned to Battery D of the 339th Field Artillery.
We will never know how he would have fared when tested on the battlefields of France, because seven weeks after entering the service, Private Richard Anderson was dead, a victim of pneumonia. The remains were returned to Wilton under military escort. He was well respected in the community, and an impressive military funeral was conducted by the Wilton Home Guard. A large crowd of mourners accompanied the remains to the cemetery. A man of high religious and moral convictions, he had come to terms with his conscience. The name Private Richard Francis Anderson was proudly enshrined in North Dakota’s Honor Roll of fallen soldiers.
Dakota Datebook by Jim Davis
The Wilton News, April 12, 1918
Ibid, April 19, 1918
The Bismarck Tribune, August 8, 1917
The Devils Lake World and Inter-Ocean, August 16, 1917