“War Work of Wisconsin Women in the Civil War”
Paper read before the Sauk County Historical Society at the spring picnic, 1919.
Author Mrs. L.H. Palmer
“The Women; God Bless Them,” thus toasted a famous orator and in every great crisis in the history of the world, the women have, with great fortitude, courage, tender mercy and sound judgment, met the need and mastered the situation.
When the shot was fired that was heard around the world, the North awoke to the fact that civil war was inevitable. From a peaceful, industrial community, Wisconsin quickly became a hive of military activity. When Governor Randall made a stirring appeal to Wisconsin women to aid in every possible manner in caring for the soldiers not only of Wisconsin, but the boys of other States as well, they entered heart and soul into the work.
Patriotic meetings were held in school houses, town halls or any hall large enough to accommodate a crowd. Able speakers encouraged the men by every possible argument to enlist; bands were called out to arouse, by their martial music, enthusiasm among the laggards. Dances were given at which the girls bestowed with mingled smiles and tears their favors to the young volunteers.
Officers and men alike were equally ignorant of military tactics and everywhere the task of drilling the recruits was going on at all hours of the day. Flags were displayed in every conceivable place while the streets were lined with women and girls watching the maneuvers and inspiring the men by their lively interest.
Nearly every community presented a banner of special design and material to the departing Company; the presentation of which would be the occasion for special service and music.
The presentation of the flag to the First Wisconsin Regiment, by Mrs. Geo. Walker, occurred at Camp Scott, May 8, 1861, in the presence of the Governor, Brigadier General King, and other officers. Her address reflects the spirit of the occasion. “In confiding this banner to be upheld by your strong arms and dauntless hearts, we feel that you will never permit a hostile or traitor flag to assume the place of the glorious and unsullied stars and stripes, which have been with God’s blessing, every shall be, a symbol of our military glory. The ladies who prepared this beautiful standard have adorned its azure blue with a star for each State, thirty-four in all, for we recognize no secession from the glorious sisterhood of States.”
The departing soldiers were always entertained with suppers or luncheons, the most elaborate being a banquet given by the Madison people, assisted by the surrounding community, to the Fourth and Fifth Regiments, in the Assembly Hall. Six thousand people attended, many coming from the nearby towns. The building and grounds were elaborately decorated and the generosity of the people and the culinary skill of the ladies were equaled only by the appreciation of the guests. After supper the regiments were drawn up in dress parade and a flag was presented to each.
When President Lincoln, April 1861, issued his first call for troops, not only did the men respond, but the women of every community in Wisconsin rallied to the call for organized relief work for the soldiers and while Companies were being formed and sent to the front, the women put forth every effort to provide the soldiers with every thing possible for their comfort.
During the early part of the relief work nearly every box was directed to some individual or specific military organization. This lead to many disappointments as owing to a lack of a good mailing system many of the boxes never reached the intended recipient, and as a result, Governor Harvey in 1862 called for contributions for Wisconsin soldiers as a body rather than as individuals or Companies. Soon all sectional feeling disappeared and supplies were sent to union men irrespective of State lines.
Soon after the war commenced the women of Wisconsin began meeting at the homes to make garments for the soldiers, in a few months these meetings developed into Aid Societies, with officers, rules, and a regular scheme of work, and committees appointed to have charge of the various divisions of the work. Old clothing was made over or mended; new material was purchased with money subscribed or procured by giving entertainments.
Among the leaders in the war work in Baraboo, were Madams C.E. Ryan, B.F. Mills, E.M. Marsh, _______ Stewart, David Munson, Frank M. Stewart, Thomas English, M.C. Johnson, P. Platt, R.R. Orvise, R. Jackson, J. Newman, and W. Burington. Money was secured for work in Baraboo, by subscriptions and giving entertainments, the most popular being tableaus by local talent.
After the play refreshments would be sold and the money used to purchase material for work. Mrs. J. Newman, long since passed away, made a house to house canvass from Baraboo to Delton, enlisting the services of the women to meet once a week at Delton to sew. She went every week to supervise the work and the garments were brought to Baraboo and sent south.
The cutting of the garments was done by a committee by approved pattern, enough being prepared to keep the ladies busy at each meeting. There was no absorbent cotton or gauze in those days and thousands of bandages were made by tearing old sheets into strips and rolling into hard round rolls. Lint was provided by scrapping old linen with a dull knife until it became a fluffy mass and all ravelings were saved to be used as absorbents. The garments were sorted and packed, a detailed list being placed in each barrel.
The aid societies through the state met for work at the court house, school houses or town halls. The mayor of one small town being a copperhead charged the ladies rent for the use of the hall. At Brodhead the young people organized what was called the Elert Club, the object being to raise money for the aid societies. The village was divided into ten districts with four collectors each. Twenty cents was collected monthly from each woman and as much from the men as they could get. Entertainments were given, thereby keeping up the social life as well as raising money.
The work done by the aid societies varied according to the call. Clothing of all kinds was made. Blankets and quilts the blocks of which many times contained the name of the maker or some quaint verse that illustrated the sturdy spirit of the workers. The following will serve as an example:
“If the rebels attack you, do run with the quilt,
And safe to some fortress convey it;
For o’or the gaunt body of some ‘secesh’
We did not intend to display it.”
Comfort bags containing pins, needles, buttons, thread and yarn, were made by the thousand, and as proof of the appreciation of the soldiers, one aid society received five hundred letters of thanks.
Flannel shirts seemed to be in great demand and the women of Watertown alone made five hundred for the local company. At first they used gray flannel but after learning that the South had preempted that color our boys were given light blue, by this means the “Army Blue” became popular theme for song and story.
When the call for socks for the soldiers came, a perfect epidemic of knitting struck the country and spread so rapidly that soon every woman and most of the girls were knitting socks, gloves and mittens, especially a peculiar mitten with a fourth finger as well as a thumb so it could be used in shooting.
The aid societies sent large quantities of food such as jellies, cakes, and pastries of all kinds, together with meats and fruits.
In 1863, scurvy broke out among the soldiers, especially among General Grant’s men. The disease spread rapidly and was caused by eating too much salt meat in proportion to other food. The call was sent through the northwest, March 4th to rush forward anti-scorbutics.
[Part of line missing in original document]...in Wisconsin and although the weather was rainy and roads almost impassible the committees worked hard. Towns were divided into districts, supply depots were established and a house to house campaign inaugurated. Farmers drove from house to house in the rain; delicate women, busy farmers wives, and clergymen went out on this mission of relief; their slogan being, “OUR soldiers do not stop for the weather; neither must we.”
Vegetables of all kinds were generously contributed. Many tons of cabbages were made into sauerkraut. Pickles were given in large quantities. Raw potatoes were pared, sliced, and packed in kegs and barrels and covered with hot spiced vinegar. A barrel was sent from Baraboo at one shipment. Horseradish was dug, grated, and bottled. Consignments were rushed to Chicago as fast as they could be got ready; from there they were sent south. Racine and Milwaukee were especially energetic sending a number of car loads. Soon a line of vegetables connected Chicago with Vicksburg. The importance of this movement on the part of the loyal women of Wisconsin can not be over estimated for at that time the Government could not have met the need.
The work continued through out the summer; and during the late summer the hillside and pastures of Wisconsin were covered with blackberries, and the children were kept busy picking them. The juice was pressed out, bottled and hurried south. One writer states that “rivers of blackberry juice flowed into the camps of our boys. Fruits of all kinds were dried, apples being in special demand.”
Not only Grant’s Army but the Army of the Cumberland was in serious danger. April 1864, another call came for anti-scorbutics, and the response from the Wisconsin women was so generous that special mention was made in Mrs. Livermore’s Communication in July ’64. September 1863, Wisconsin stood fourth in the number of boxes of anti-scorbutics sent as compared with Illinois, Michigan and Iowa. In October Wisconsin stood third and in November she stood first. Summing up the work of the Northwestern States, Wisconsin stood second with regard to the number of boxes of sanitary relief supplies contributed and third in money.
April 19, ’61, what was known as the Milwaukee Branch of Soldier’s Relief Work was organized with Mrs. Henriette Colt as Secretary. Between 1861 and ’65 the Milwaukee Branch received fifty boxes of relief supplies from each of the following towns. Appleton, Almond, Berlin, Beloit, Baraboo, Columbus, Delavan, Fox Lake, Green Bay, Janesville, Kenosha, Milwaukee, Mazomanie, Oak Creek, Prairie du Sac, Portage, Port Washington, Ripon, and Wauwatosa. It received during 1864 2,142 boxes of bedding, clothing and bandages, all kinds of canned and dried fruits, groceries, butter, cheese, wines, eggs, and a great variety of pickles and vegetables also books and magazines.
The supplies sent through the Milwaukee Branch, in ‘64 amounted to $25, 000 this from a state with no large cities and no great wealth. The work accomplished by this Branch was made special mention of and in time all Ladies Aid Societies, were united under this head and the name was changed to the Wisconsin Aid Societies, with Mrs. Colt as Corresponding Secretary. Mrs. Colt states that the gifts from Wisconsin during the Civil war amounted to $200, 000 and the Wisconsin Ladies Aid Society was next to the Chicago Branch, the strongest organization in the Northwest.
Mrs. Colt made several trips South to learn the needs and how best to supply help to the men on the field and in camp and hospital. She also visited Washington, in the interests of the soldiers and by personal solicitation secured many reforms. President Lincoln granted her a personal interview and willingly gave her all she asked for.
The Branch broadened its scope until it included several departments one of which was to secure employment for soldiers wives and mothers many of whom were having very hard work to care for their families; also she was able to secure places for disabled soldiers in Governmental service.
During the war women entered many fields of industry as wage earners that had previously been occupied by men only, and so efficiently did they perform the service that it proved to be an entering wedge for women’s work in many channels which hitherto had not been considered as suited to women’s ability.
Previous to the Civil War, systematic relief for sick and wounded men had never been undertaken. Our army had been created out of undisciplined civilian soldiers, officered by men who had had no previous training or experience and knew no law but their own sweet will. It soon became evident that if the health and moral of our forces were to be maintained, a medical department must be organized supplemented by volunteer aid.
The public had no conception of the need of preventive measures but were governed by a blind optimism that courage could take the place of training, and officers, quartermasters and commissaries had to learn their lessons in the hard school of experience and heart rending were many of the conditions.
Not only were the hospitals badly equipped but the nursing staff was inadequate and for the most part inefficient. Fortunately one woman was found who by nature and experience was fit to organize and direct the work of nursing. Dorothea Dix was early appointed Superintendent of women nurses with power to place them in military hospitals. When women first offered their services as nurses they met with a cold reception. The army surgeons would have none of them, and after the Government had decided to accept them, the surgeons did every thing possible to make their lives unbearable. Seeming to try by their ill-mannered and unkind treatment to break up the system. In consequence of this opposition and the awful condition found in the hospitals first lead to the organization of the Women’s Central Relief Association and later after much misunderstanding and many complications resulted in the formation of our American Red Cross.
It was largely through the efforts of such noble Wisconsin women as Mrs. Colt, Mrs. Livermore and Mrs. Harvy, that the relief work took the form of not only supplying food and clothing to the soldiers but medical corps were established, inspection of hospitals was secured, and a general cleaning up of camp conditions was inaugurated. Another phase of women’s work in the hospitals was the distribution of sanitary supplies. Many were the heart-breaking scenes as the poor homesick, suffering men and boys were ministered to by kind-hearted faithful women who had left the comforts of home to share with them the horrors of war. Many women followed their loved ones on to the battle field rendering first aid to the wounded, thus relieving suffering and many times saving precious lives.
Stories without number could be written of the courage, tenderness, keen judgment and self-sacrifice of hundreds of loyal Wisconsin women, but in closing I wish to make special mention of an organization which grew out of the great need of associated relief in thousands of soldiers homes where wives, mothers and little children were left destitute. This brave hard working organization of women did not relax their vigilance at the close of the war, but have continued their active ministration among the sick and needy and today the old veterans of the Civil War, pay grateful tribute to the noble work of the Women’s Relief Corp.
Mrs. L. H. Palmer