The Volunteer Relief Committee and the Soldiers Aid Societies of grant County
By Dennis A. Wilson
It is an old piece of paper, words written in pencil. Except for the fact that it is 150 years old it would be fodder for the recycling bin. “We the subscribers”, it said “agree to pay the several sums of money set opposite our respective names … to defray all necessary expenses in carrying to Boscobel the volunteers now about to leave us – until they shall be received into the service of the state – or their services declined by the Governor of the State – then have opportunity to return April 20, 1861.” The first to sign was J.T. Mills who pledged $10.00 ($263.00 in today’s money). This document was recently donated to the historical society with a number of others which had belonged to Addison W. Burr, a prominent Lancaster merchant. The documents were found in an attic, where they had lain for God only knows how many years.
To put this crudely drawn document in its historical perspective, we must go back to April of 1861. In January of that year seven southern states, led by South Carolina had seceded from the Union. In February they had drafted a constitution, creating the Confederate States with Jefferson Davis as president. When he was inaugurated in March, President Lincoln said he would not threaten slavery, but would not tolerate secession. During these months several southern forts were seized by the rebelling states, but many hoped for a peaceful compromise. That hope was dashed on April 12th when South Carolina forces fired on Fort Sumter. On April 14th the fort was surrendered and the nation knew that war was certain. On April 15th Lincoln called for 75,000 troops and militia for 90 days to suppress the rebellion. In his call he wrote: “I appeal to all loyal citizens to favor, facilitate, and aid this effort to maintain the honor, the integrity, and the existence of our National Union, and the perpetuity of popular government; and to redress wrongs already long enough endured.”
Richard Carter, a clerk in the State Legislature carried the governor’s message in support of the Presidents call to his home in Lancaster where a military company was already in existence. C. K. Dean of Boscobel spread the call throughout the county. Lincoln’s call brought the citizens of Grant County to their feet. On April 20th large numbers of volunteers and their family members converged on Lancaster. A hastily arranged mass meeting was held at the Courthouse “for the purpose of considering the condition of our country and taking some action for the protection and support of the families of those who may enlist in the present war.” No one imagined then what a long and bitter war it would become. J. Allen Barber was called on to preside. J.T. Mills spoke to the crowd, arousing patriotic fervor. The latest news was read to those assembled, a practice that was to become common during the war.
A committee was established at the mass meeting to “raise means of supporting the families of persons absent in the war and for the cause generally.” The committee members appointed were Addison Burr, Ed. Lowry and James Jones. Two hundred and sixty seven dollars were pledged. Money was to be raised throughout the county to support the soldiers and their families. The meeting led to a series of resolutions: “Resolved, That we pledge to these defenders of our country’s honor all aid and assistance within our power, and that their families shall never want for bread, nor themselves a generous support in all times of distress. Resolved, That a standing committee be appointed whose duty shall be to see that the wives and children of those who have or shall enlist in our country’s service in this vicinity are duly protected and provided for during the absence of their husbands and fathers.” David Mckee, who would fearlessly lead Grant County Volunteers, and later die leading soldiers of the 15th regiment in battle on the last day of the year 1862, was asked to speak: “I assure you that the scenes and remembrances of this evening and the acts of this community will be a source of extreme gratification to us during our absence from you, which now soon begins, and that the recollection of them will inspire us in the execution of our duties as soldiers, in the great contest now already begun, to deeds of courage and valor… Our duty calls us to arms, and we go the more cheerfully, because you have promised to us all that as reasonable men we have the right to ask – that you will care for and protect our homes and our families.”
It became the practice in many communities to hold a dinner for the volunteers before they left. One article from Hazel Green described volunteers being served a “sumptuous” oyster dinner by the local Soldiers Aid Society. We find in Burrs papers several bills for meals, probably for the departing sons of the county. One is on the back of an 1861 calendar, for 96 meals and lodging provided by the Barnett House in Boscobel the night before the rally, held at that place on Monday the 22nd of April 1861 where the company was formed and McKee was elected Captain.
We also find a payment of $5.77 for a telegraph dispatch brought to Mrs. McKee from Boscobel, perhaps advising her of the regiments move to Fort Corcoran in northern Virginia which was constructed to protect the capital. By July 6th the enthusiasm of the subscribers may have waned. Although $267.00 had been pledged,
only $64.50 had been received. After disbursement a mere $6.75 remained. Additional funds were apparently received, because the committee was able to pay $26.95 to H.G. Hyde, owner of the Lancaster House, for meals and horse feed provided on September 19th and 20th, presumably for Company C of the 7th Wisconsin
Volunteer Regiment under Captain Samuel Nasmith, which left for Washington from Madison on September 21st.
As time passed, the effort to support the soldiers in the field became more organized. The U.S. Sanitary Commission was organized on June 9, 1861 by civilians and provided supplies and nurses to the army. Soldiers Aid Societies were organized in almost every city, village, and township across the north. Grant County’s home support did not fail. Women particularly redoubled their efforts in making and supplying badly needed items to the army. In September of 1862 the Western Sanitary Commission made the following appeal: “Can the women of America enjoy and endure the luxury of peaceful homes, except on condition of giving the labor of their hands and the prayers of their hearts to those who are defending them at such cost? Especially we appeal to LOYAL WOMEN, wherever they may be. They are the true “Home Guards” of the nation, the ministering angels to sickness and suffering. Without them Sanitary Commissions can do but a small part of their work, and upon their efficient assistance we principally depend.”
Soldiers Aid society of Cleveland, Ohio
The immense amount and variety of items needed by the soldiers required organized work. Circles were formed to knit gloves, sew clothing, and solicit funds. A system or supply was established. In the Grant County Herald of October 23, 1861 J. W. Angell, clerk of the County Board of Supervisors placed the following:
“LADIES: - Your husbands, sons and brothers are now imperiling their lives in behalf of your country…But yet your duty to your country ceases not with the offerings you have already tendered. It requires at your hands still further sacrifices. It requires you now to show benevolence equal to your patriotism…You are solicited to come forward and tender the government your assistance in alleviating their distress. Our soldiers on duty – the sick and wounded in the hospital, require your aid and assistance…A sanitary committee, composed of some of the most scientific and benevolent citizens are appointed to act in concert with the agents of the government to procure a supply of such articles as our soldiers stand the most in need…Form yourselves into neighborhood societies, appoint some of the most active of your members to solicit money or contributions of materials; hold weekly sessions, bring together what you have been able to collect and purchase…Those articles that are now most needed are blankets. Through your committees of “Good Samaritans” solicit the donation of woolen blankets from every household that can possibly spare one. If woolen blankets cannot be had, get quilts or comfortable, padded with cotton…”
Angell went on to say that he would take any articles from places where no societies were organized, and ship them on. In Lancaster, the stores of Howe and Jones and A. and T.A. Burr were the places to take the production of the Soldiers Aid Society, which were then shipped to Chicago and on to soldiers in far flung fields. Vegetables, canned fruits and meats, sheets and pillows, shirts, handkerchiefs, towels, splints and bandages were all solicited and supplied. Bandages were made as described by Mrs. L.H. Palmer of Sauk County in 1919; “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 scraping old linen with a dull knife until it became a fluffy mass and all ravelings were saved to be used as absorbents.”
The Grant County Historical Society has one more treasure that attests to the hard work of these “Home Guards.” That is a quilt made by the young ladies, who signed their names on their handiwork and sold it to raise money for the soldiers gone but certainly not forgotten. The quilt bears a handwritten inscription which reads “Made by the members of the Young Ladies Soldiers Aid Society Hazel Green Wis. 1864.”
Detail - the Hazel Green Quilt
Quilt made by the Young Ladies Soldiers Aid Society of Hazel Green
By the time the war was a year and a half old the need of aid for soldiers and their families had exceeded the capacity of even herculean voluntary efforts. To meet the need, on August 10, 1862 the Grant County Board of Supervisors passed a tax levy of one and one half mills on all taxable property. This was done to raise $5,000.00 which would be distributed to town boards to provide support to families of soldiers “and in no case to exceed the sum of five dollars per month to any one family.” The war was the most ruinous in American history. It was to take years to rebuild the damaged property. The dead and damaged men and their families could not be returned to what they were. The mending took generations.