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Wednesday, July 18, 2012 11:05 am

Springfield’s Ladies Aid supported Civil War soldiers

On July 4, 1837 – 175 years ago – the cornerstone for what we now call the Old State Capitol (OSC) was dedicated. In the decades that followed, the building was not only the center of governmental activities, it was a town center, where people gathered for social, civic and charitable activities.

As part of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War, the OSC has set up a new exhibit that gives an interesting glimpse into one of those charitable activities.

During the war, women around the country formed “soldiers’ aid societies” to supply troops with clothing and other items. While this was the government’s job, it simply couldn’t keep up with the task because the military force grew so rapidly. Besides, the ladies thought their homemade goods surpassed mass-made government-issued supplies. And, this was one of the few socially accepted ways women could support the war effort – they couldn’t fight (although some did, after disguising themselves as men) or work in the military offices, but they could sew and raise money for the soldiers.

About 100 Springfield women formed a soldiers’ aid society on Aug. 28, 1861, four months after the war began, according to Camilla Quinn’s Lincoln’s Springfield in the Civil War. “The meeting had been arranged by local pastors in response to an anonymous 1861 appeal published in the (Illinois State) Journal which warned that ‘the cold weather will be advancing after a little time’ and recommended that committees of ladies in every city and village be formed to procure sewing supplies and knit warm clothing for sick soldiers,” Quinn writes. The group met weekly at a candy store on the south side of the downtown square to do just that.

Less than a month later, one of the members wrote her son, who was away at college, about their efforts. Mercy Conkling was the wife of prominent Republican lawyer James Conkling and both were friends of the Lincolns. Her Sept. 20, 1861, letter is part of the Conkling manuscript collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

“Among the ladies there is considerable activity, preparing garments to supply hospitals, etc.,” Mercy wrote. “Next week we expect to send a box to St. Louis…We hope our humble efforts will be the means of adding some comfort to our suffering soldiers.”

About three weeks later (on Oct. 14) she wrote: “I have just received a letter from a lady at St. Louis begging hospital supplies of clothing, shirts, flannel socks, etc. for the sick and wounded which are brought there from all parts of the state. The Ladies Aid Society of Springfield have already contributed largely to the hospitals at St. Louis and also Girardeau…The Ladies meet once a week and have been very industrious, I am sorry to say the democratic ladies have taken no interest as yet.”

The women sought donated materials for the “shirts, socks, slippers, sheets and pillow cases” they sewed, according to Quinn. Many of the supplies were sent to locations where Springfield’s volunteer soldiers were stationed.
After several local men died in the February, 1862, battle of Ft. Donelson, the Society spent the night making bandages for soldiers.

As the war intensified, the ladies began meeting daily instead of weekly. They asked for donations of gently used cotton underwear, because it made softer bandages and clothing for wounded soldiers, according to Quinn. The Society also performed skits, like “Arrest of She-sessionist,” to raise money for supplies. Once Camp Butler, established northeast of Springfield as a Civil War soldier training camp, began housing prisoners of war, the women visited prisoners there as well.

By June, 1862, the Society began meeting daily in the Senate chamber of the Old State Capitol, according to OSC site manager Justin Blandford. The Ladies Soldiers’ Aid Society exhibition currently on display there shows the kinds of materials and patterns they worked with to sew hospital clothing for soldiers. The exhibit includes an antique sewing machine from the same period; a costumed interpreter occasionally operates the machine and discusses the ladies’ work with visitors.

A wall-size black and white photo shows members of the local Society who worked on behalf of their husbands, sons and neighbors to prepare supplies needed through the war. Boxes of supplies addressed to various military hospitals are stacked around the second-floor rotunda, suggesting what it may have looked like when the building served as a collection point for donations of food and clothing.

Blandford says the Springfield Ladies Soldiers’ Aid Society exhibit will be on display at the OSC “changing and evolving, just like the work of the women during the Civil War,” through 2015, the end of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the war.

Contact Tara McAndrew at tmcand26@aol.com
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