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For the dear old Boys in Blue
And when their soul has answered the roll
It’s for their memory our mark we’ll do.”
From the WRC Journal Dept. of Oklahoma, 1938-1939
In recent years, historians have written about the Southern women’s memorial organizations like the Ladies Memorial Associations and the UDC. Many have overlooked an important organization that continues to serve our nation- The Woman’s Relief Corp.
After the Civil War, as the veterans began to create organizations to perpetuate the memory of the war, the women of the North began to form organizations that would aid the veterans, their families and perpetuate the memory of the soldiers’ sacrifice in the Civil War. In 1881, at the national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic ( a Union veteran organization) the men passed a resolution to create the Woman’s Relief Corps as an auxiliary to the GAR.It was not until 1883, that the measure was put into effect and the WRC officially existed. This unified the many local women’s groups that were already organized and working on behalf of the veterans.
Women in Massachusetts and Ohio immediately organized corps within their states. Many of the first members were wives, sisters, daughters and mothers of Civil War veterans, however membership was not limited to those related to veterans. Any loyal woman of good moral character over the age of sixteen could join the organization. By 1885, there were 22 departments, three provisional departments and 20,226 members. The WRC’s charter called for the organization to specifically aid and assist the GAR and to perpetuate the memory of their heroic dead as well as assist the veterans, their widows and their orphans with finding employment, housing and to assure them sympathy and friends. In short the ladies sought to “. . .cherish and emulate the deeds of our army nurses, and of all loyal women who rendered loving service to their country in her hour of peril.”
After establishing themselves, the women began to working to protect the veterans and promote patriotism. One of the yearly responsibilities that the WRC took to heart was the promotion of Memorial Day as proposed by former Union General and GAR member John A. Logan. Every year the ladies decorated Union graves in the South and placed plaques with the Gettysburg Address in the national Cemeteries. In Sandusky, Ohio, the women helped to preserve the names of the Southern dead at the former prison site at Johnson Isle and helped to persuade the federal government to erect a memorial at the site.
Throughout the North, WRC departments established and maintained Veteran’s homes and orphanages. After the war, Mrs. Anne Wittenmeyer, a future WRC member, opened an orphanage in Farmington, Iowa. This facility cared for those children left without a parent due to the war. After the creation of the WRC, the organization continued to raise funds and assist in the maintenance of the home. The orphanage remained open with the assistance of the WRC until 1970. By 1905, the women had expended two million dollars in relief for the veterans and their families and had worked to get laws passed that provided relief to the veteran’s widows and children.
The male veterans of the Civil War were not their only concern. Many of the founding women had aided in the war effort. Some had served as nurses and worked with the Sanitary Commission during the war. The WRC recognized these women’s sacrifice and commitment to the Union cause. In 1892, the Woman’s Relief Corp helped get legislation passed that recognized the nurses and gave them a monthly pension of $12.00 a month. By 1900, the WRC opened a veteran’s home for army nurses in Ohio. This was one of the first facilities dedicated to women nurses.
By 1900, the WRC boasted 2, 803 Corps and a membership of nearly 150,00 members. As the Civil War generation began to diminish, the women continued to their work. Now they included veterans of all wars. By the early 1900s, the WRC added the promotion of patriotism and loyalty to their mission. This included proving that Francis Bellamy was the original author of the Pledge of Allegiance.
They also worked to promote the adoption of this pledge throughout the United States. As part of this campaign, the women distributed flags to schools and encouraged the recitation of the pledge of allegiance as part of a patriotic education. Along with promoting the pledge and ensuring that all schools had flags displayed in the classrooms, the women of the WRC continued to place flags on the graves of deceased soldiers and promote the respectful observance of memorial day.
As you wave your flag this Fourth of July weekend, I hope you will stop and remember this dedicated group of women- The Woman’s Relief Corp. The organization is still in existence and still continues the mission they set in 1883. Down the street from Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Illinois, you will find the headquarters of the WRC where the women maintain a GAR museum. If you would like more information please check out their website http://suvcw.org/WRC/index.htm.
Membership is still open to all loyal women who are of good character.