In my last post, I wrote about a brief history of the Woman’s Relief Corp. I left out of that post one of the most important preservation efforts of that group- the preservation and administration of the Andersonville Prison.
When the war ended, Union troops took over the prison site. Those prisoners who were still left were transported to hospitals and homeward. They were relieved to be free and that the Union had won the long war. The former prison site contained the graves of approximately 13,000 soldiers who had died while interned there during the war. The grounds remained littered with the remnants of she-bangs, wells sat unused and the holes for escape remained opened. The stockade walls stood silently reminding everyone that this site once held almost 30,000 men captive.
In 1880, the Army marked and identified each grave and created a National Cemetery. The Quartermaster Department maintained the cemetery, but no-one really managed the site of the prison. Some former POW’s returned to the site and the feeling that the nation could not forget the tragedy that had befallen those held at Andersonville overwhelmed them. In 1881,the Georgia Department of the Grand Army of the Republic set about purchasing the prison site. The men made a partial payment on the property and did some cleaning up of the grounds. In 1886, Kate Sherwood, an officer of the Woman’s Relief Corp visited the site and participated in the annal Memorial Day services. By 1893, the GAR struggled to pay off the debt and to maintain the site. The men turned to the women of the Woman’s Relief Corp (WRC) for assistance. The ladies, devoted to preserving the memory of Union soldiers, gladly offered assistance in raising funds. The WRC raised $1,000 to pay off the debt and took ownership of the site. The ladies began fundraising to maintain the site and began further clean-up and restoration of the grounds.
Using a cottage they had erected upon the grounds, the WRC hosted returning veterans and visiting dignitaries. Lizabeth Turner, the appointed caretaker, greeted each group and individual and gave them tours of the site. Turner encouraged the veterans and the state legislatures to erect monuments to honor those who perished and those who survived the prison. By 1910, monuments dotted the cemetery and the grounds of the former stockade. Almost every state that had prisoners interned there during the war had erected a monument. The WRC, no longer able to continue the care of the site after the passing of Turner, deeded the site to the United States War Department. In honor of their work in preserving the site and honoring the Union soldiers, the WRC erected a monument on the grounds of the stockade to the Woman’s Relief Corp and one to the long-time caretaker, Lizabeth Turner.
The WRC monument featured a sundial. Around the outside of the dial, women expressed their appreciation to the veterans with the simple word “grateful.” The gnome of the sundial featured an American flag.
Today, the legacy of the Woman’s Relief Corp continues at Andersonville National Historic Site and at the GAR Museum in Springfield, Illinois. The women continue to host memorial day observances around the country and to honor American soldiers.