Fair time: County ladies raise money for Civil War troops
Editor’s note: As part of the nation’s 150-year anniversary of the Civil War, the Henry County Civil War Sesquicentennial Task Force will be publishing a monthly column, written by Henry County historians. The research for the articles comes from Henry County newspapers published between 1861-1865, as well as diaries, journals and letters written by Henry County Civil War soldiers and their families.
By JOY LYNN CONWELL
As spring arrived in Henry County in 1863, residents were seeing their wounded and disabled sons, fathers and brothers returning to the community. It motivated the women on the home front to take a more active role. It was not enough for the female students at Iowa Wesleyan University to roll bandages and ship them to the soldiers in the field or for the ladies of the community to aid Dr. Andrew W. McClure as he cared for the returning soldiers.
On Feb. 18, 1863, from Vicksburg, Miss., Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer addressed a letter to Mrs. Louise M. Marsh of Mt. Pleasant stating, “I appeal once more to the ladies of your town and the surrounding country for supplies for our sick, suffering soldiers. I will not enter into details, as your husband has returned home, and can give you all the information you desire. There is a fearful amount of sickness here, and unless our troops can be supplied with a greater variety in their food, their case will no doubt become more alarming. Stimulants and anti-scorbutics are greatly needed. Potatoes, onions, butter, eggs, krout, pickles, dried fruit, cranberries, condiments, toasted rusks, soda crackers, codfish, dried beef, molasses, cheese and any other article of food that will bear transportation. I will be in Mt. Pleasant in about 10 days for supplies. Let there be a hearty response to this call. As you value the lives of these men, -- as you value the success of our cause. — I beseech you in the name of humanity to put forth extraordinary efforts in this our time of need.”
Mrs. Marsh’s husband , of whom Mrs. Wittenmyer refers to in the letter was Charles F. Marsh. Marsh was just 21 years old when he enlisted as a hospital steward with the 25th Iowa Infantry. So impressive was Marsh’s work that just nine months after enlistment, he was commissioned as a regimental surgeon and Mrs. Wittenmyer worked with him at the Vicksburg Union hospital. When Sherman was detached from Grant’s army at Vicksburg, Sherman appointed Marsh to his personal staff and he accompanied Sherman on his March to the Sea campaign. After the war, Marsh completed medical studies at the University of Michigan in 1869 and returned to practice medicine in Mt. Pleasant for almost 20 years, before moving to Florida.
Mrs. Wittenmyer’s letter, in the meantime, accomplished its goal. The ladies of Mt. Pleasant mounted a campaign to collect the needed goods. This effort was just the beginning of a long-term effort to raise goods and money for the war by the women of Henry County.
Wittenmyer, a resident of Keokuk, became the first woman mentioned by name in Iowa legislative documents when she was appointed as a sanitary agent for the Iowa State Sanitary Commission. The purpose of the commission was to provide goods and services to help preserve the lives of Iowa soldiers. Serving on the commission at the time was the Rev. G. B. Jocelyn, pastor of Mt. Pleasant’s Methodist Episcopal Church.
The efforts of Henry County women to help provide supplies for Iowa soldiers during the Civil War have many times been overlooked. From collecting lint by scraping cotton cloth to growing and preserving fruits and vegetables to “waxing” eggs so a soldier could enjoy a fresh egg to sacrificing on the home front to provide necessary goods to sustain the life of a local soldier on a faraway battlefield, the women and children of Henry County did their part.
One of the more unique methods, used by cities and communities to raise money and goods for the Sanitary Commission, was to hold a fair. These “sanitary fairs” offered an entertaining and patriotic diversion from the agonies of the Civil War. Grand events, they served to raise more revenue than any comparable source, enabling commissions to buy medical supplies, improve sanitary conditions, establish field hospitals and care for wounded Union soldiers during and after the war.
In Iowa, the most noted sanitary fair was held in Dubuque and entitled, “The Northern Iowa Sanitary Fair.” The title belies the truth which was that it wasn’t all “northern Iowa,” Sixty-two of Iowa’s counties contributed to and participated in the fair. Twenty-four different railroads transported the goods which were to be auctioned or to be sent to the battle front absolutely free to Dubuque from all four corners of the state. The fair lasted eight days with over 2,500 people attending every day.
While the ladies of Keokuk donated a fine silver set which sold for $500 and Burlington ladies were noted for sending a “less expensive set,” the ladies of Henry County reflected their practicality by sending a shirt and a clothes-wringer as part of their auction donation. The most lively donation came in from the ladies of Clayton County—a hive of bees.
A “magnificent regimental flag” was donated by a St. Louis firm to go to the regiment receiving the highest number of votes at the fair. Votes sold at 50 cents each and on the last evening, as the time for closing the polls drew near the contest grew very exciting. The Fifth Iowa Cavalry was at first declared to be the winner, but a recount gave the flag to the Ninth Iowa Infantry by a single vote. This was of great excitement for Henry County residents as several local boys were part of the Ninth Iowa.
Among them were James Groves who later was a well-to-do lumber dealer in Mt. Pleasant. Warrington P. Howe enlisted at the age of 29 and was the son of Samuel L. Howe, founder of Howe’s Academy and publisher of an anti-slavery newspaper. Howe served not only in Company C of the Ninth Iowa Infantry but also Company H, 25th Iowa Infantry. Alfred C. Wood also served with the 9th Iowa Infantry and the 25th Iowa is buried beneath a Civil War tombstone in the Wayland Methodist Church Cemetery. Norman Seeley of Rome would never come home. He is buried in Andersonville National Cemetery, Grave 641.
Other Henry County soldiers who served in the 9th Iowa Infantry included William J. Bledsoe, Thomas Fox, John McManus, William Moore, James A. Shepherd, John M. Mason, Horatio M. Merrett, David E. Rummel, Joseph Soults, Joshua Steward, Adam Torrance, Isaac Walker, Francis Weaver and 18-year old Charles F. Stewart of Rome who was wounded in the arm on May 22, 1863, at Vicksburg and wounded again a year later at Dallas, Ga., only to survive and be mustered out on July 18, 1865, in Louisville, Ky.
The Civil War sanitary fairs represent one of the most successful democratic, humanitarian and philanthropic efforts in American history. The fairs raised millions of dollars for the medical and humanitarian care of Union soldiers during the Civil War and provided a way for civilians to contribute time, energy and money to show their support for the Union cause.