by Annie Wittmeyer.
Sanitary Agent of the State of Iowa during Civil War
IN October 1863, I came up from the hospitals in the front, to attend a sanitary convention at Muscatine, Iowa.
As I was legally commissioned the sanitary agent of the State by Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood, having been elected to that position by the Legislature of Iowa, my presence was greatly desired by the workers.
The convention was large and representative. But my own heart was greatly burdened with touching messages from dying soldiers to their wives and children. In the midst of the convention, I boldly announced my purpose to try to establish a home for soldiers' orphan children. The proposition was received with the wildest enthusiasm; and the convention took action at once, not only endorsing the movement but pledging financial support.
There was no precedent to follow, as there was no institution of the kind in all the world.
I was elected president of "The Orphans' Home Association," but declined, and Governor Stone, the newly elected governor of the State, was chosen. The ablest men and women of the State were brought into the organization, and the Home was duly opened in a rented house.
The house, although large, was soon crowded to overflowing, and we could get no larger building that would accommodate the hundreds who were applying for admission.
A committee sent out to search for more commodious quarters reported new, fine barracks on a piece of confiscated land of thirty acres, adjoining the town of Davenport.
The barracks were new and well-built and had cost $46,000.
The leading men of Iowa, as well as the women, were actively enlisted in the work.
Ex-Governor Kirkwood, and his private secretary, N. H. Brainard, Governor Stone, Judge Lowe, Judge Coles, Chaplain Ingalls, John Parvin, and many others whose names were a guaranty of honest and faithful work, were active.
I was selected to go to Washington and secure these barracks as a gift from the government, if possible. If I could not obtain them as a gift, I was authorized to offer $1,000 a year as rent for them. I protested strongly against being sent on such an important mission, but I was overruled and was obliged to accept the duty.
When I reached Washington, October 1865, I went to the surgeon-general's office, and made known my mission, and secured an official statement that those barracks would not be needed for hospital purposes. I want to say in this connection that Surgeon-General J. K. Barnes had always co-operated with me most heartily in all my work.
I then called on Quartermaster-General Meigs, the man who with such wonderful executive ability fed and clothed the great armies of the republic, furnishing quarters and equipment, and paid their wages with an honesty and fidelity that have never been questioned.
I had often met him before; and no one who ever saw him could forget his honest, rugged, but kindly face.
When I made known my mission, he looked surprised and pleased, and then said, -
"Well, now, that is certainly a good use to put these deserted barracks too."
"General," I said, "all I want you to do, is to say officially to the government that they will, not be needed for military purposes."
"They were never needed; they ought never to have been built. It was a waste of money."
"Then, General, you can certainly say they will not be needed for military purposes. Please say that officially."
He took up his pen and wrote out a statement, informing the government that the new cavalry barracks at Davenport, Ia., would not be needed for military purposes, "even if hostilities were resumed." His statement covered over two pages.
Thus armed, I went to the office of the Secretary of War.
I had become acquainted with Mr. Stanton under the most favorable circumstances.
The governor of Iowa had commended me to him, and early in 1862 obtained for me a general order for transportation of myself and supplies and rations. And later, when I called on him personally, I was the bearer of letters of introduction and commendation from some of his most influential and trusted friends.
Afterward, he always seemed glad to see me and graciously granted all my requests.
He was prompt and clear in all his business methods and was by far the best listener I have ever met. When I talked to him there was no need of repeating; he apprehended my meaning. When he talked, there was no room to misunderstand him. There was no fuss and bluster, or pretense, or attempt to show off himself or his authority, and that pleased me. I went, therefore, to his office with great hope and courage. When I asked to see the Secretary of War, a young, jolly-looking officer came forward and asked, -
"What can I do for you, madam?"
"I wish to see Mr. Stanton."
Stanton is in Boston. I am Major Eccles, acting Secretary of War, and will attend to any business you may have to transact."
I informed him as to my mission. He laughed heartily.
"That, madam, is a little beyond my prerogative. I don't feel authorized to give away the property of the government."
I put myself at once in telegraphic communication with Mr. Stanton. He asked some questions as to the legal status of the institution, and that was all I heard that day.
The next morning I took another requisition to the War Department. It was for hospital supplies. I distinctly remember the first few items, 1,800 blankets; 2,500 sheets; 3,000 pillow-cases; 1,500 pillows, and so on, till everything I could remember that could be of use to the Home were enumerated.
When I handed the document to Major Eccles, I said, -
"Here is a small requisition I should like to go in with the application for the property."
"This is a small requisition," and he laughed heartily as he read the list aloud.
"Yes, sir," I said with great gravity. "This is a small requisition; but with the help of the generous people of Iowa, I hope we shall be able to get along with that."
"Now seriously, on what grounds have you a right to ask these supplies from the government?"
"Well, sir, I call your attention to the fact, that at the beginning of the war the government had very few hospital supplies. The loyal people of the North helped to fit them up. The loyal State of Iowa sent nearly $200,000 worth of supplies into the military hospitals. Now, all I ask is that you give us back a few of the supplies that we gave you, as you no longer need them."
"You are certainly entitled to them. I will do what I can to get this through."
The Iowa delegation at Washington, and the officers in the War Department, including Major Eccles, became greatly interested, and anxious that Secretary Stanton's answer should be favorable.
When the answer came it was: -
"Will you accept the property subject to the approval of Congress?"
I flashed back my answer as quickly as possible:-
"Yes; and will get the bill through without annoyance to you."
As I was obliged to leave the War Department before an answer came, Major Eccles drove up to the house of my friend, where I was stopping, with the telegraphic order, turning over the property to the Association. The gift of the barracks and the hospital supplies aggregated $52,000.
I was lifted to the clouds, figuratively speaking, and rushed to the telegraph-office, and sent off dispatches to the newspapers in Iowa. The next morning all the leading papers in Iowa appeared with great headlines announcing the magnificent gift.
Before Congress met we had bought out the heirs of the confiscated property, remodeled and plastered the buildings, and had nearly five hundred soldiers' orphan children comfortably housed there.
Hon. Hiram Price, a member of Congress from the Davenport District, took charge of our bill and carried it through Congress without annoyance to Mr. Stanton.
The fact that we had possession, and were housing and supporting so many soldiers' orphan children in these barracks, made opposition almost impossible.
With this valuable property in our possession, it was an easy task to induce the State Legislature to take this burden off our hands and make it a State institution. The frame barracks have been replaced by substantial brick buildings, but the Home is still conducted on the cottage plan and is one of the finest institutions of the State.
Edwin M. Stanton's generous action in giving this timely help to a weak society secured the success of a worthy institution that has educated and sent out thousands of children to be good and useful citizens.
Mr. Stanton was one of the strong, true, honest men who made Mr. Lincoln's administration a success. He was intensely loyal and intolerant to treason and self-seeking, and he made traitors tremble on both sides of the line. He was, more than any other man, the balance-wheel in the complicated machinery of the government which held and regulated its internal workings.
He was a clear and close thinker, a keen and sagacious discerner of human motives, a tireless worker, and was too open and frank to conceal his opinions of men and things.
Too unselfish to enrich himself, he toiled on, literally killing himself at work, and dying poor. When passion and prejudice have passed away he will receive his full meed of praise.
Reprinted from - Under the Gun, by Annie Wittenmeyer. 1900
Reprinted from - Under the Gun, by Annie Wittenmeyer. 1900