In April 1864 construction began in Springfield on what would be called a “soldiers’ home.” One of four such major facilities in Illinois, the home provided individual soldiers in transit between their home and the front line with a short-term place of rest, refreshment, and care.
Meeting a need
As the war ground on into 1862 civilians—especially those living near significant military posts and major rail junctions—noticed that large numbers of soldiers on the road in Illinois suffered in their journey. Many were physically fit but without money due to a notoriously inefficient system for paying troops. Others were ill, some of them seriously so. Local efforts soon began to help these warriors. Most of the support came at the local level, though soldiers’ homes in Chicago and Cairo were supported by the regional Northwestern Sanitary Commission.
Located at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and serving as the southern terminus of the Illinois Central Railroad, Cairo saw one of the first and largest concentrations of Illinois troops in the early days of the war. It continued to serve as a north-south transportation hub for the whole of the war. Tens of thousands of troops passed through the city.
The Chicago branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission opened a thirty-bed soldiers’ home in March 1862, suing a building formerly used by the army quartermaster department. It was recalled that its only desirable feature was “that of being located conveniently near to the railroad depot and steamboat landing.” It soon served 50 to 500 meals every day.
Need soon outstripped the home’s resources. Buildings were quickly added to operation, but never quite satisfied the demand. In late 1863 construction of a completely new building began. It opened on February 1, 1864. The dining area could accommodate two hundred at a seating. Special rooms were set aside for the use of women visiting the sickbeds (or graves) of their husbands, and for army nurses traveling to and from the front. During the nine months the home operated in 1864 over 98,000 men were admitted.
A hospital facility caring for men become too ill to travel was an important part of the Cairo home. At the beginning of February 1865 military officials ordered that healthy soldiers in transit make use of a new, separate “Soldiers’ Rest,” leaving the whole of the soldiers’ home building to be used for hospital patients. In the next nine months over 48,000 sick men received treatment before being placed on trains for the north.
By its close on October 1, 1865, the Cairo home had hosted 198,000 men, and served over 476,000 meals. One hundred forty one thousand men had enjoyed overnight accommodation. The Northwestern Sanitary Commission had provided over $14,000 in support at a time when army privates received $13 or $16 per month in pay.
The story Centralia home provides a fine example of local activism in wartime Illinois. Centralia was the junction of the northern branches of the Illinois Central Railroad that ended at Chicago and Dunleith and the home to major repair shops. Thousands of troops moved to the front over the line, funneled to staging points near Cairo at the state’s southern tip. Soon, ill and furloughed soldiers began to follow a reverse route to return to their homes.
Many ill soldiers were soon found in Centralia, some of them put off of trains because they were thought too sick to continue on their way. Residents in early 1863 formed a soldiers’ aid society to provide them with at least some care. Operations began at the railroad station and a local hotel, but the women managers soon became convinced of the need for a larger facility.
Support for the new home came in multiple forms. Perhaps most important of all, local women provided care and comfort to patients. Donations of beds, cots, and all forms of bedding played an important role. Organizations and individuals across southern Illinois also responded to the call for preserved foods deemed suitable for men suffering from illness. Raising cash was also imperative in order to pay for food and other necessities. Some money was raised by such already time-honored means as benefit fairs, but most came as donations from individuals and aid groups in other towns.
Complete records for the Centralia home do not exist. We do know that on May 27, 1864, fifteen men received hospital care and that 195 men had stopped at the home by the end of June. Of those fifteen had died in spite of the women’s efforts.
By the summer of 1864 the home had closed, the property it had used sold and returned to private use. The ladies of Centralia continued as they could to aid acutely ill soldiers “left on the Depot platform.” Though the home itself no longer existed, Centralians supported to war’s end efforts to aid soldiers with donations of cash, preserved foods, and medical supplies.
Early 1864 saw efforts to create a soldier’s home in downtown Springfield. The capital city was the junction of two major rail lines, the north-south Chicago, Alton & St. Louis and the east-west Great Western. As such it provided the transport hub for nearby Camp Butler, one of the state’s two largest permanent military processing camps. Numbers of in-transit soldiers with little to do often wandered the city, often to the discomfort of the
residents. Unlike the Centralia home, which catered to soldiers too ill to travel and was supported locally, the building that opened its doors on April 25 in Springfield provided food and rest to able-bodied men and received strong financial support from state and federal government entities. In fact, President Lincoln authorized the use of federal property as the building site.
Once constructed management of the home passed to the Springfield Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society. Formed in the summer of 1861, the society had collected and forwarded to the front and to Camp Butler huge stocks of food, and hospital and medical supplies. When pleas to the War Department for further assistance went unanswered the SAS issued public appeals for donations of food and cash.
The operation was a great success, perhaps too much so. The home’s capacity of 60 to 80 men was soon exceeded. On occasion hundreds of men arrived in a single day, expecting refreshment and a clean place to rest. Hundreds of men received meals even if they could not be provided a bed. One evening in July 1864 over forty Iowans took meals at the soldiers’ home but then moved to the statehouse (today the Old State Capitol State Historic Site) where they rested until meeting their train.
Spring of 1863 saw the first efforts of Chicagoans to establish a facility for use by soldiers in transit, led by the Y.M.C.A. and the Chicago branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. A June 9 meeting determined to establish a “temporary home” to assist sick, wounded, and destitute soldiers,” the whole to be managed by “the loyal women of Chicago.” Fundraising fairs soon made it possible to rent a building on Randolph Street, which opened for business on July 4. In the words of one observer, “The little building was always crowded.”
Overcrowding led to an expansion of the home in the fall of 1863. One building was to be set aside for the use of disabled soldiers, while another part of the complex served able-bodied individual troops moving through town on their way home or to the field of battle.
Fundraising continued with notable success. The permanent home for disabled soldiers was a beneficiary of the Chicago Northwestern Sanitary Fair of 1863. President Lincoln made the most spectacular donation to the cause—his original draft of the final Emancipation Proclamation. It was sold at the fair for $3,000. Copies of the document suitable for display were soon available for sale to benefit the home, which opened May 10, 1866. It remained in operation until late 1877 when financial difficulties resulted in its close. The residents were distributed among the new system of federally-operated homes for disabled soldiers.
Interested in learning more?
For more on Illinois wartime soldier homes see Glenna Schroeder-Lein, “‘Your work is truly a good one’: Illinoisans and Soldiers’ Home during the Civil War,” Journal of Illinois History 11:3 (Autumn 2009), found online at ht http://dig.lib.niu.edu/ISHS/ishs-1996summer/ishs-1996summer099.pdf For the Chicago Soldiers’ Rest and Soldiers’ Home see A. T. Andreas, History of Chicago from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (19=885), vol. 3, pp. 310-13.