In December 1863 residents in Springfield and Jacksonville, among other Illinois towns, collected and distributed stocks of food, clothing and, perhaps most important, firewood to needy families of men in the military service.
Early aid for soldiers’ families
In the early rush of patriotism after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 officials in many Illinois counties appropriated funds to assist “deserving” soldiers’ families, whose main breadwinners served in the military. In April and May alone counties offering such aid included Winnebago ($10,000), La Salle ($10,000), Whiteside ($20,000), Will ($5,000), Grundy, Peoria, Knox, and Jasper. The city of Pekin (Tazewell County) made $1,000 available to the families of hometown boys.
When it became clear in 1861 that the war would last more than a few months and involve more than short-term hardship for men who had entered the U.S. army and navy, local officials began to really grapple with the issue of financial help for military families. The private soldier’s pay of $13 per month was, for most, a severe cut in income. Some extended their early policies of aid. In September 1861 Will County appropriated more money, helping families in need with monthly payments of $1.25 to female heads of families and 50c per child under twelve years. At the same time Jasper County officials rescinded their earlier plan of special aid, instead calling on the needy to seek help through the state’s prewar laws on poor relief.
A long slog
A full year later, in the fall of 1862, family aid grew as a topic of concern and argument among Illinois citizens. Poor military pay (it was not until 1864 that privates received a raise to $16 per month) and high wartime inflation brought many families to the point of destitution. Counties differed as to the proper source of assistance-local government or the private sector. Several continued their earlier efforts, though they were seen by some as being entirely inadequate. A citizen of Geneseo (Henry County) complained in a public letter that a mother and five children received only $6 per month in aid. “Is this,” he asked, “the feast their families were invited to last summer, when you and I were urging the husband and father of these families to enlist in the Union army?”
At about the same time the McDonough county board called on town meetings to discuss the matter. The result was reported as 113 in support of an aid appropriation, 918 opposed. Citizens opted for aid to soldiers’ families through private donations. A county historian wrote in 1878 that although it was “impossible to get the county to do anything in an official way for the relief of soldiers’ families, many, as private citizens, thought it not only a duty but a blessed privilege to render all the aid in their power. During the entire four years of war, we think but little actual suffering was experienced by any at home on account of the absence of their natural protectors….” McDonough County was hardly alone in making that choice. An official postwar report indicated that only 31 of Illinois’ 102 counties provided any public funds to assist needy military families.
Private relief became, in many towns, the special mission of newly formed organizations such as Springfield’s Ladies’ Loyal League. “In looking around for a field of operations,” the group announced, “one opened to us at the very outset. In our midst were many families of those who, having patriotically offered themselves upon the altar of their country, had been compelled to leave those dependent upon them, illy provided to carry on ‘the battle of life’….” In June 1864 the ladies proudly reported that about 75 families had been aided and called for continuing help from the public and prayed “May it be said of each of us, ‘She has done what she could.'”
Springfield saw perhaps its largest single distribution of aid to soldiers’ families in December 1863. At Thanksgiving a call went out to the city’s ladies to donate any “second-hand clothing, such as coats, vests, pants, shirts, dresses, etc., which can be worked up for children’s wear…. It will not do for our citizens who have food and raiment and a shelter, to fold their arms and say that the city may take care of its poor. We owe a duty, as individuals, to the families of those men who have left all that we hold dear to fight the battles of our country….” The local paper soon called upon the city’s commercial and financial leaders to take part as well, predicting that “every merchant, banker, tradesman and dealer, who can carry a bundle or package, shall appear at the Rotunda of the State House… with a huge load of dry goods, groceries, or the equivalent in legal tender.”
The most important donations were of firewood, a particularly expensive commodity that winter. Springfield’s efforts along that line, it seems, were spurred along by the example of Jacksonville residents, who had donated to families in their town 160 wagonloads. By December 14 over 93 loads of firewood had been received at the yard of the state capitol. Local farmers were especially praised for their efforts given the terrible conditions of the roads, and the local press published a roster of those who made donations to the good cause.
Through to the end
Efforts to aid soldiers’ families, whether through the effort of local government or private action, continued to war’s end. Strawberry parties and other entertainments raised cash. More ceremonial “processions” brought donated firewood to heat homes. More calls were made for government action. A Pike County newspaper commented that while private efforts were noble the amounts raised “cannot be relied on as a permanent means of relief” and called for the levying of a county tax. At the same time Governor Yates called for a statewide tax that would touch all residents of Illinois (including-perhaps especially- those who did not support the war effort) to fund family relief efforts. No action was taken. Private action continued to fill the gap, even where county funds assisted soldiers’ families. Among others, Springfield’s Loyal League held socials in each of the city’s ward to the end of 1865. Through the early months of the peace the imperative remained: “Let all resolve to do something to gladden the hearts of soldiers’ families, as some slight expression of their gratitude to the men who have periled their lives in defence of the Union.”
Interested in learning more?
The postwar report showing the amounts paid by counties and towns to aid needy soldiers’ families can be found on pages 198-209 at http://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.3343300697776