The opening of war with the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 found the northern states woefully unprepared for a military conflict. As the federal and state governments struggled to arm and equip the men who rallied to the flag, local governments and civilian groups worked quickly to aid their husbands, sons, and brothers who had enlisted in the service. These were the first steps in creating soldier-aid services that would provide crucial support through four years of war.
Creating a military look
In the first weeks of the war most efforts to support local troops took the form of creating uniforms. Many county board meetings in April and May appropriated funds to reimburse such projects. Carroll County authorized $5,000 for military clothing, while Stark County offered up to $3,000 at the rate of $6 per uniform. While some towns ordered uniforms from tailors or wholesale houses, located mostly in Chicago, many created the clothing locally. Several Illinois newspapers described how community merchants supplied the cloth (often at cost) and tailors did the cutting, after which the pieces of fabric were parceled out to women who did the actual assembling and sewing, sometimes in improvised sewing shops but more often in their own homes. In some cases the uniforms produced were simply trousers and a decorative shirt. More often they included uniform jackets patterned on those of the U.S. army or a militia organization. This resulted in many early Illinois outfits wearing uniforms of the grey color that would later be associated with their Confederate enemies.
An important event in the life of many military companies was the presentation, usually just before its departure from town, of a United States flag. It appears that until at least early 1862 Illinois units carried only flags made by women of the town or purchased from a supplier located in one of the state’s larger cities, such as Chicago or Peoria. No matter what their origin, soldiers saw their flags as a special link to their home communities and promised to return them, stained perhaps with battle smoke and blood but untouched by the hands of traitors.
For families left behind
When county officials voted funds to supply local volunteers with proper military uniforms most also made another appropriation to be used in providing financial support to the families of soldiers. The amounts of such appropriations ranged from $5,000 to $10,000, while the city of Pekin (Tazewell) authorized $1,000. The Will County board set benefit rates at $1.25 per month for a woman heading a family and 50c per month for a child under the age of 12. In the first glow of patriotism such payments were largely welcomed, and in most counties they continued to be made through the war. Later, at least some dissatisfaction was felt over special public benefits being provided to needy wives and children of soldiers. Early on Jasper County appropriated a special fund to assist soldiers’ families but soon reverted to the standard prewar system of support for paupers.
An ongoing, organized effort begins
By the fall of 1861 the reality had begun to sink in that the war would not end with a few decisive battles. One response was the formation of permanent organizations to provide local servicemen with needed items that the army did not or could not provide. On April 20 those meeting at the Lee County courthouse in Dixon formed the Lee County Volunteer Aid Association, but this seems to have been unusual during the war’s first weeks. The fall months, however, saw such groups organizing in towns across the state, including Galena (Jo Daviess), Galesburg (Knox), Middleport (Iroquois), Salem (Marion), Sterling (Whiteside), Toulon (Stark), and Wyoming (Stark).
The experience many Illinoisans had with religious and other organizations likely made soldier-aid societies seem the obvious answer to the complaints of hometown soldiers regarding food and shortages of medical supplies. The new groups just formalized efforts that had been improvised a few months before. For months they would periodically ship Illinois state arsenalboxes of goods direct to their friends in camp, sometimes accompanied by a local civic leader who returned with a first-hand account of how the boys were doing.
Women performed much of the labor. They knitted socks and mittens, sewed clothing for hospital use, and prepared foods that supplemented the army basics of salted beef or pork, beans, hard bread, and coffee. It seems that in these early days the feeling was one of excitement and rather lighthearted. The women of Middleport, however, apparently realized that their men were involved in the business of killing. In November they issued a public appeal that called especially for mittens “knit with one finger, so as to give free use of the index finger of the hand.”
Interested in learning more?
Newspapers are the best source for learning about community efforts to support the troops. Many Illinois libraries hold copies of local newspapers of the period. Microfilm copies of many Illinois newspapers may be borrowed via interlibrary loan from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. The catalog of holdings can be found at: http://www.illinoishistory.gov/lib/newspaper.htm