by Patricia A. Lynch, West Side Soldiers Aid Society, Inc.
When he signed legislation creating the concept of a national soldiers' home, President Abraham Lincoln was not, as many believe, inspired by the ladies of Milwaukee. And by the time Milwaukee was chosen as the location for the Northwestern Branch of the National Military Asylum, the President lay cold in his tomb.
The first Soldiers' Home
in Wisconsin was established to serve Wisconsin's Union soldiers. It was a local, not a national initiative. Of course, the Lady Managers of the Home turned no one away. Over the course of the war they served close to 31,000 soldiers, many from outside Wisconsin, including a number of Confederate prisoners from Camp Douglas who took the Oath of Allegiance to the Union. The Annual Report of the Wisconsin Soldiers' Home to the State of Wisconsin
stated that during year ending April 15, 1865, 4,842 had been received by the Home.
The spirit of the women's enterprise - echoed around the nation - was aptly captured by the President when he signed the National Home legislation on March 3, 1865, and when he delivered his Second Inaugural Address
on March 4, 1865, calling the nation to "care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan."
Lincoln did speak at the Wisconsin State Fair
in 1859, but wartime correspondence with the President from anyone connected with the Soldiers' Home movement is scant. The Wisconsin Historical Society archives contains a letter supporting the Emancipation Proclamation by members of Spring Street Church
, many of whom were members of the West Side Soldiers' Aid Society and Milwaukee Soldiers' Home. After Lincoln's death, local businessmen made an an appeal for presidential artifacts for the Milwaukee Soldiers' Home Fair. Several, including one of the flags from Ford's theater and a blood-stained bandage, drew crowds during the Fair's extended run, June-July 1865.
In 1866 the Ladies' were "persuaded" to support the national effort. Patrick Kelly in Creating a National Home: Building the Veterans Welfare State, 1860-1900
The politicization of veterans' care had profound implications for the plans of the female benevolent workers in Milwaukee...They argued that the people of Wisconsin donated money to assist volunteers from that state, and that handing over this money to a national asylum would betray the trust shown in their organization. They also voiced suspicion over the kind of care that would be offered to soldiers in a federal institution. One cannot help speculating, however, that the Lady Managers' reluctance to lose the place veterans' care afforded women in the public sphere was an important factor underlying their unwillingness to agree to [local politician and National Board member George] Walker's arrangement. (pp. 85-86)
Kelly gives credit for the National Asylum concept to pressure from New York's Convention of Soldiers' and Sailors' State Union League. (p. 79) Apart from the President's endorsement of the original legislation, most of the activity on the National Asylum occurred after his death.
The following synopsis by Karen Hubbard is from the National Register of Historic Places nomination
Even with the establishment of the National Asylum by law in 1865, the institution experienced difficulties in being realized. The original corporation charged with its organization could not secure a quorum after a year in existence. In March 1866, new legislation replaced the 100-member corporation with a twelve-member board of managers.…
The Board of Managers of the National Asylum met for the first time in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 1866. The principal concern of the board was the selection of sites for the three branches of the national institution, based on geographic distribution. They established criteria for site evaluation: a healthy site with fresh air and ample water supply, located 3 to 5 miles from a city on a tract of at least 200 acres, connected to the city by a railroad. The Board issued a bulletin to newspapers and to governors of the northern states requesting proposals for sites to be donated or sold for the purpose of erecting branches. Proposals were due by June 20,1866, with all sites to have been inspected by a member of the board before July 12. In addition, the Board advertised for plans, specifications, and estimates for the construction of asylum buildings.
In the second meeting of the Board in July 1866, George Walker of Milwaukee presented a letter from the Lady Managers of the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home offering $100,000 to the Board as a donation for locating a branch of the National Asylum in Milwaukee. Colonel Walker had made the offer of the Lady Managers’ donation of the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home funds and property to the Board of Managers of the National Asylum in July 1866. This action had been preceded by difficult negotiations in Milwaukee in June 1866, between the Lady Managers and the all-male Executive Committee of the Soldiers’ Home Society. The women rejected Walker’s proposal, arguing that they had worked to raise funds specifically for a Wisconsin home for soldiers, and that they already had a site and had purchased building material. The men of the Executive Committee argued that more soldiers would be helped through a national asylum; subsequently, the Lady Managers accepted the decision of the Executive Committee and Colonel Walker was authorized to make his offer to the Board of Managers.
At the September 6, 1866, meeting of the Board, the managers accepted propositions for the purchase of a bankrupt resort at Togus, Maine, as the site for the Eastern Branch; the investigation of sites for the Central Branch in Ohio; and the inspection of sites in Milwaukee for the Northwestern Branch.
Colonel Walker died before the December 1866, meeting of the Board, and was replaced by Dr. Erastus B. Wolcott of Milwaukee. At the December 7, 1866, meeting of the Board, the Executive Committee announced its approval of locating a branch in Milwaukee. The committee was directed by the Board to return to Milwaukee to purchase a site and to make arrangements for the construction of asylum buildings and the transfer of veterans currently housed in the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home in Milwaukee, operated by the Lady Managers of the Home Society. By the April 4, 1867, Board meeting, a 400-acre tract west of Milwaukee had been purchased from “Messrs. Tweedy, Mitchell & Co.” for $77,00018. The Tweedy and Mitchell site had existing farm buildings to which the first members were relocated from the Wisconsin Soldiers’ Home on May 1, 1867.