The Ladies Union Relief Society

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By Jane Malone

Women on the home front worked hard during the Civil War. They kept the farms going, the stores open, and the home fires burning. From 1861 to 1865, the women of the North also provided significant supplies for the troops in camps and hospitals. These women, working in volunteer groups, supported ordinary soldiers in ways that are often forgotten. One group, the Ladies Union Relief Society, worked diligently in Gettysburg from 1861 to 1864. They named their group after similar groups forming in the country at the same time.

Rebecca Eyster, principal of Eyster’s Female Academy, called the first meeting to order on May 7, 1861 at the Methodist Church on East Middle Street. The Society’s first decision was to establish the organization’s goals. The group’s stated purpose was to provide Gettysburg boys in the Union army with clothing and other things they might need during their time of service. The women decided to work individually in their homes. Over the next three days, they produced 77 flannel shirts that were boxed and shipped to York. Over the next six months, they produced more than $200 worth of items. 

The Gettysburg ladies would have continued making items only for local boys, but in October 1861 the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private organization tasked with overseeing care of Union soldiers, launched an appeal. The Commission asked the “loyal women of America” to contribute to the comforts of the men in service by making and shipping specific items to selected cities. The government did not have all the resources it needed to care for its fighting men. The ladies of the Gettysburg group widened their focus to include the national army. They looked at the lists of needed items published in the local newspapers and began to work.

The Commission asked for donations of woolen and cotton socks, single bed blankets, quilts, clothing for bedridden men, underwear, small pillows, cushions for wounded limbs, splints, light chairs, and cereals, cocoa, condensed milk, jellies, and books. By November 1861, the list grew to include towels, lint, bandages, compresses, and bundles of new or used muslin and linen. Dried and canned fruits, wine, and fruit butter were also requested. Each community chose collection points and established shipping dates. The collection point in Gettysburg was the office of a local newspaper, the Adams Sentinel.

Eyster soon returned to her duties as school principal and Harriet Harper took her place at the November 1861 meeting. Packages were sent from Gettysburg each month from October 1861 to January 1862. Monthly shipments resumed in June 1862 and continued until September. They began again in February 1863 and continued until June. In July 1863, the flow of aid reversed as Gettysburgians dealt with the wounded of their own battle.

The women of Gettysburg did not disengage from the war after July, but they needed recovery time. Outbound shipments did not resume until April 1864.   

In 1864, the U.S. Sanitary Commission began raising money to purchase needed items for hospitals by holding great Sanitary Fairs. The women of Gettysburg were asked to make unique donations. Local newspapers published this appeal: “The ladies are especially solicited to prepare all kinds of needlework and anything else that can be converted by sale into money. They are also earnestly solicited to prepare articles from the mosses, grass, ferns, pines, etc. taken from the Gettysburg battlefield to send to the fair for sale.” 

The Ladies Union Relief Society went to work. This was their last major effort in Gettysburg. Other new aid societies focused local efforts on raising money to help the boys.

Members of the Ladies Union Relief Society of Gettysburg received no honors or awards, but that was all right. The ladies always, and only, worked to help Union boys in need.      

Jane Malone is a Gettysburg Licensed Town Historian. To learn more, visit www.gblth.com.        

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