A Brief Sketch of the WRC

           by Kate Sherwood, – July 26, 1883

The work of American women in the great war for the preservation of the Union was that of relief.  Relief on the battlefield and in the hospitals for the wounded and the sick; relief, in homes provided for them, of the wives and children of the soldiers at the front, as well as for the widows and orphans of those who went forth never to return.

Soldiers’ Aid Societies were organized from New England to the Farthest West which were, in turn, the great sources of supply of the government for the collection and distribution of hospital and sanitary supplies.  Millions of dollars were raised and expended and thousands of lives saved through the direct agency of the patriotic, loyal women of the North in the four years of our great struggle.

With the disbandment of our armies followed the dissolution of our Christian and Sanitary Commissions and the formal closing of the busy workrooms of our Soldiers’ Aid Societies.  Our returned heroes were received with joyful acclaim and with the full confidence that the country which they had saved with their blood would fulfill its promise to reward their glorious deeds and provide for their necessities, should they sicken and fall by the way.

A decade passed by; a financial crisis was on the country; sickness and old wounds and lack of work and bitter disappointments began to make cruel ravages in the veteran ranks.  Hundreds of orphans cried for bread; hundred of women in widows’ weeds went about the streets seeking work in the name of soldier husbands, and there was none.  Where, then, would the veterans turn for help but to the loyal women of America – the women who stood by them in a harder fight!

The Grand Army of the Republic, organized at the close of the war to promote the great principles of Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty, had been doing its utmost to aid and comfort their unfortunate comrades; but the organization was small in numbers and had no sources of replenishment for the steady drains upon its treasury.  Then it was that the loyal women answered again, “Here am I!” to the call of the men who saved the nation.  Almost simultaneously Massachusetts and Ohio took up the line of advance – the former under the name of the Woman’s Relief Corps, the latter that of Post Ladies’ Aid Society. This grand movement began in the year 1878-79, and had grown more formidable in numbers and influence to the present time. These societies, which had extended through several states, together with several other local auxiliaries and leagues, united in 1883 in a National Association at Denver, CO., under the name of Woman’s Relief Corps, Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic.

The name Relief Corps was first used by a society at Portland, ME, organized by the Post in 1869 under the name of Bosworth Relief Corps. No 1, a society still in existence.  The next place we find it used is a Fitchburg, MA, February, 1879, when the Woman’s State Relief Corps Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic, was formed.  The call for this Convention was authorized by Gen. Horace Binney Sargent, department Commander of Massachusetts, Grand Army of the Republic, James F. Meech AAG year 1878-1879.  December 8, 1880, the State Relief Corps of Massachusetts and New Hampshire united to form the Union Board of the Woman’s Relief Corps.

In 1880-81, when Comrade J.F. Lovering, of Massachusetts, was Chaplain-in-Chief, Grand Army of the Republic, he used every endeavor to bring about a national union of the soldiers’ societies of the several States, and his correspondence upon this subject with Departments and Posts was extensive.  Through the personal efforts of Mrs. Sarah E. Fuller of East Boston, President of the Massachusetts Woman’s State Relief Corps, a resolution was introduced by Chaplain-In-Chief Lovering in the Fourteenth National Encampment, Grand Army of the Republic, in session at Indianapolis, July 1881, calling attention to the importance of an officially organized woman’s auxiliary.  A committee was appointed, consisting of J. F. Lovering, George Brown, and B. Crabbe, to consider the question and report at the Fifteenth Annual Encampment.  When the committee made their report, the following resolutions were presented and unanimously adopted:

Resolved, That we approved of the project of organizing a National Women’s Relief Corps

Resolved, That such Woman’s Relief Corps may use, under such titles, the words “Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic.”

This was in 1881; but it was not until 1883, when Paul Van der Voort was elected Commander-in-Chief, that the Grand Army took measures to put this resolution into effect.  Meanwhile, auxiliaries had been rapidly spreading and Posts everywhere were looking about for the best plans of organization for the noble women whom they had called to their assistance.

Commander-In-Chief, Van de Voort traveled extensively during the year of his administration, and the rapidity of recruiting which attended his efforts was largely owing to the fact that he earnestly enjoined upon all Posts the advantages of auxiliaries and the assistance and encouragement to be derived from them.  He called public attention to the work performed by the auxiliaries, and in General Orders referred inquiring Comrades to E. Florence Barker, Malden, MA; Sarah E. Fuller, East Boston, MA, and Lizabeth A Turner, Boston, MA, of the Massachusetts Woman’s Relief Corps.  Also, Kate Sherwood, Toldeo, OH; Emily Thornton Charles, Washington D.C.; Laura McNier, Camden NJ, and Mrs. M.A. Sawyer, Portland, ME, each of whom was the head of a distinct order, for instructions in forming auxiliaries.

Realizing the power of the Press, he enlisted the influence of The National Tribune, Washington D.C., circulating among the soldiers of every State and Territory, to aid in a National Union.  Through his recommendations Kate B. Sherwood was invited to contribute weekly to its columns concerning the aims and objects and methods of work of the soldiers’ auxiliary.  This was in the fall of 1882.  Correspondence was also invited from auxiliary workers in every State.

Early in 1883 Mrs. Sherwood assumed editorial control of the woman’s department of the Tribune, when her first work was to prepare and issue a series of questions to the several auxiliaries, the replies to which were published in the Tribune.  This preliminary interchange of opinions did much to prepare the way for and hasten the consummation of a National Union.

When Commander-In-Chief Van der Voort, in the spring of 1883, issued his call for the Denver Encampment, he invited the auxiliaries named, and others of the same character, to meet at Denver, July 25, 26 and form a National Association.  About fifty women were present besides the Denver society, embracing representatives of both secret and ritualistic and open work.  E. Florence Barker was elected chairman and Kate B. Sherwood secretary.

It was moved by Kate Sherwood, of Ohio, that we form a National Organization on the basis of Massachusetts work.  The motion was carried.  The votes were taken singly on secrecy and eligibility.  The majority voted for secret work and the admission of loyal women of good moral character, irrespective of relationship to the soldier.  The Name Ritual, Rules and Regulations, and Work, written and unwritten, of the Union Board Woman’s Relief Corps, Department of Massachusetts, were adopted.

A formal report of the organization of a Woman’s Relief Corps, in accordance with the resolution of the Fifteenth Annual Encampment, was made to the Encampment through Chaplain-in-Chief Foster, upon whose motion the following resolution was unanimously passed;

Resolved, That we cordially hail the organization of a National Woman’s Relief Corps, and extend our greeting to them. We return our warmest thanks to the loyal women of the land for their earnest support and encouragement, and bid them God speed in their patriotic work.

Later, the newly organized Woman’s Relief Corps was received into the Encampment and the officers introduced from the platform.  They were cordially welcomed by the officer in command and other distinguished comrades, including Past Commander–in Chief John A. Logan, the staunch friend from first to last of woman’s work for the soldier.

Kate B Sherwood, Canton Ohio, Secretary, Organizing Convention, July 26, 1883