In the 1866 two-volume work "The Patriotism of Illinois. A Record of the Civil and Military History of the State in the War for the Union," author T.M. Eddy, wrote:
“It is now impossible to narrate the services of the women of Illinois during the war, for they were in great part so unostentatious and silent that they were not made matter of record. In the beginning of the war they fostered the spirit of patriotism; their husbands, brothers and betrothed were not only given up but were encouraged to enter the service of their country. Of course such sacrifices were not made without effort and great sorrow...
Patriotic women made that influence auxiliary to the support of the nation in its struggle. It was there the patriotic song was invariably heard; the tone of conversation was unmistakably earnest and showed that whatever it might cost, the mothers of this nation demanded a country one and indissoluble; a country undivided, a flag with no stain of dishonor...
Our women took a religious view of the war from the outset, and relied much upon religious influences. Convictions of religious duty led them to the sacrifices which they cheerfully endured. It led them to the hospitals where the wounded were in need of their care, and with a tenderness which no man can imitate they discharged the laborious duties of hospital nurses — not as hirelings but unpaid. Kneeling beside many a cot they whispered in the ears of the dying the "words of life,” sang them the holy songs of home and committed the parting spirit to the Redeemer's tender care! Their names are unwritten in our histories, but their witness is above, their record is on high.”
If Eddy had given specific examples to support his statements he could have used the names of Effingham County women. For instance, when a soldier from Watson, Sergeant W.M. Abraham, was wounded at Stone River, Tennessee, on December 31, 1862, his mother, Martha Abraham, traveled to Murfreesboro to care for him. Unfortunately, she became ill and died. Anna Wilson from Effingham had a related story: Carrying a small caliber pistol for personal protection, she visited her husband, Capt. John L. Wilson, 21st Illinois Infantry Regiment, on the battlefield.
Area farmers could have provided descriptions for the Eddy book, as well. They would have told how when Fort Sumter was fired upon at the beginning of the Civil War, a strong feeling of nationalism arose among the farmers. When so many of the men went to war, their wives and daughters worked all day in the blazing sun doing what had been their husbands' farm work. These women were also helping preserve the Union.
During the 1890’s, Effingham’s Mary Newcomb wrote about her Civil War experience: “The ladies were organizing for sanitary work. They wished me to join them; but if I worked for the army it must be where the men were, and where I could do the most good. I would rather cook for the sick than scrape lint and make shirts and bandages for the wounded. . . .
“The Christian Commission of Chicago, which afterward became so efficient, had only just begun operations. There were a great many women at work at home; but it was necessary for some to go to the seat of war and be ready to go on the field. I received letters from officers and privates asking me to come and be near them; they seemed to think that a battle would take place soon.”
After the costly battle of Shiloh, “Mother” Newcomb wrote:
“The dead and dying lay so thick that we might have walked a mile with every step on a dead body. . . We filled our buckets with water from the springs and gave the thirsty men. We tore our aprons in little squares, filled them with grass and leaves and stopped some gaping wounds that were bleeding. We made bandages from our garments and bound up shattered limbs. Meanwhile the ambulances were busy carrying the men to the old house on the hill where the knife and saw could do their work.” Because of her devotion to the soldiers, at the W.R.C.’s eighth annual convention in Boston, the group honored the Civil War nurses, including Mary Newcomb and Elliottstown’s Harriet Clough among the honorees.
Not only did Effingham County women play a vital role during the tragic conflict, when the time for healing and rebuilding a nation came in the aftermath of the Civil War, those same women continued playing a vital role as citizens by participating in a nation-wide effort named “The Woman’s Relief Corps,” a group nationally-chartered on July 25 and 26, 1883, as the auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic. This group of patriots had the mission of perpetuating the memory of those soldiers who participated in, often dying, in the American Civil War. Another part of the mission was to provide assistance to veterans of all wars and to extend help to widows and orphans to the families of veterans who gave their lives for freedom. The women in the group, from the beginning, wanted to instill lessons of patriotism and love of country to all citizens, especially to the children. When the WRC was organized in Illinois on January 30, 1884, it furthered those purposes.
The requirements for membership in the Corps were really quite simple. One had to be a woman at least 16 years of age and of “good moral character and correct deportment.” She had to be someone who had “not given aid and comfort to the enemies of the Union,” and who “would perpetuate the principles to which (the) association stands pledged.” There was no requirement that the woman had to be related to a G.A.R. member.
An applicant simply completed a form, then paid a fee. Two members had to recommend the applicant be approved. The membership took a vote to approve or deny. If denied, the person had to wait six months before applying again.
Locally, Jennie J. Wood was the effective leader in the establishment of the organization. Known as “the Mother of the Woman’s Relief Corps” in Effingham, Mrs. Wood participated in local, regional, and national activities of the group through the years. At her funeral due to gratitude for her service an “immense amount of flowers presented by Effingham attorneys, the Relief Corps and other societies of the city were simply grand.”
By 1903, she was the District President of the W.R.C. and attended the district convention at Olney where the group honored veterans of both the Civil War and of the Spanish-American War. Her husband, Benson Wood, was the chief speaker at the event.
In 1912, Mrs. Wood was listed on the Woman’s Relief Corps’ Roll of Honor as being part of a select group who had recruited six or more members for the Corps during 1911-1912 time period.
Jennie had been a delegate from the local Corps at all national encampments and reunions. Because those gatherings were in conjunction with the national encampments of the G.A.R., she and her husband traveled together to San Francisco(1903), Minneapolis(1906), Saratoga Springs, N.Y(1907), Salt Lake City(1909), Atlantic City (1910), Rochester, N.Y.(1911), Los Angeles(1912), Chattanooga(1913), and Detroit(1914). They were planning to attend the 1915 Washington, D.C. encampment at which she was to be a delegate; however, due to Benson Wood’s death that year, they did not do so. Her husband’s death also marked her withdrawal from active participation in the W.R.C.
All ladies in the Corps, once initiated, began participating in the regularly scheduled local meetings. Typical of those gatherings was one held in April of 1930 at the home of Mrs. Warren Broom on East Jefferson Street in Effingham. Twenty-eight people attended the meeting, including out-of-town guests and a member of the local G.A.R. The program included the following: In the hostess’s home, decorated in patriotic colors with cut flowers and ferns throughout the rooms, the group sang patriotic songs, listened to a presentation about the songs and their origin, along with a special reading by one of the members, then were served refreshments adorned with patriotic colors.
Sometimes, the Effingham WRC participated in special meetings meant to encourage patriotism and pride in country. In the aftermath of the death of Woodrow Wilson, for instance, a memorial service was held at the Opera House in Effingham. Although the American Legion Post 120 had charge of the services both the G.A.R. Post and the Woman’s Relief Corps played prominent roles as they each attended the impressive service as a group.
The WRC also attended other events as a group, especially, funerals where they sometimes served as officiants. One such example occurred April 5, 1902, when the WRC members conducted the funeral rites for Susanna Spurlin at Beecher City.
Another example was the 1892 service for Corps’ member Kate Clutter. A newspaper clipping of that event describes the role of the Corps: “The remains were brought to Effingham Friday, the funeral taking place from the Presbyterian Church Sunday at half-past ten o'clock in the forenoon. In the presence of a congregation of bereaved friends that filled the large edifice Rev. Van Duyn, the former pastor of the church, delivered an eloquent and impressive sermon, after which the Ladles Relief Corps, of which the deceased had been a member, took charge of the remains.” Kate was buried at Effingham’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.
Mrs. Clutter had a quite interesting life story. She had grown up in Washington, D.C. and lived there during the tragic and turbulent time of the American Civil War. According to her obituary she “had the proud distinction of an intimate personal acquaintance with President Lincoln and his wife and their favorite child "Little Tad." For many months she was an almost constant inmate of the White House, while her husband was on detached duty, and she became a great favorite of "Little Tad."
The Woman’s Relief Corps marked the deaths of all area Civil War veterans by placing a grave marker on each grave. Sometimes, the group placed larger symbols in cemeteries; for instance, at a main entry into Oak Ridge Cemetery, a prominent monument was placed to honor those soldiers who had fought during the Civil War. Those visible markers are still in place as reminders of great work performed by Effingham County women as they encouraged a spirit of patriotism during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Effingham County Museum intends to preserve the wonderful heritage of the spirit demonstrated by the Mary Newcombs, the Martha Abrahams, the Anna Wilsons, and so many other local women in their devotion to a country conceived in the idea that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. . . .” Devotion to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence is not only fundamental to the national heritage; it is fundamental to Effingham County’s heritage, as well.