"No soldier on the firing line gave more heroic service than she did." -- Ulysses S Grant
'To see the need, for her, was to see the remedy." --Lucy Sheldon Stewart
Sarah "Annie" Turner was born August 26, 1827 in Sandy Springs, Ohio. Unlike most parents of that time, the Turners believed that education was as important for girls as it was for boys, so Annie and her sister received as fine an education as their brothers, attending a select seminary for young ladies. Early on, Annie discovered that she had a talent for writing; one of her poems was published when she was twelve years old.
When she was twenty, Annie married William Wittenmyer, a much older merchant from a nearby town. From all accounts, their marriage was a happy one, despite the age difference. Both saw that there were opportunities to be found in the west, and in 1850, they decided to move to Keokuk, Iowa. In Keokuk, the Wittenmyers were contemporaries of people who would also become nationally well-known, such as Samuel Ryan Curtis, who would become Iowa's first major general during the Civil War, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a newspaperman who would become famous writing under the name Mark Twain.
Iowa had only recently become a state, and some things that were taken for granted in the east, such as public schools, were often not available. In Keokuk, only parents who were financially well off could afford to pay a private school to educate their children. Like her parents, Annie believed strongly that education was extremely important for everyone, rich or poor. Typically, she did not wait for someone else to remedy the situation. In March of 1853, she started a tuition-free school for underprivileged children. Classes were first held at her home, but so many children were enrolled by their grateful parents that the school was soon moved to a warehouse.
Influenced by Annie's example, both local citizens and visitors helped to support the school. One day, in a local bookstore, a visiting Chicago businessman overheard Annie charging thirty textbooks to her own account, because her students cold not afford them. He was so impressed with her generosity and determination that he paid for the books himself.
Annie also arranged a Sunday school class for the schoolchildren whose families did not attend church. By 1857, the Chatham Square Methodist Episcopal Church was built to house the regular congregation that had evolved from her Sunday school. Annie, still the poet, wrote several hymns to be sung during services, including 'A Wonderful Joy."
Life was not entirely happy for Annie during this time. Of her four children, only one, Charles Albert, lived past early childhood and William died, leaving Annie alone with a young son in a large house. A short time later, the country entered a war that would tear it apart, and put Annie's skills and personal convictions to the test.
During the Civil War, Keokuk was one of the centers for the Iowa war effort. Men traveled to the city to volunteer, and from there companies were assembled, supplied, and sent on their way. Many wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate, were taken to Keokuk for medical attention, and the army scrambled to provide enough hospital cots and nurses. Annie volunteered her time caring for the soldiers at the Estes House, a hotel that was converted into an army hospital. It was there that she first learned about the hardships that soldiers faced: bad food, filthy campsites, and worry for the loved ones whom they had left at home.
In 1861, the Keokuk Ladies' Soldiers' Aid Society was formed, and Annie became a very active member. It was fortunate that Annie's parents and sister, whose husband was a Union soldier, could move into Annie's house and take care of Charles Albert and Annie's business interests, because Annie was now constantly on the go. As corresponding secretary of the Society, she traveled to the Army camps and wrote long letters describing the conditions and needs of the Union soldiers, from blankets and decent food to nurses for the wounded and sick.
During one such visit, she was horrified to discover her own brother, David, lying in a makeshift hospital, ill with dysentery and typhoid fever, unable to eat the rotten food that was all that could be found for the patients. Annie wrote, "It was an inside view of hospitals that made me hate war as I had never known how to hate it before." The Society used her descriptions to encourage Iowans to donate what they could spare for the Union Army.
The local newspapers reported Annie's efforts, and her devotion encouraged other Iowa women to donate their time, money, and services. The Keokuk Society became the depository and forwarding agent for soldiers' aid societies all over Iowa. Annie distributed more than $150,000 worth of supplies, still making her trips into the field to see what was needed, regardless of her personal safety. She is said to have asked a surgeon at one camp, as they sat in front of the hospital tent, why there were so many 'little animals' running through the tall field grass nearby. The surgeon told her that the animals were actually bullets from nearby fighting. A few days later, an officer sitting outside the same tent was killed by one of the stray shots.
In September of 1862, the Ninth General Assembly of Iowa appointed Annie to the Iowa State Sanitary Commission, the first time a woman was specifically named in a Iowa legislative document. As the state's first Sanitary Agent, Annie continued to report unclean conditions and request supplies, but she now had the official support and sanction of the Union government. Among other new responsibilities, she organized regular and medical leave, and medical discharges. She also took up the unenvied duty of writing letters to the families of wounded and killed soldiers.
Annie was relentless in doing what she felt was right, regardless of whose feathers she ruffled. At one point, several newspapers reported another Sanitary Agent's claims that she had sold donated food for personal gain. Furious, she promptly threatened the editors with libel suits, and informed them that she had sacrificed her own lucrative business interests to help others, and that she was far too busy to 'peddle butter and eggs.' In another instance, she herself used the threat of bad press to force a general to allow her to move four steamer boats full of wounded and ill soldiers from a marshy, mosquito-infested camp.
In 1863, Annie began a new crusade, that of taking care of the children left orphaned by the war. At that year's convention of sanitary organizations, she read a letter that she had received from soldiers in a southern Iowa hospital: "We are grateful for all the kindness shown us . . . but we prefer you should forget us . . . if you will but look after our wives and children, our mothers and sisters, who are dependant upon us for support . . .Succor them, and hold your charity from us." By February of the next year, a board had been organized in Des Moines and contributions from civilians and soldiers alike came flooding in to support the cause. The first Orphan's home opened in the summer of 1864 in Farmington, Iowa. Due to the number of children on the waiting list, a second home was built in late 1865 in Cedar Falls. That same year, the Board decided that the original Farmington Home, which was filled to overflowing, needed to be moved to a larger facility. The government donated the barracks of the deserted Camp Kinsman in Davenport, Iowa, and in November, 150 orphaned children came to live in Davenport.
At the same time she was campaigning for the war orphans, Annie, who had long been worried about the quality of the food in army hospitals, asked the United States Christian Commission to help her set up a special dietary kitchen system. In this system, still used today, each patient has his own prescribed diet, organized by his own dietary slip. Annie established several of these new kitchens, and hired women to supervise them.
Although the kitchens were in many ways a great success, Annie received criticism from some surgeons for letting 'mere' women meddle with hospital affairs. These men would often give the kitchens at their hospitals orders that went against the rules and policies of Annie's dietary system. In one incident, a doctor went so far as to order kitchen staff to make coffee from old, used grounds; after Annie investigated this, the doctor was fired for selling hospital supplies for his own profit. Annie became so involved in her dietary system that in May of 1864 she resigned from the State Sanitary Commission and ran the kitchens until April of 1865, the end of the Civil War.
After the war, Annie did not slow down in the least. She was asked to organize the Woman's Home Missionary Society and, in 1871, was elected its first corresponding secretary. She edited two Christian magazines, The Christian Woman and The Christian Child, and wrote several hymns and a book, Woman's Work for Jesus. She also began to work in earnest on another social crusade: Temperance.
In 1874, Annie was elected the first president of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, lending her reputation and prestige to the new organization. Annie believed that alcoholism, which was seen at the time as primarily a male affliction, was not only a moral problem, but also one with severe economic consequences for innocent wives and children. "The drink system," she said, "is the common enemy of women the world over." In the five years of her presidency, The WCTU established over a thousand local unions, taught almost five thousand children about temperance, and enrolled over a hundred thousand men in reform clubs.
Despite her busy schedule, Annie always had time to write. She established Our Union, the WCTU's monthly journal and edited the magazine Home and Country. She wrote articles for he New York Weekly Tribune and other publications. Her book History of the Women's Temperance Crusade was published in 1878, and Women of the Reformation came out in 1884.
Annie was not re-elected as WCTU president for a sixth year, which did not seem to upset her. However, she and the new president, Frances Willard, did not see eye to eye on certain issues, primarily women's suffrage. Annie, part of an older generation, felt that women should provide moral guidance instead of fighting in the political arena.
In 1889, sixty-two year old Annie became the national president of the Woman's Relief Corps. She caused homes to be built for retired nurses and for the widows and mothers of veterans. She served as director for the homes and also gave lectures.
In the early 1890s, Annie campaigned for pensions for retired army nurses, a typically selfless battle for a woman who throughout her life felt uncomfortable accepting the smallest salary for her own work. The bill passed in 1892, and Annie immediately began helping nurses take advantage of the new law. While in the House of Representatives on day, a wobbly chair collapsed under her, damaging her hip. The injury was bad enough to send her to her bed for a time, but she kept on working, writing letters, articles, and an autobiography, appropriately titled Under the Gun, which was published in 1895. In 1898, Annie herself was granted a pension by Congress for her selfless work on behalf of the Union.
Annie Wittenmyer died on February 2, 1900 of an asthma attack, only a few hours after giving a lecture. She was buried in Edgewood Cemetery in Sanatoga, Pennsylvania.
Annie Wittenmyer wrought many great changes in education, social mores, and even the military, winning the admiration of persons such as Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S Grant. But perhaps the best measure of her life's work can be seen by one of her typical acts of simple kindness, as told by George Perkins, a veteran of the 31st Regiment, Iowa Volunteer Infantry:
"I was a member of Company B, and . . .I was taken violently ill. Our camp was utterly destitute of hospital supplies . . .The boys gathered leaves and dried them and made a bed for me. My soldier overcoat was my pillow. In this situation, too weak to move more than my eyes and fingers, Mrs. Wittenmyer found me . . .
I remember that one day soon after her visit a real pillow took the place of my overcoat. I was weak at the time, and I may as well confess that I instantly began to moisten it with my tears. This is only one small incident in the army work of Annie Wittenmyer, but it is enough to enshrine her in my sacred memory."
Written by Sarah Wesson, librarian, Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center