Recreating the soldiers’ aid societies from Civil War era

When the Civil War began in 1861, everyone wanted to support the Union. That patriotic fever touched women as much as men, but as they could not enlist, they began organizing into groups called soldiers’ aid societies to provide for the soldiers. Women across the north were busy “getting up boxes” for the troops.

The Anoka County Historical Society is seeking help to recreate what those women of the soldiers’ aid societies did 150 years ago. Bring a donation to the Anoka County History Center during Anoka Riverfest Saturday, July 13, or any time before July 15, and drop it off with the women at the Soldiers’ Aid Society booth in the history center.

All donations will be sent to U.S. troops serving overseas, according to Elaine Koehn, historical society volunteer coordinator. “Everyone is encouraged to tuck a note into their donations with a message just as women of the 1860s did,” Koehn said.

Suggestions from the troops include powdered drink mixes, candy, beef jerky, protein bars, mac and cheese cups, pudding cups, fruit cups, toaster pastries, gummy bears, gum, hard candy, granola bars, etc. Monetary donations for postage are also welcome. “Help recreate the history of supporting our troops,” Koehn said.

According to Koehn, the idea during the Civil War of forming and getting official approval for an organization to oversee and efficiently distribute the contributions of the people in the North began in New York. The plan was based on what had been organized in Britain following the Crimean War.

A conference attended by doctors, clergymen, lawyers and other interested parties took place in the late spring of 1861 to coordinate the individual efforts of relief societies throughout the United States.

Articles of organization to form what would become the United States Sanitary Commission were accepted by the War Department June 9, 1861 and before the war was over, there were more than 2,500 branch offices of the commission in cities across the North, Koehn said.

The commission was organized into departments. One of them, the Department of General Relief, drew the most volunteers and donations of food, clothing, blankets, medicines and other items for wounded and ill soldiers were sought, according to Koehn.

The local groups organized to seek these donations and provide as much as possible for the troops were known as soldiers’ aid societies, which were made up of local groups of women raising money, knitting socks, or whatever they could do and sending those boxes of goods to the local branch office of the commission, Koehn said.

“The branch offices sorted the donations and sent huge boxes of like items either directly to where those supplies were needed or forwarded them to the regional commission where they would be held until distributed as needed,” she said.

“Scanty records exist that tell us at least Anoka and Champlin had soldiers’ aid societies with the likelihood of more around the county.”

The history center is located at 2135 Third Avenue N, Anoka.

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