The Corps: Wives and Daughters of Civil War VetsPublished 7:00am Tuesday, June 3, 2014 Updated 9:14am Friday, May 30, 2014
This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of our In Good Company magazine. For more articles visit our In Good Company website.
By Missy Hermes
The Otter Tail County Museum currently has an exhibit about Civil War Veterans on display. It explores the role these vets, called “Old Soldiers,” played in developing the county after the War Between the States.
In the years following the 1861-1865 war, veterans began joining an organization similar to the VFW or American Legion of today. Calling themselves the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the former Boys in Blue met regularly to reminisce, lobby for veteran-friendly legislation and support current troops.
By 1883, a ladies’ auxiliary to the GAR had organized nationally. Officially named the Woman’s Relief Corps Auxiliary (WRC), they called themselves “The Corps.” Members had to be at least 16 years old and “of good moral character and correct deportment.”
The preamble to their constitution states: We, the mothers, wives, daughters and sisters of Union soldiers, sailors and marines who aided in putting down the Rebellion, do, with other loyal women, unite to establish a permanent association. In fact, members didn’t have to be related to a Civil War veteran. However, any woman who had “given aid and comfort to the enemies of the Union” was ineligible to join the WRC.
While prohibited from aiding Confederates, Relief Corps ladies were encouraged to provide assistance to their community and to Union vets. The WRC constitution also asked members to cherish and emulate the women who “rendered loving service”– the Army Nurses.
In Fergus Falls, the main project of the Corps involved, “sewing, knitting or mending articles [of clothing] to be sent to the Old Soldiers Home.” This may have been due to the fact that James Compton of Fergus Falls served as the Commandant of the Old Soldiers Home in Minneapolis.
In addition to needlework, the group had patriotic and civic activities as well, according to a history of the organization written by Miss Laura Gilloley. At Decoration Day, now called Memorial Day, the Corps transplanted flowers and placed flags on the graves of Civil War Vets in Oak Grove cemetery.
The Corps arranged for speakers to visit classrooms on patriotic occasions. “The WRC also gave a large flag to each school to display on a flag pole, and small ones for use in flag drills of which we had many.”
Gilloley, her sisters and mother belonged to Stanton Relief Corps No. 72 which met at the Fergus Falls Woodman Hall. Pelican Rapids also had an active WRC. Members often wore black skirts and white shirt waists (blouses) with the WRC badge (a Maltese cross hung from a red, white and blue ribbon) pinned at the shoulder and must have looked impressive marching in formation and doing flag drills.
The GAR and WRC often socialized together. Encampments, campfires, bean bakes, and card parties gave members a chance to relive the past and sing Civil War songs such “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Marching Through Georgia”, and the “Star Spangled Banner.” Minutes of a Fergus Falls GAR meeting on Oct. 20, 1899 record one such event: “14 members of Stanton Relief Corps No. 72 now appeared on the scene armed with refreshments. After a pleasant visit all went home enjoying pleasant recollections of the allied orders.”
Eventually, Civil War veterans became fewer. In 1925, the Fergus Falls GAR voted to disband and turn their remaining treasury over to the WRC. Rather than see this happen, members of the Corps jumped in to keep the organization running a few more years. Nan Hay McMahon served as their Adjutant and Quartermaster. And when the last vet died in the 1930s, the Woman’s Relief Corps dissolved too.