“Continuing the Work,” Boston Women & Aid to Civil War Veterans & Families

by Patrick T.J. Browne, Mellon Short-term Research Fellow, Boston University

In the summer of 1865 as soldiers returned home, the United States Sanitary Commission gradually terminated most of its activities. Over the course of the Civil War, the Sanitary Commission had become the nation’s largest relief agency, addressing a host of issues relating to the care of Union soldiers and sailors. To accomplish this, the Sanitary Commission relied on a vast network of local soldiers’ aid societies across the North—most of which were administrated by women.

Historians have noted that when the Sanitary Commission shut down, the women of local aid societies, in many cases, expressed a desire to continue their work on behalf of the returning veterans.[1] This was particularly true of the New England Women’s Auxiliary Association in Boston. While it is evident from their monthly published reports that the women of the NEWAA desired to keep up their work after the war, sources informing us as to what they actually did are scarce.

For this reason, I was particularly pleased during my time as a Mellon Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society to come across a small, handwritten minute-book documenting Executive Committee meetings of the NEWAA from 1865 to 1868. My dissertation project at Boston University focuses on the “Ordeal of Homecoming” for northern Civil War veterans and the social response on the part of northern civilians to the disruptions in their communities during the aftermath of the war. In researching the secondary literature I have found that local efforts to aid disabled veterans and their families have sometimes been written off haphazard and ineffective. This minute book helps to put this work in a different light.

Led by Abby Williams May, the Executive Committee met on July 18, 1865 to reorganize and develop a plan for continuation of their efforts. The scope of their work would be narrower than before, to be sure. Whereas the organization had once been the hub of supplies to the Sanitary Commission from towns throughout New England, they would now focus strictly on Boston veterans and their families. They decided to maintain their offices at 18 West Street as a place where those in need might apply for aid.

Their minutes suggest a large network of cooperation among numerous organizations (including the Boston Discharged Soldiers Home, the Overseers of the Poor, and the Boston Police) and provide an interesting glimpse of the mechanisms of local aid before national programs were instituted. Local missionaries seem to have been especially helpful in locating homes for widows and orphans.

Each week, the minutes end with a tantalizing remark, “The record of cases was read and acted upon.” Unfortunately, the minutes do not provide a list of applicants for aid nor any indication of what was done for each one. There are, however, general remarks in the minutes on larger matters which required the Committee’s attention, including drives to procure clothing for residents of the Discharged Soldiers’ Home and efforts to reach out to mill owners to secure employment for women whose disabled husbands could not work.

Evidently, there were limits to the NEWAA’s generosity. Two curious sentences appear in the December 5, 1865 minutes: “Miss Bailen’s case up again!!” and “Miss Shannon to be requested not to come to the rooms anymore.” We are left to wonder how these women apparently tried the Committee’s collective patience. It seems there was a perceived lack of self-sufficiency on their part and a prevailing sense that they were asking too much of the organization.

While the precise scope of their work is difficult to determine from the minutes it is clear that, nearly a year after the war’s end, the NEWAA office was quite busy. In January 1866 they voted to extend their hours and add staff. In February, they requested $3,000 from the treasury of the Sanitary Commission (which still held funds) to continue their work. They received only $1,000 which was enough to keep them active until June 1866 when they stopped taking on new cases. After that, they stopped meeting regularly and finally opted to discontinue the organization in 1868.

Though their post-war activity covers a relatively brief span of time, the NEWAA minute-book book provides a rare window on the work of a local soldiers’ aid society during a crucial period for veterans and their families.


[1] Judith Giesberg, Civil War Sisterhood, (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000), 144-150; Jeanie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 255-256.