--A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson
"My dear boy, I have knit these socks expressly for you.
How do you like them? How do you look, and where do you live when you are at home? I am nineteen years old, of medium height, of slight build, with blue eyes, fair complexion, light hair and a good deal of it. Write and tell me all about yourself, and how you get on in the hospitals ... P.S. If the recipient of these socks has a wife, will he please exchange socks with some poor fellow not so fortunate?" [Note accompanying an aid society shipment to the U.S. Sanitary Commission's Northwest Branch of Chicago.]
That quote was part of an exhibit I attended in Springfield, Illinois, illuminating Illinois women's efforts during the Civil War. Reading the quote, I smiled--and of course I wanted to know more about that young lady. Did a correspondence begin? Did her dream of romance (for surely that was the impetus for her note) come true? The exhibit didn't say. It did, however, introduce me to the Basket Brigade, an admirable fete whereby the women of Decatur, Illinois provided encouragement and a taste of home to the wounded warriors of their day.
|Private Samuel K. Wilson of Illinois|
By March of 1862, several battles had been fought on what was then the "western front" of the war. All available hospital beds around Cairo, Illinois, and into Kentucky and Tennessee were filled. The U.S. Army ordered that wounded men who could travel be relocated to hospitals farther north.
The ladies of Decatur stepped up. Every day for nearly ten months, the northbound train stopped at the depot in Centralia, Illinois, where a count was taken and the number of wounded on the train telegraphed ahead. When the train stopped in Decatur at 5:00 p.m, the Basket Brigade ladies were waiting to provide the first home cooked food many of those men had eaten in months.
In her memoir, Jane Martin Johns recounts the first time the ladies met the train (after a messenger boy brought her notice from the depot of wounded men on the expected train ... and a plea for help). "When five o'clock came, there were twenty or thirty women on the platform ... Baskets of hot buttered biscuits, cold meats, pies, cakes and pickles, with gallons of milk and cream were ready ..."
"Pale, emaciated, half starved and disheveled, the men met us with apologies for their appearance, smoothed down their hair with their fingers, and tried to hide the dirty rags that covered their wounds ... " She goes on to mention men moved to tears because a bit of bread reminded them of home; men with bandaged hands who had to be fed; passengers who donated funds because they'd heard of the work of the ladies of Decatur.
Over 1,200 men were served during the nine months of the Basket Brigade's service.
"Fried chicken, by jove, boys!"
"Hurrah! pickled peaches! did you ever?"
"Hello boys, I've got a jam sandwich!"
"That's nothing, I've got a piece of genuine pound cake!"
Have you ever participated in a group effort intended to serve wounded warriors? If so, God bless you!
Authors and friends Stephanie Whitson, Judith Miller, and Nancy Moser each wrote a novella inspired by the ladies of the Basket Brigade. A Basket Brigade Christmas (now available from your favorite bookseller) was #10 on the ECPA Bestseller list for October.
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