On November 16, 1865, one hundred and fifty orphans arrived in Davenport to take up residence of the newly established Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home. Over the years, evolved and expanded over the years as the original residents grew up, eventually accepting orphans from all over the state, and then any child in need. The Home remained in Davenport for well over a century, until finally closing in 1975.
On its 84th birthday, the Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home was renamed the Annie Wittenmyer Home by the Iowa State Legislature.
This is why:
Annie Turner Wittenmyer, a widow from Keokuk, was not content to spend the Civil War comfortably knitting socks for soldiers when there was more necessary things to be done. Instead, she volunteered her time caring for the wounded at a local army hospital and listened carefully to their complaints and concerns about bad food, filthy campsites, and the hardships of their loved ones back home.
Annie became a very active member of the Keokuk Ladies’ Soldiers’ Aid Society. She traveled to the Army camps and wrote long letters describing the conditions and needs of the Union soldiers. People all over Iowa responded and she distributed over $150,000 worth of goods to army outposts.
She became so good at her job that 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 an 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.
This came in handy when, near the end of the War, her attention was caught by the plight of the orphaned children of Iowa soldiers. She put her energy and contacts to begin raising awareness and funds and in 1864, the first Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ home opened in Farmington, Iowa.
But by 1865, the facility was hopelessly overcrowded—over 13,500 Iowa men had died, many with families and more were so sick, they couldn’t work. A new Home was being built in Cedar Falls, but it wasn’t going to be large enough to take care of the waiting list.
But Davenport had plenty of room. A center for Union volunteer units at the height of the War, it now had several unused training camps, which included barracks. The government was persuaded to donate the deserted buildings of Camp Kinsman (on present day Eastern Avenue) to the Iowa Solders’ Orphans’ Association.
Annie Wittenmyer herself oversaw the Home as matron until 1867, and while she only lived in our city for two years, her legacy has been part of our community for nearly a hundred and fifty years—and we’ve kept her in our hearts ever since.