A Soldier’s Letter Answered

Approximately 76,237 Iowa men fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. Of these men, 13,589 did not survive the war, and many others were in no condition to support their families. Annie Wittenmyer, Iowa’s first female Sanitation Agent, was well aware of this; the Sanitation Agency had the responsibility making sure their soldiers had proper food, clothing, and medical attention.

Mrs. Wittenmyer had built quite a reputation for fighting on behalf of ‘her’ soldiers, so it was to her that a group of wounded men in a southern Iowa hospital sent a heartfelt plea:

“We are grateful for all the kindness shown us . . . but we prefer you should forget us . . . if you will but look after our wives and children, our mothers and sisters, who are dependant upon us for support . . .Succor them, and hold your charity from us.”

Mrs. Wittenmyer was not known for her procrastination. She read the letter to a convention of soldier’s aid societies and sanitation organizations on September 23, 1863 and five months later, a board had been organized in Des Moines to establish and operate a Home for the orphans of Iowa soldiers. The first Orphan’s home opened in the summer of 1864 in Farmington, Iowa.

The Civil War ended in April of 1865, but its damages were long lasting. In its first year of existence, the Farmington Home had become overcrowded and had an impossibly long waiting list. A second home was already under construction in Cedar Falls, but the Board also decided to look for larger facilities for the Farmington children.

Enter Davenport.

Davenport was close to the Mississippi River and also to the Rock Island Arsenal, making it a natural place to put several training camps for Union soldiers. After the War, many of these camps were shut down. The land and buildings of Camp Kinsman,on present day Eastern Avenue, were donated by the government to the Iowa Solders’ Orphans’ Association.

On November 11, 1865, more than 150 orphaned children traveled on the steamboat Keithsburg to live at the new Iowa Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home. Only one, 15-year-old Lizzie James, died on the way.* The rest reached their new home safely and soon settled in. The rough barracks were taken down and the foundations used for small, home-like cottages, a far cry from the impersonal institutions one usually imagined orphanages to be.

And this particular place was considered to be more home than institution to the hundreds of orphaned, abandoned, impoverished, or neglected children who were cared for and raised to adulthood on its grounds in its one hundred and ten years of service.

In 1949, the Home was renamed the Annie Wittenmyer Home, after the determined and compassionate woman who received and acted upon a letter from brave men who had sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for their country and only asked that their children not suffer for it.


*See The Orphans of Oakdale Cemetery

(Posted by Sarah)

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2 Responses to A Soldier’s Letter Answered

  1. Adrian says:

    What an awesome story! I’m not local- I didn’t know who Annie Wittenmyer was or what she did. Good for her!

  2. swesson says:


    I’m not a native Davenporter, either, and am sometimes overwhelmed by all the fascinating historical connections around here.

    Annie Wittenmyer wasn’t originally an Iowan either—she was born in Ohio—but she did so much for the people of Iowa that we’ve claimed her for our own!


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