“A Power for Good” – The St. Louis Ladies’ Union Aid Society

In the midst of the chaotic fall of 1861 in Missouri, one woman in St. Louis took time to write to her sister back home in Brooklyn, New York. “I feel it my duty to present the claims of the soldiers in our city to your consideration,” she wrote, “hoping that you may be able to do something to aid our society in their efforts to mitigate the sufferings of the sick and wounded.” Describing the influx of wounded soldiers into the Gateway City from Springfield, Missouri, she made it known that the “Union ladies of St. Louis felt that it was their mission to treat these men as their sons and brothers, and do for them, all that their means would allow. Accordingly, they formed themselves into a society, and for a month past have labored with untiring industry in this good work.” [1] The woman writing was Anna L. Clapp, the founder and president of the St. Louis Ladies’ Union Aid Society (LUAS) – perhaps the first of its kind established west of the Mississippi River.

This engraving depicts the work of the St. Louis Ladies’ Union Aid Society in a very Romantic fashion. Within the pavilion in the background, patriotic members of the LUAS gather around the American flag and assisting soldiers, freedmen and women, and refugees. In the foreground, a bald eagle tears apart a Confederate flag, symbolizing that their relief work ultimately helps end the rebellion. (Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society)

Organized just as Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon’s Federal troops advanced towards the southwestern corner of Missouri, the LUAS was first formed of just 25 of the Gateway City’s most affluent pro-Union women to assist hospitals and tend to wounded and sick soldiers brought to St. Louis for treatment and care. The city’s convenient access by river and rail, established medical colleges and institutions, expanding Federal military presence, and devoted pro-Union charitable leaders made St. Louis a prime location for these soldiers to be properly cared for and treated. Organized military posts, such as Jefferson Barracks and Benton Barracks, were outfitted with major hospital complexes to accommodate the increase in invalid troops, especially as the war drew on. However, effective convalescence for these men could only be achieved with the help of the city’s newly-established relief organizations, particularly the LUAS and the Western Sanitary Commission (WSC).

Over the course of the Civil War, the LUAS grew from a small group of inspired ladies to one of the most-effective relief organizations in the country. With over three-quarters of all Civil War deaths in Missouri due to disease and lack of proper hygiene over the bullet, these women knew what they had to do to save lives. Breaking societal taboos, these women personally visited hospitals to examine their hygienic conditions, served on hospital ships, provided relief for soldiers regardless of their side, cared for the state’s growing refugee population in St. Louis, and looked after the newly-freed African American men and women who made their way into Union-occupied territory. Due to the fact that the bulk of the LUAS members were Protestant, the ladies distributed Christian tracts to recovering soldiers, encouraging them to look to Christ in their troubles and abstain from sinful acts, like gambling and drinking.

Adelaine Couzins was one of the founders of the LUAS and worked on the front lines with the Army of the Tennessee. She not only suffered severe frostbite, but was wounded in the leg while serving others. (Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society)

Jacob Gilbert Forman, a Union veteran, Superintendent of Refugees in St. Louis, and the Secretary of the WSC, described the LUAS’ remarkable charitable work: “they met daily and cut out hospital garments, employed sewing machines in the making of them, gave occupation and assistance to soldiers’ wives and families, received and distributed sanitary stores, visited the sick, carrying with them delicately prepared food and cordials, good religious books, and other reading matter to cheer and comfort them, conversed at their bedsides, gave them consolation and sympathy, and in many instances gave hope in Christ and confidence in God and heaven to the departing spirit.”[2]

The women of the LUAS were fearless. Adelaine Couzins, one of the 25 founders of the LUAS, traveled alongside the Army of the Tennessee, tending to the care of soldiers, particularly at Shiloh and Vicksburg. During the siege of Vicksburg, she was wounded in the leg by a Minie ball, yet continued to nurse her boys. Despite the risk, Margaret Breckenridge died from exhaustion while working in a hospital ship. Another, Mary Palmer also died of exhaustion. In addition, Couzins and another woman were severely frostbitten while on duty. The ladies who served on the front lines were described by the Medical Director of the Army of the Tennessee to be “very valuable throughout the war.”[3]

For two weeks in May of 1864, the LUAS and WSC hosted the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair to raise funds for relief services and the troops, boost morale, and showcase the charitable work of those two prominent relief organizations. With over 50 booths and decorated in beautiful floral and patriotic arrangements, the fair was able to raise over $500,000 for the soldiers. Raffle prizes, auctions, and delicious food and beer were some of the many ways the fair raised money, while providing some relief from the war. [4]

The St. Louis Ladies’ Union Aid Society proved to be an invaluable asset to the care and treatment of soldiers, refugees, and former slaves in the Gateway City. According to an immediate post-war account, the LUAS “was from the beginning, active and efficient. It conducted its business with great ability and system, and in every direction made itself felt as a power for good throughout the Mississippi Valley.”[5] Their selflessness, patriotism, and charity saved countless lives during the nation’s deadliest conflict. Additionally, these same characteristics – and proof that women were able to serve outside the domestic sphere – paved the way for women’s suffrage and equal rights.

Sources:

  1. Letter from Anna L. Clapp to Sister, September 9, 1861, in Brooklyn Evening Star (New York, NY), September 21, 1861, Newspapers.com.
  2. J.G. Forman, The Western Sanitary Commission: A Sketch (St. Louis, MO: R.P. Studley & Co.), 18.
  3. The Autobiography and Reminiscences of S. Pollack, M.D., ed. by Frank Lutz (St. Louis: St. Louis Medical Review, 1904), 271.
  4. Tim O’Neil, “Fair Held Here in 1864 Raised $550,000 to Aid Union Troops,May 17, 2019, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com/news/archives/a-look-back-fair-held-here-in-raised-to-aid/article_74a9c008-6fed-5512-a0bd-3ad68f7d3d7a.html.
  5. L.P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughan, Women’s Work in the Civil War (Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy, & Co., 1867), 631.
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