Monday, May 30, 2016

"His Widow and His Orphan"

The Neshanock's annual Memorial Day visit to Pickering Field in Newtowon, Pennsylvania was rained out, Flemington returns to action on Saturday, June 11th at the Howell Living History Farm in Lambertville, New Jersey against the Elkton Eclipse. 

Back in early April, I was asked to speak about 19th century base ball at the New Jersey State Library in Trenton.  As per usual, I tried to find a few local references in addition to the broader topics of the early game and more specifically its development in New Jersey.  In the process, I remembered some thing I had seen regarding what may have been one of the first enclosed base ball grounds in the state.  The facility was constructed in Trenton, but what was interesting was the reference to its location near the Soldier's Children's Home at Hamilton and Chestnut Avenues.  I was well aware of several soldier's homes in New Jersey built for the aging, ill and impoverished Civil War veterans, but had never seen anything regarding the children (or more properly the orphans) of Union soldiers.  Not surprisingly some Internet searching revealed more information including the finding aid for the facility's records which are housed in the State archives.  Even more detailed information was available in an 1872 report of an investigation of alleged abuses at the facility.

Soldier's Children's Home of New Jersey

Coincidentally and simultaneously with learning about the Soldier's Children's Home, I'm reading Brian Jordan's book, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War which along with this weekend's observation of Memorial Day, started in 1868 to honor the Union dead, made the home, a timely topic for a blog post.  Jordan's book, based on what seems to be exhaustive research, details the many problems and issues Union soldiers faced when they tried to adjust to living in a civilian society that wanted to put the war behind them.    As it difficult it was for the veterans, and it was difficult, at least they had their own voices and those of others, including some prominent politicians to speak up for them.  The dead, of course, had no voice nor the ability to help those who Lincoln in his second inaugural so eloquently (and concisely) described as "his widow and his orphan."

New Jersey Governor - Joel Parker 

Apparently even before Lincoln spoke those deathless words in early March of 1865, some people in New Jersey were trying to do something for the orphan children of Union soldiers.  According to the historical section of the investigatory report mentioned earlier, in January of 1865, a group of "benevolent ladies," who sadly, with one exception, were unnamed, were in the process of opening a home for these unfortunate children.  While it reportedly worked well, the demand so exceeded the capacity that on March 23, 1865, the Soldier's Children's Home was incorporated to provide a home, support and education for the destitute children of Union soldiers living or dead.  The decision was made to move the home to Trenton and a few weeks later, the state legislature authorized $5,000 for the project.  The group rented a home near Trenton which also was inadequate to meet the need so in July of that year Governor Joel Parker arranged for almost $11,000 donated by the Camden and Amboy Railroad to promote military enlistments be re-directed to this purpose.

Portion of a letter from the Trenton State Gazette, February 20, 1866 urging the establishment of the Soldier's Children's Home

One of the sad things about this story is how little information survives (at least that which is available through the Internet) about these "benevolent ladies," without whom the idea would most likely never have come to fruition.  The original president was a Mrs. A. O. Zabriskie from Jersey City who resigned in November of 1865 and was succeeded by Margaret Dayton of Trenton, who continued as president throughout the home's existence.  Mrs. Dayton was the widow of William Dayton, Republican vice presidential candidate in 1856 and U. S. Ambassador to France, who died in Paris in 1864, according to at least one historian, under somewhat mysterious circumstances.  Internet searches for information about Mrs. Dayton and her three major helpers Mary A. Hall, Mary F. Johnston and Mary G. Abbot, produced almost nothing.  In fact, Mrs. Dayton's 1892 obituary makes no mention of her eleven year long leadership of the home.  Mary Hall, served as treasurer, like Mrs. Dayton for over a decade, while Mary Johnston and Mary Abbott split the secretarial duties.  This tells us little or nothing about them,but their names are included here so that their efforts (mostly without pay) are at least in a small way, not completely forgotten.

General Gershom Mott

Continuing to limp along in a rented house, the organization was home for 40 children at the end of 1865 when a study determined there were almost 1600 orphans and half orphans of Union soldiers in New Jersey under the age of 12, about 300 of whom needed the residential programs offered by the home.  Parker continued to appeal to the legislature in the belief that "New Jersey will never, never repudiate her debt of gratitude to our noble soldiers."  At least on this occasion, the legislature listened, ultimately appropriating $69,000 for the land and buildings as well as providing operating funds for each child.  After an expansion of the original facility, the home could accommodate 300 children, although occupancy never exceeded 250 at one time,  Since the total population was limited and the children would ultimately become adults, operating funds were provide for a ten year program.  When the funding ran out in March of 1876, there were still 75 children in the home, but the managers were able to place all of them in a "suitable situation."  All told, the home providing housing and care for some 300 children and when the home closed, the building reverted to the state and in 1882 became the "New Jersey Institute for the Deaf and Dumb."

William McDaniels Grave - Cold Harbor National Cemetery, Virginia 

The exact origin of the complains of abuse, neglect and mismanagement wasn't clear from what I found, but when they learned of them, Mrs. Dayton and her associates wisely asked Governor Parker to appoint an independent committee to investigate.  He did so and named three men with impeccable credentials, Civil War General Gershom Mott, newspaper editor, Charles Deshler and Charles Elmer, a highly respected lawyer.  During the war Deshler served as New Jersey's state agent in the west, traveling to Union hospitals to visit some 275 hospitalized soldiers in Tennessee and Kentucky over a two month period.  The committee's report, which is available online, probably not surprisingly,  found some things which needed correction, but rejected the allegations while offering high praise for the institution and the women who made it possible.

Abraham Snyder's Grave - Andersonville National Cemetery

As valuable as all of this information may be, it's impossible to get a full sense of the story without trying to put a human face on the people involved.  The finding aid in the state archives included about 15 or so names of both the child and the veteran and from that small sample, three stories were available in pension files.  At least one child of Abraham Snyder from Hainesburg in Warren County lived in the home after his/her father, a member of the 35th New Jersey died of disease in Andersonville Prison.  Snyder's death in the service of his country, left his widow, Susan with five children under the age of ten and it's not surprising she needed help with at least one of them.  Less clear is the story of Peter Dorus, an African-American man from Hillsborough in Somerset County, who also with five children, enlisted in the 127th Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops and died of disease in route to a hospital in Virginia.  Little information about the family could be found, but it appears his widow, Martha, couldn't keep the family together and placed one child, Frances in the home.  Leaving only one child was William McDaniels from Bordentown (12th New Jersey), but one who was especially vulnerable since it appears his mother known as "Railroad Mag," used her pension money to support a scandalous life style, while abandoning her son, William to the home.

Peter Dorus's grave - Fort Harrison National Cemetery, Virginia

There are doubtless far more stories in the records in the state archives that would make a worthy project for a Civil War researcher or New Jersey historian.  But on Memorial Day 2016, I hope this post helps us to remember the story of  a time when elected officials and dedicated volunteers came together to honor in a very real way those who "gave their lives that that nation might live." As the investigating committee noted, "It is impossible, not to look with profound sympathy upon the two hundred fatherless and motherless children."  Thanks to Margaret Dayton and the three Marys, plus countless unnamed others, the people of that time backed up their sympathy in a real and tangible manner.

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