Ohio Widows and Orphans of the Civil War

By arohmiller, posted on June 1st, 2015.
Filed under: News

Written by Catherine Wilson, Executive Director, Greene County Historical Society

With the themes of this final year of the Ohio Civil War 150 commemoration being Coming Home and Legacies, we must not forget those whose soldier husbands or fathers did not come home. There were women who lost their husbands to disease or wounds in battle; there were children whose fathers were never the same after coming back.


During the war, many towns instituted relief efforts for not only soldiers’ aid, but also for deprived families. “Wood processions” by local farmers brought in fuel for their homes, primarily in winter months. After the war, many widows were provided with sacks of flour free of charge: a tradition that still continues. Wheeling Gaunt, a free Black man who came to Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the 1860s, provided a clause in his will for widows in town to receive flour (and now sugar too) every December.

Claim agencies sprung up in the latter part of the war, to take care of soldier claims to pensions, and most of them specifically stated that “Pay for the wives, the mothers (when widows) and the children of prisoners of war in the South, [are] promptly collected.”

The 1890 special Federal census of Civil War veterans and widows is only available for the states of Kentucky (incomplete) through Wyoming; it suffered the same fate as almost the entire Federal census from that year, lost in a 1922 fire in the Department of Commerce. There is an index of Ohio pensioners, whether veteran, widow, or child. Pension files are a great source for family history also; these are held by the National Archives. A sample listing for 1890 could have “Lucinda Davis, widow of Matthew Davis” plus his service record and disability; or “Lucinda Davis, widow of Matthew Baldwin” if she had remarried. There were some, like in my family, who lost their father to war and mother to disease within the space of a year. My great-great-grandfather was taken in by a neighbor family, as were his brother and sister, and raised by them; there was no official adoption that I have seen, and they kept their original surname of Lawrie.


Rev Peter C. Prugh, German Reformed minister in Xenia, who headed the appeal for funds to get the OS&SO Home started

Rev Peter C. Prugh, German Reformed minister in Xenia, who headed the appeal for funds to get the OS&SO Home started

Refugee children were sometimes removed from war-torn areas in the South; whether or not they had family near home was apparently ignored. Rev. C. C. Tracy, an agent of the New York Children’s Aid Society, showed up in Xenia on a Saturday in May 1864 with twenty-three children from East Tennessee. On Sunday at 4 PM, there was a meeting at the German Reformed church of Rev. Peter C. Prugh, and a collection was taken up for the children amounting to $52. On Monday contributions of clothing &c. were sent in, and “the Ladies, God bless them, took the poor things, washed them, dressed them in new clothes.” By the time 2 PM came, “most if not all of them were provided with good homes, and will be made comfortable and happy and eventually become good members of society.”

Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphans Home

If the veteran or widow had minor children, sometimes the surviving parent made application to the Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphans Home in Xenia, Greene County, Ohio.   Founded in 1869 by the Grand Army of the Republic in downtown Xenia, the state of Ohio took it over in 1870 and moved the Home to a farm called “Poverty Knoll.” Sometimes the basis given for applying to the OS&SO Home was that the second husband (or wife) could not or did not want to take care of the existing children.

Previously, children had stayed with parents in various institutions such as the county infirmary or poorhouse, or even at an asylum for the insane, if a parent was an inmate there. The Central Branch, National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Dayton OH was founded in 1865 (changed from Asylum to Home in 1873), and some children followed their fathers there. A law passed in Ohio in 1866 authorized counties to levy a tax to support children’s homes, probably in response to the many orphaned by the war just past. There was a state soldiers’ relief fund during the war to help provide for families of deceased or disabled veterans, but by 1865 $800,000 had been removed from that fund to pay off other debts the state faced (in modern dollars, that’s over $12 million).

Chaplain George W. Collier, 34th OVI, who suggested to the GAR that a state soldiers' orphans home be started.

Chaplain George W. Collier, 34th OVI, who suggested to the GAR that a state soldiers’ orphans home be started.

In 1869, Chaplain George W. Collier, a veteran from the 34th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, had been named agent for the project of a state home for soldiers’ orphans, “visiting various parts of the state and agitating the matter among the people.” Of course, Xenia put itself forward as an ideal location, being on several railroad lines and having advantages of healthy and beautiful scenery. By December 1869, the Home was in its temporary location in downtown Xenia; children and contributions were arriving from all over the state. The first two were from the National Soldiers’ Home in Dayton, with Portsmouth, Yellow Springs, Steubenville, Ironton, and Wooster being represented within a week. The newspaper stated “They are between the ages of 3 and 13 years, and from 26 to 95 pounds avoirdupois.” Twenty-five more children had arrived by the next week: more from Dayton, plus those from Toledo, Ravenna, Batavia, and Baltimore in Fairfield County.

Collier Chapel on the campus of the OSSO in Xenia still stands today.

Collier Chapel on the campus of the OSSO in Xenia still stands today.

Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of Governor and CW vet Rutherford B. Hayes, was intimately involved in the OS&SO Home’s beginnings, as was General J. Warren Keifer of Springfield. Education and vocational training were always part of the Home. Local ministers were asked to hold services for the children. Someone supplied the Home orphans with 5 dozen packs of firecrackers for the 4th of July celebration in 1870, when the place was still on East Main Street – one can only imagine the noise. Doctors took duty “on rotation” to deal with medical issues until a Home physician was appointed. Measles were a problem in 1870, with the first death of a student occurring in March; she was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Xenia. A cemetery was established on the Home campus after Collier Chapel was built in 1872. Many students who died in the 1887 diphtheria epidemic are buried there.

Original cottages on the OSSO campus.

Original cottages on the OSSO campus.

In May 1870, a newspaper article entitled “Xenia Orphans’ Home” appeared, in which the writer discussed problems with other locations in Ohio for the OS&SO Home. White Sulphur Springs did not have enough room, “even were they in possession of the entire property,” and the Trustees of the Reform School for Girls at Delaware would not “vacate the premises now occupied by them.”  So all that the citizens of Greene County had to do was raise an amount that would purchase for the Board of Managers “by donation or bequest, a suitable tract of land of the number of acres required by law, at a convenient and accessible point, with the necessary buildings and equipments thereon, for the accommodation of not less than 250 orphans, and upon such acceptance, open and establish a home for Ohio soldiers’ and sailors’ orphans as is prescribed by law.” By August 1870, the children had moved out to the farm location. School was set for the first Monday of September (remember, no Labor Day yet).

The Ohio Soldiers and Sailors Orphans Home stayed open until 1995; in 1978, the name was changed to the Ohio Veterans Children’s Home, since fewer and fewer of the students were actual orphans. Its records are kept by the State of Ohio, and there is a museum on the old campus, keeping its legacy alive.

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