Mrs Elida Rumsey Fowle
LATE in the fall of 1861, an irregular and wretched- looking crowd of Union soldiers moved slowly up one of the broad avenues of the national capital. Coming from a great number of regiments, without proper organization or esprit du corps, emaciated, sallow-looking, and ragged, how fearfully had they changed from that gay, confident, and shouting army, that in July had moved out from Arlington Heights, with "On to Richmond!" for their watchword! Yet they were the same men. Only these poor fellows had been captured in the disastrous rout of Bull Run; had been marched, in the midst of taunts and jeers, into the rebel capital; had been confined in that wretched and filthy slaughter and tobacco house in Richmond, over which the sign "A. Libby & Co." had been fastened--a name now infamous in military history. During the long, hot months of August, September, and October, the poor fellows had sweltered in that reeking pen, breathing foul air, eating miserable rebel army rations, and apparently forgotten by that great government for which they had so freely fought, and which they had thought abundantly able to reach and protect her citizen- soldiers in all parts of the world. Yet, in the city that once rang with the eloquence of Patrick Henry, a city that had given to America such men as Jefferson, Madison, and John Marshall, they had been jeered at, insulted, and starved for the crime of having volunteered to save the national ensign from dishonor, and the national unity from destruction.
They halted for some time before one of the government buildings, these rough, unhappy looking men. They were conscious of being dirty and seedy looking. They had been captured in a battle which loyal Americans were nowise proud to mention; and though they had done their duty, and done it nobly, and borne their insults and discomforts with soldier-like patience, yet, standing thus crestfallen under the towering dome of the Capitol, the enthusiasm with which they had enlisted was all gone; the proud Americanism that had swelled in their bosoms was dull and cold. In short, these exchanged prisoners were demoralized by disaster and suffering, and had for a time become indifferent to the glories and traditions of their country.
As they stood or sat there on the ground, a pleasant- spoken gentleman--a clerk at one of the desks of the navy department--stepped among them, and said, "Boys, how would you like to hear a little song this morning?" "O, very well, I guess," was the somewhat languid response.
He retired for a moment, and returned with a young lady, whose modest manner and flushed face told, better than any words, how entirely unaccustomed she was to making any public exhibition of her vocal powers. She sang the first stanza of "Star-spangled Banner." As the almost forgotten strains of that great national song rang out on the cool autumnal air, every soldier started up from his attitude of languor and indifference, and came nearer to the fascinating singer.
They formed a circle around her, and as those on the outside of the ring complained that they could not see her, some one said, "Make a stand for her." Instantly, as though a command had been given, fifty knapsacks were unslung, and piled in a rude pyramid before her. She stepped upon it flushed, and still more animated by this sudden and novel mode of expressing their high appreciation of her effort, and sang the remaining stanzas with a warmth and enthusiasm that surprised her as much as it delighted the soldiers. The effect upon the men was marvellous.
“The present scene, their future lot, Their toils, their wants, were all forgot; Cold diffidence and age's frost In the full tide of song were lost.”
The pleasant memories of singing schools and sleigh rides were revived. They thought of their sisters, and "the girls they left behind them." The bloody afternoon at Bull Run, and the long, dreary days within the loathsome walls of Old Libby, the suffering, the blood, and deaths were all forgotten. They only remembered that the glorious old flag still floated from the top of the "imperial dome," and that America was still the "land of the free and the home of the brave."
Miss Rumsey stepped down from that little rostrum of soldiers' knapsacks animated with patriotic enthusiasm, and inspired with a new and noble purpose.
Others might idly regret that they were women, and could not take the sword or bayonet in the holy cause. Others, again, might follow the camp, and minister in per son to the wounded and dying. She, too, had a gift and a mission. There was good for her to do in soothing, cheering, and sustaining the soldiers. The rare and beautiful gift of voice could now be consecrated on the altar of patriotism, and the songs which she had learned and practised to please her father and enhance the attractions of his home, might now fan the dying flame of patriotism in a thousand war-weary bosoms; they might ring along the wards of the great hospitals, bring joy back to many a faded eye; or, breathed low and sweet at the pillow of the dying, they would smooth the ruggedness of the dark valley, and awaken holy aspirations for the
"undisturbed song of pure concent Aye sung before the sapphire-colored throne, To Him that sits thereon."
From that time on, till after the battle of Gettysburg, and near the close of the war, Miss Rumsey gave herself unremittingly to labors for the good, the comfort, the social, moral, and mental well-being of the soldier. She was as wholly devoted and absorbed in such voluntary labors as though she had enlisted, and was in duty bound, and under a military oath of consecration.
Her father's house was opposite Judiciary Square, and several hospitals were situated within a short distance. Of these she became a frequent, and, in many cases, a regular and constant visitor. And in all the wards she visited, she never hesitated to afford the soldiers the benefit of her vocal powers whenever she was requested; and very often she volunteered to sing for those who were strangers and unacquainted with her gifts, and with her promptness to comply with that request when made. On Sabbath afternoons, and often during the week, she, in company with Mr. Fowle and other Christian gentlemen, visited various hospitals, and held soldiers' prayer meetings in different wards, singing the most familiar and widely-known songs of religious love and worship.
Yet these labors, important and valuable as they were, are regarded by her and her friends as secondary and incidental merely, as compared with the great and admirable enterprise with which her name was chiefly associated, and for which she is held in grateful remembrance by tens of thousands of soldiers.
It was mainly by the exertions of Mr. Fowle and Miss Rumsey that the Soldiers' Free Library, on Judiciary Square, in Washington, was established, the building erected, the books contributed and arranged, and the library conducted. During some epochs in the war, Washington city contained as many as twenty thousand sick, wounded, or convalescent soldiers. By far the greater portion of these men could read, and two thirds or three fourths of them were in such health as to be able to move or hobble about on crutches; and thus, above all things, they needed some wholesome and moral amusement during convalescence.
A library free to all soldiers, and well supplied with papers, magazines, and all sorts of valuable and entertaining, yet moral books, was an institution of the utility of which there could be no doubt, and whose power to cheer, elevate, and entertain could not be over-estimated. Miss Rumsey had numerous friends, in different villages in the north, who were known as soldiers' friends, and who knew her as an efficient and constant hospital visitor. She was the almoner of the various comforts and delicacies which had been contributed by various soldiers' Aid Societies in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. To these societies Miss Rumsey now applied, and very handsome returns of books and papers were made. During the year 1862 these books and magazines were distributed by Miss Rumsey and Mr. Fowle in their hospital visits. In a little more than a year they distributed two thousand three hundred and seventy-one Bibles and Testaments, one thousand six hundred and seventy-five books and magazines, forty thousand tracts, thirty-five thousand papers, twenty-five reams of writing paper, nine thousand envelopes; and of "creature comforts," over three thousand shirts and drawers, great quantities of towels, sheets, gowns, slippers, wines, and jellies.
During this period, they conducted nearly two hundred singing meetings at hospitals, or in camp. In the fall of 1862, the arrangements then in operation were found inconvenient and inadequate to supply the literary demands at the hospital, and the plan was conceived of raising a sum sufficient to erect on some public ground a building of sufficient size and proper construction, to be used as the Soldiers' Free Library.
To carry forward this worthy enterprise, Miss Rumsey and Mr. Fowle gave in Washington, Boston, and various other places, a number of vocal concerts, the proceeds of which were to be devoted to the purchase of the necessary lumber, and procuring labor for constructing the library.
These concerts were a success. Their principal feature was the songs of Miss Rumsey, and particularly those stirring, and patriotic airs which she sang to so many of the soldiers. "The Star-spangled Banner,” as sung by her, was always received with rounds of applause, and every mark of the warmest enthusiasm. "The Young Recruit” and the "Battle Cry of Freedom” were also favorite and effective. Another song, of soft and pathetic character, met with great success, and had a touching private history. It was called "The Dying Soldier Boy.” In May, 1862, soon after the bloody action at Williamsburg, Miss Rumsey, in her hospital visits, found a poor boy, only seventeen years of age, at the Patent Office Hospital, who had suffered from typhoid fever, and this was followed by consumption. Day by day he grew paler and weaker, till at last he could speak only in whispers. Yet the dear little fellow was conscious that he was about to die, and was prepared to go. Miss Rumsey was much interested in his case, and at twilight she would often visit him, and at his request would, in a low, soft voice, sing in the ear of the dying soldier boy songs of Jesus and of heaven that he loved to hear. One evening, just as the sun had set, she found him failing rapidly; and, "I want to hear a hymn," he whispered. That charming little melody, called "Nearer Home,” was his favorite. It begins thus:--
"One sweetly solemn thought Comes to me o'er and o'er: Nearer my parting hour am I Than e'er I was before."
A group of sympathizing soldiers gathered around his bed side. Her voice choked and faltered, and the tears stood upon her cheeks, as she sang the first, second, and third stanzas. Before commencing the fourth she glanced down at the pallid face, and saw that a fearful change had come over the marble features. King Death had stolen upon him as he listened, and stamped his royal signet on the countenance of the boy soldier. The last human sounds he had heard were the plaintive tones of that sweet vocalist, singing to him of the heavenly home and the starry crown. A poetical version of this affecting scene was made by Mr. Fowle, in the following stanzas, which Miss Rumsey sang to the tune of "Annie Laurie:”--
THE DYING SOLDIER BOY.
Sing me a song before I go, Said the dear and dying boy; "Nearer Home" is the one I love; O, sing of heavenly joy. Sing, for "I'm going home," Over the "crystal sea;" I'm going to join the angel throng, And spend eternity.
With faint and trembling voice we sang Of "laying my burden down;" We sang the sweet, sweet words, "Wearing my starry crown;
And then the soldier smiled. As his spirit soared above, He left "his cross of heavy grief," To spend a life of love.
Brave boy! we mourn your fate; Your life was nobly given; Far from home, and far from friends, You gave up earth for heaven. No stone may mark the spot Where our Soldier Boy is laid, But in our hearts he has a place, A spot in memory made.
Our country mourns for heroes brave, Who've died to save our land. Our hearts, how oft they bleed For many a noble band! And at their hallowed gravel We all shall pilgrims be; We'll shed a tear for those who've died For RIGHT and LIBERTY!
Another favorite piece of Miss Rumsey, which she gave in nearly all the concerts, was composed by the same gentle man, at the time when the first rebel flags which had been captured at Fort Donelson and Roanoke Island were exhibited at the Capitol in Washington, on the anniversary of the birth of the Father of his Country, February 22, 1862. Miss Rumsey usually sang it to the air of "Bunker Hill.”
THE REBEL FLAGS.
Sadly we gazed upon the flags Torn from our brothers' hands, And shed a tear for those once loved, Now joined to traitor bands.
They've put our flag beneath their feet, They've trailed it in the dust And to the breeze their flag unfurled, And placed in it their trust.
Mark what a treacherous deed it was, From the good old flag to turn; With us they dwelt beneath its folds, And now its stars they spurn. They've left the flag of Washington, The flag our fathers gave; A richer boon was never given, Or prouder flag to wave!
But when the traitors raised their flag, And marshalled for the fight, Six hundred thousand freemen rose To battle for the right. Then to our God the prayer went up, "Protect our noble band;" God blessed our cause; our flag now waves Within the traitors' land.
Then down, down with the rebel flags; Tread them beneath your feet; And gayly to the breeze unfurl The flag we love to greet. Wave on, ye glorious "STARTS AND STRIPES!" And still our song shall be -- Long live, long live the good old flag; Three cheers, three cheers for THEE.
Two of these concerts realized the sum of three hundred dollars, and this was immediately expended in the purchase of lumber for the building of the Soldiers' Free Library. Upon the opening of the next session of Congress, in December, a joint resolution passed both Houses, appropriating the ground necessary for the erection of the building. Early in January the following note was handed to Miss Rumsey.
SENATE CHAMBER, January 7, 1863.
MISS ELIDA B. RUMSEY, 423 FIFTH STREET.
Madam: The joint resolution of the House of Representatives authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to grant permission to erect a building on Judiciary Square for the purpose of a library for the use of the soldiers, &c., has just passed the Senate.
Very respectfully, SOLOMON FOOTE.
Other concerts were now given, and the proceeds appropriated to the same purpose, so that within a few weeks, in the early part of the year 1863, Mr. Fowle and Miss Rumsey had the gratification of seeing their most laudable and self-sacrificing efforts crowned with success. A building sixty-five feet long, and twenty-four feet wide, was erected, containing a library-room, a room for hospital stores, and a reading-room, which, with appropriate ceremonies, was dedicated to the free use of the soldiers. After the building was completed and dedicated, a circular was issued to the friends of soldiers everywhere, requesting contributions of magazines, pictorial papers, and books.
The results of this appeal, and the proceeds of several concerts given in Boston and vicinity, were so handsome in pecuniary returns and in books, that soon after the library opened it contained twenty-five hundred volumes. This number was soon swelled to three thousand, and be fore the war closed there were six thousand volumes of good reading matter on the shelves of the institution. For some time Miss Rumsey acted as librarian. But afterwards convalescents, not able to return to line duty, were successively detailed for this purpose. One who acted for some time in this capacity was a loyal Virginian from the valley of the Shenandoah.
The following letter from him conveys the sentiments of at least one soldier on the value of the Soldiers' Free Library: --
BERKELEY COUNTY, VA., October 29, 1864.
To MR. AND MRS. JOHN A. FOWLE.
Kind and highly-esteemed Friends: Though two, yet I will address you as one, for you are one in every good work, and in devotion to the interests of the soldier.
How often have I blessed you in my heart for originating and getting up the Soldiers' Free Library! How I enjoyed the meetings there! I fear you overrate my services as librarian, and give me more credit than I deserve; for I only did what was my duty to do. My most pleasant hours in Washington were spent in the library, and if I should ever visit it again, it will be the most attractive place to me in the capital.
Matters are very quiet in the valley now, and have been since the late fight. I tell you, Sheridan gave the rebs "Hail Columbia” and "Yankee Doodle” combined, on the 19th of this month, and I do not think their army will trouble us again this winter.
For your kind wishes, so happily expressed, please accept my sincere thanks. May Heaven bless and reward you, both in this life and that which is to come, for your kindness and labors of love in behalf of our soldiers.
Your sincere Friend.
During all the time that Miss Rumsey was laboring thus persistently and nobly to found the library, the visits to hospitals and camps, and the Sabbath exercises in the Representatives' Hall, and among the soldiers, were by no means discontinued.
In that dark and calamitous campaign of August and September, 1862, she at one time went out into the primary hospitals, and labored among the wounded and dying of a disastrous battle-field. It was just after the second battle of Bull Run, fought August 30, 1862. Mr. Fowle obtained an ambulance, and Miss Rumsey loaded it with some four hundred and fifty loaves of bread, meat, spirits of all kinds, bandages, lint, shirts, and other descriptions of stores. Leaving Washington late on Saturday after noon, they drove out by way of Bailey's Cross-Roads, and reached Centreville very early on Sunday morning.
They halted at a little building near the road, which was already nearly full of the wounded. As others arrived, or were brought in, they were laid on those first brought, care being taken, however, to lay a wounded arm upon a sound leg, and a mutilated leg upon a body where its weight would not give pain. The stacks of wounded were thus laid up on all sides of the little room, and the blood that flowed from so many open veins ran down and stood in a deep crimson pool all over the middle of the room. For some time Miss Rumsey remained in the ambulance, giving out bread to the famishing boys, who crowded around as soon as it was known there was anything to be eaten there. Most of them had eaten nothing for twenty-four hours, and were hopelessly separated from their supply trains. After she had given out most of the bread and other edibles, she stepped down from the ambulance, and went inside, to see if she could be of use to the sufferers there.
Certainly there was enough to be done, and she felt that the only way to keep from being overcome by such an accumulation of horrors was to plunge at once into active usefulness. She offered to dress the arm of the first man she saw. He had received a ball directly through it the day before, and a field surgeon had dressed it, and wrapped it so tightly that it was now paining him terribly. Miss Rumsey knelt beside him, and slowly undid the bandage. The flesh was entirely colorless, and the pain was relieved as the pressure was removed. She then brought some water and a sponge, and began to wash the wound.
The contact of water and the gentle pressure of the sponge soon removed the dried and coagulated blood, and the wound commenced to bleed afresh. Soon the blood began to flow in little spouts, and as there was no surgeon present, she became alarmed. Some of the crimson stream fell upon her dress, and the floor was everywhere red. It was a hot summer morning, and she had been travelling all night. The room, too, was crowded, and the smell of human blood was strong. All these, operating together, were too much for Miss Rumsey. All at once she found her consciousness failing her, and in a moment she was as helpless as any of the wounded that lay upon the floor. She was taken out to the ambulance, and the usual restoratives of cold water and fresh air applied. With the return of consciousness she began to chide herself -- "To think that I have come all the way from Washington to bind up the wounds of these soldiers, and here the first case of running blood I see I have to become faint and helpless! I won't faint. I will go back, and work among those poor fellows; that's what I came here for, and I'm determined to accomplish something." So in a few moments she was back again among the bleeding men, a little paler than before, but resolute. She went on binding up wounds, bathing them with water, cooling parched lips, and giving stimulants to those who had lost much blood, laboring thus all day till nearly nightfall. Two or three other parties, that had come out from Washington on similar errands of mercy, seeing her thus efficient and useful, left their hospital sup plies with her, and thus she was kept busy throughout the day. The good things were given out to privates and officers without discrimination, the only requirement being that they needed something. Their little hospital would hold about fifty, and as fast as their wounds were dressed they were sent off in ambulances to Washington. Only two soldiers died under their care: one, whose name and regiment were unknown, wandered in from the battle-field, fell down speechless from sheer exhaustion, and died in a few moments. His body was searched in vain for papers that might disclose his name and regiment, but no clew was ever obtained. A grave was dug beside the little hospital on Sunday evening, his body was decently interred, and the grave marked with that saddest of all inscriptions, "UNKNOWN.”
The other who died was a non-commissioned officer in a New York regiment. He had been struck in the breast, and the severe concussion produced inward bleeding, of which he died, unable to speak; but a letter from home was found in his pocket, and proved that he was a dutiful and good son. A small sum of money was found with the letter, of which Miss Rumsey took charge; and immediately upon reaching Washington she wrote a full and feeling account to his distant and stranger friends. She had the gratification of receiving a prompt and grateful answer from his father, and her first letter was published in connection with a funeral sermon preached at Springwater, N. Y., in commemoration of the virtues of Corporal James F. Snyder.
A few months later, as she was nursing in one of the hospitals on Judiciary Square, and near her home as well as the Soldiers' Free Library, in which she took so great and constant interest, she found one of the patients in a very dangerous state. He had been wounded at Chancellorsville, and hopes were entertained that he would recover. But the injury was close to a main artery, and the suppuration extended so as to involve its tissues, and he suddenly commenced to sink from internal bleeding.
When he found his strength failing, he desired to have the Bible read and prayer offered at his bedside. Then turning to Mrs. Fowle, he said there was one thing more that he would like to say before he died. "Will you, kind lady, write to Miss -----, to whom I have been engaged for the last two years, and break to her the sad news? Tell her all I have said; send her my pocket memorandum, my gold pen, and the twelve dollars in the book." A few moments after, he added, in a clear but faint voice, "Tell Deming,”--a wounded comrade from the same town,-- "if he ever gets well, to tell my friends that I was wounded bravely fighting for my country, and die happy."
The sacred duty of carrying out the last wish of this dying patriot was carefully performed.
This was but one of many similar instances, and a great number of letters have been received by her from the friends of deceased soldiers, assuring her of their esteem and gratitude, in language like the following: "My Bible teaches there is a reward in store for you, aside from the present satisfaction of having done what your could to relieve the sufferings of a fellow-mortal, for Christ said, 'Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.'"
In the spring of 1863, after the completion and opening of the Soldiers' Free Library, and as there was much less demand for constant hospital labor, Miss Rumsey was united for life with the gentleman whose name has several times appeared on these pages, and who labored constantly and most effectively with Miss Rumsey for the physical and moral well-being of the soldier.
As Mr. Fowle and Miss Rumsey had acquired almost a national reputation by their admirable and extensive labors, and as they had long been connected with the Capitol choir, their marriage was celebrated in the House of Representatives, and by their old and intimate friend and associate in every good work, Chaplain Quint.
Though retaining a constant and lively interest in the Union and its defenders, the duties and enjoyments of Mrs. Fowle, since the close of the war, and for a year previous, have been the blessed and womanly enjoyments of a home made sacred by love and enriched by the sweetest fire- side melodies.
In the midst of these pleasures, the richest memories of her life are of those active and crowded months when the national fortunes were lowest, and she was laboring with hands and feet, with needle, pen, and voice, to relieve, to sustain, to cheer, and to soothe the weary, destitute, or dying Union soldier.