Wittenmyer, Annie Turner (1827–1900)

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Wittenmyer, Annie Turner (1827–1900)

American war relief worker, church leader, and charity organizer . Born on August 26, 1827, in Sandy Springs, Ohio; died of cardiac asthma on February 2, 1900, in Sanatoga, Pennsylvania; daughter of John G. Turner and Elizabeth (Smith) Turner; educated at a seminary in Ohio; married William Wittenmyer (a merchant), in 1847 (died around 1861); children: son Charles Albert, and four other children who died in infancy.

Annie Turner Wittenmyer was born in 1827 in Sandy Springs, Ohio, a small town on the Ohio River, one of several children of Elizabeth Smith Turner , a Kentuckian of Scots-Irish origins, and John G. Turner, born in Maryland of English descent. Annie spent some of her childhood years in Kentucky (where her father had also lived) and apparently attended a seminary in Ohio before marrying William Wittenmyer, a prosperous merchant, in 1847. Three years later, the couple moved to Keokuk, Iowa, with their children. They would eventually have five, but only one, Charles Albert, survived infancy.

With the move to Keokuk, Wittenmyer began a life dedicated to community service. She organized a Methodist church and a free school for destitute children. After losing her husband around 1861 and watching Civil War troops assemble at encampments along the Mississippi, Wittenmyer became secretary of Keokuk's Soldiers' Aid Society and spent much of her time comforting the sick. She sent Charles Albert to her mother and sister and began visiting Iowa soldiers. She also reported the conditions she observed back home to Keokuk, where they were published in the newspapers; other Iowa women began collecting the much-needed hospital supplies Wittenmyer requested and forming aid societies in their own communities. Wittenmyer's society in Keokuk became the central collection point for relief supplies dispatched throughout Iowa. Paying her own expenses at first, Wittenmyer also went to the front and nursed the wounded. Later, the Keokuk Soldiers' Aid Society helped fund her work, and in 1862 she was appointed a state sanitary agent under a new Iowa law.

Disputes plagued the various sanitary commissions, however. Wittenmyer's relief work was done in cooperation with the Western Sanitary Commission of St. Louis, but this organization conflicted with the men's organization, the Iowa Army Sanitary Commission, which was affiliated with the U.S. Sanitary Commission headquartered in New York. A convention was assembled in Muscatine, Iowa, in October 1863 to try to end the rivalry between these organizations and to merge both women's and men's work under the auspices of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Wittenmyer resisted this action and headed an independent Iowa State Sanitary Commission. In November, however, another convention reorganized Iowa's relief work under the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Wittenmyer's opponent. Early in 1864, the Iowa legislature was presented with a bill penned by Wittenmyer's detractors requesting the repeal of her appointment and accusing her of profligate spending and of selling medical supply donations to hospitals. She successfully refuted the charges and her appointment was saved from repeal, but she nevertheless resigned in May 1864, having devised another plan to aid the wounded.

Realizing that army rations were not the best food for the injured, Wittenmyer planned to attach kitchens to hospitals to provide special diets for patients. In January 1864, she won support for the plan from another relief group, the U.S. Christian Commission, which both funded the project and provided special foods. A first kitchen was set up adjacent to the army hospital in Nashville; after it proved highly successful, Wittenmyer directed the establishment of kitchens at other army hospitals. She also recruited women to serve as kitchen managers. These approximately 100 women supervised the soldiers assigned to furnish physical labor. The managers also made certain that patients actually received the food. In time, the kitchens were adopted as standards of the military hospital system.

Wittenmyer had also become concerned with the children of Iowa soldiers who had died in service. By 1865, she had organized a movement and called on Washington to convert barracks in Davenport for the use of the Iowa Orphans' Home Association and to provide medical supplies. In 1868, she was instrumental (through her affiliation with the Methodist Church) in creating the Ladies' and Pastors' Christian Union in which women visited the sick and needy with the guidance of their pastors. She became the corresponding secretary of this organization in 1871 and lectured frequently on its behalf.

Also in 1871, Wittenmyer moved to Philadelphia, where she established the Christian Woman magazine, which she published as a private enterprise and edited for 11 years. She also wrote hymns and books, including Woman's Work for Jesus (1871) and Women of the Reformation (1884). In 1872, Wittenmyer met Bishop Mathew Simpson who, on visits to Germany, had seen the work of deaconess orders there and thought their method could be adapted into American Methodism through the Ladies' and Pastors' Union. Although Wittenmyer went to Kaiserwerth, Germany, to observe the Lutheran deaconess centers, the Methodist deaconess project was assumed by Lucy Meyer and Jane Bancroft Robinson .

Wittenmyer's imagination had been captured by another, stronger cause. In 1873 and 1874, the Women's Crusade against alcohol had spread across western New York, Ohio, and throughout the Midwest. Wittenmyer lent her energies to this movement and represented Methodist women at a conference held in Cleveland in November 1874, which resulted in the birth of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Wittenmyer was elected the WCTU's first president. In 1875, she and Frances E. Willard , the WCTU's corresponding secretary, toured extensively, lectured, and helped form local unions. That year, she also established the first official journal of the WCTU, Our Union. Wittenmyer again traveled to Washington, in both 1875 and 1878, bearing massive petitions to Congress that demanded the investigation of liquor traffic and the creation of a federal prohibition amendment. She documented these events in her History of the Woman's Temperance Crusade (1878), which expresses her strong belief that the WCTU was leading a divinely inspired movement to contest the liquor trade and its domination by a "low class of foreigners."

Wittenmyer was reelected president of the WCTU in 1877 and 1878, but she was opposed each year with increasing strength by Willard. The enterprising Willard represented women from the West who wanted the WCTU to advocate other causes, including women's suffrage. Finally, in 1879, Willard defeated Wittenmyer. During the five years of Wittenmyer's presidency, however, more than 1,000 local unions had been formed, and 26,000 members had joined the crusade. Wittenmyer remained active in both the Pennsylvania and national unions. When Willard had the WCTU endorse the Prohibition Party, Wittenmyer opposed this action by joining J. Ellen Foster and others in organizing the Non-Partisan Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1890. Although Wittenmyer was simply a supporter at first, she eventually served as president from 1896 to 1898.

In 1889, she resumed her work on Civil War-related causes. She served as president from 1889 to 1890 of the Woman's Relief Corps (WRC), the women's branch of the Grand Army of the Republic. She also worked to found a national WRC rest home in Ohio for ex-nurses and for the female relations of veterans. As director of this home and another in Pennsylvania, she successfully lobbied Congress to pass an 1892 bill to pay pensions to former war nurses; Wittenmyer herself received a special pension in 1898. She lectured on behalf of the WRC and helped to edit publications by and about Civil War veterans. She also wrote about her war experiences in Under the Guns, published in 1895.

From the 1880s forward, Wittenmyer lived at her son's home in Sanatoga (now part of Pottstown), Pennsylvania. Upon celebrating her 70th birthday in 1897, she received gifts and congratulations from all over the United States. On February 2, 1900, she delivered a lecture in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, returned home, and died a few hours later from cardiac asthma.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California

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Wittenmyer, Annie Turner (1827–1900)

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