March 15, 2013

Women in Preservation: How the West Side Soldiers’ Aid Society Paved the Way for the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home

The Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home was one of the first soldiers’ homes in the country, and the only one where it’s still possible to experience the buildings and designed landscape together in something close to their original form. The 90-acre campus has served veterans continuously since shortly after the Civil War and includes some of the oldest buildings in the entire VA system.

But this special site would not have been possible in the first place without the dedicated efforts of the West Side Soldiers' Aid Society, a group of women in Milwaukee committed to creating a place for veterans to heal and recuperate. This is their story.

(l.) Lydia Ely Hewitt, President, Wisconsin Soldiers' Home; (r.) Fanny Burling Buttrick, Vice President, Wisconsin Soldiers' Home. Photos courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society
(l.) Lydia Ely Hewitt, President, Wisconsin Soldiers' Home; (r.) Fanny Burling Buttrick, Vice President, Wisconsin Soldiers' Home

In 1861, the Ladies Association of Milwaukee for the Aid of Military Hospitals formed as an independent relief agency to support sick and wounded Union soldiers. In time, the group affiliated with the United States Sanitary Commission and became known as the Wisconsin Soldiers' Aid Society.

Outside the Soldiers' Home Fair, 1865. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society
Outside the Soldiers' Home Fair, 1865.

The West Side Soldiers’ Aid Society, an auxiliary of the Wisconsin Soldiers' Aid Society, came to focus on assisting furloughed and discharged soldiers with meals, medical care, and temporary housing in rented buildings located in downtown Milwaukee. In February 1866, the group reported they had provided temporary lodging to more than 16,000 men and served more than 70,000 meals in the previous thirteen months.

Without any formal system in place to care for the unprecedented number of sick, disabled, and displaced soldiers, the West Side Soldiers' Aid Society began planning a permanent facility in their area that would provide long-term solutions for Wisconsin veterans.

Their work was apparently well ahead of the federal government’s movement on the issue. In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln called on Congress and the nation to “care for him who shall have borne the battle” -- a phrase that remains the mission statement for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Delphine Baker of New York and her National Literary Association were influential in promoting the legislation, signed by Lincoln on March 3, 1865, to create a national system of homes for disabled veterans.

Inside the Soldiers' Home Fair, 1865. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society
Inside the Soldiers' Home Fair, 1865.

Concerned about the number of soldiers with life-altering conditions, the women in Milwaukee moved forward with their plans. Their vision: create a home, not just an institution, where Wisconsin veterans could receive medical treatment, housing, and vocational training. Their solution: hold a state-wide fundraising fair.

At that time, fundraising fairs were popular and festive events, designed to draw communities together to support the Union Army. After receiving a State Charter and a $5,000 grant for the Wisconsin Soldiers' Home, the Society organized a remarkable public event known as the Soldiers' Home Fair.

The Fair, which was originally scheduled for a ten-day run, opened in Milwaukee on June 28, 1865, and ran until the end of July. In that time, the fair committee raised more than $100,000.

The Society used the Fair proceeds to purchase land and building materials and to hire an architect for their enterprise on what is now N. 27th St. and Wisconsin Avenue. When the federal government began selecting sites for branches of the National Asylum (later Home) for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in 1866, local businessmen and politicians lobbied to construct a branch in Milwaukee.

Lithograph of the recuperative village, c. 1875. Credit: West Side Soldiers' Aid Society
Lithograph of the recuperative village, c. 1875.

Eventually, the women were persuaded to consider the enormity of sustaining such an enterprise. They gave up their plans and transferred assets to the federal government for the purchase of land near Wauwatosa. The Lady Managers of the Wisconsin Soldiers' Home stipulated that the Northwestern Branch admit veterans of all wars, not just the Civil War.

The first building constructed in 1867 was a domiciliary on the southwest quarter of the property, followed in 1868 by the Governor's Residence, and in 1869 by the grand Victorian Gothic Soldiers' Home, later known as Old Main.

As admission requirements were relaxed in the 1880s and the veteran population aged, it was necessary to construct additional buildings, including a chapel, additional living quarters, a hospital, and the Ward Theater. The buildings and cemetery were set in a beautiful landscaped environment of walking trails, gardens, and lakes, which were intended to heal the soldiers’ spirits as well as their bodies.

Now, 150 years later, the campus still has that serene, therapeutic atmosphere, despite the fact that the complex is now just minutes from downtown and bordered on two sides by a highway and a baseball stadium. Preserving the Soldiers Home as a place of rest and refuge honors not only our veterans, but also our ancestors and the fine tradition of care they envisioned.

Additional reporting by Patricia Lynch, Genell Scheurell, and Beth Duris


The West Side Soldiers' Aid Society is still in operation today, and has raised thousands of dollars for veteran/VA patient projects and volunteered countless hours at VA activities. Visit the website to learn more their history and check out their book, Milwaukee's Soldiers Home: A National Historic Landmark.

Julia Rocchi was the senior director of digital marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.

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