The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Wittenmyer, Sarah Ann “Annie” Turner
(August 26, 1827–February 2, 1900)

–Civil War relief worker, Methodist activist, temperance reformer, editor, hymn writer, and author—was born near Sandy Springs, Adams County, Ohio, the oldest child of Joh n G. and Elizabeth (Smith) Turner. Her parents sent her to a local female seminary, where, at an early age, she demonstrated considerable talent. In 1847 she married William Wittenmyer, a prosperous merchant of Jacksonville, Ohio. Three years later the Wittenmyers moved to Keokuk, Iowa, where Annie became actively involved in civic affairs. In 1853 she opened a free school, attended largely by the children of the community's poor. Moved by the lack of religious and moral training of some of her charges, she soon established a Sunday school, out of which developed the Chatham Square Methodist Episcopal Church, antecedent of Keokuk's Trinity United Methodist Church.

    With the coming of the Civil War, Keokuk became a major point of embarkation for Iowa's troops, an important relief center, and the site of a large military hospital. The women of Keokuk organized the Ladies' Soldiers' Aid Society, of which Wittenmyer was corresponding secretary and general agent. That society became a conduit for much of Iowa's private relief work. With the establishment of the U.S. Sanitary Commission in the summer of 1861, strain developed between the Iowa division of the commission and some of those already engaged in private aid work. The tension eased gradually after members of a special session of the Iowa legislature appointed Wittenmyer an agent of the Iowa State Sanitary Commission in September 1862.

    Throughout the remainder of the war, Wittenmyer, whose husband and three of her four children had died before the conflict began, spent much of her time working among the troops, often at great personal risk. She ministered directly to the sick and dying and labored tirelessly to see that medical and other supplies were provided where most needed. In 1864 she became an agent of the U.S. Christian Commission, in which capacity she made one of her most significant contributions. Early in the war, while visiting her brother in a military hospital, she recognized that appetizing and nutritious meals were essential to the recovery of wounded and diseased soldiers. Consequently, she became a vocal advocate for dietary reform. As an agent of the Christian Commission, she was responsible for the staffing and general supervision of dietary kitchens in U.S. Army hospitals. Although sometimes controversial, the practices and dietary guidelines Wittenmyer put into place were credited with saving many lives.

    Wittenmyer, moved by dying soldiers' concern for the fate of their families, was instrumental in the organization of the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans' Home Association in the fall of 1863. The work of the association, transferred to the state of Iowa in 1866, led to the establishment of orphanages at Davenport, Cedar Falls, and Glenwood. The Glenwood and Cedar Falls facilities closed in the mid 1870s; however, the home in Davenport, later named for Wittenmyer, survived well into the 20th century, while the abandoned Cedar Falls facility became a normal school that is today the University of Northern Iowa.

    In early 1868, at the invitation of Bishop Matthew Simpson, Wittenmyer left Iowa for Philadelphia to begin organizing women's work within the Methodist Episcopal church. Her wartime experiences had instilled in her an appreciation for women's capacity to make a significant difference in society, and she hoped to channel their energy and ability into new directions in postwar America. Her work contributed to the establishment in 1872 of the Ladies' and Pastors' Christian Union, precursor of the Woman's Home Missionary Society. The goal of its work was to reach out and minister to the spiritual and material needs of the disadvantaged. As corresponding secretary of the union, Wittenmyer traveled extensively, spoke frequently, and wrote much. She founded and edited an independent newspaper, the Christian Woman, and later a complementary publication, the Christian Child. She was an associate editor of the magazine Home and Country, wrote a column for the New York Weekly Tribune, and contributed articles to the National Tribune. She also wrote several books, including Woman's Work for Jesus (1871), History of the Woman's Temperance Crusade (1878), and Women of the Reformation (1895).

    In November 1874 women concerned about the moral, economic, and social impact of alcohol met in Cleveland, Ohio, and founded the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Wittenmyer became the organization's first president and held the office for the next five years. By 1879 the tenor of the WCTU was changing, and Frances Willard replaced Wittenmyer as president. Wittenmyer was essentially a romantic reformer, reminiscent of an earlier era, who preferred prayer, education, and moral suasion, focusing on the transformation of individuals, to legislation and political action aimed at institutional change. Willard's advocacy of woman suffrage and the increasing breadth of her reform interests signaled new directions within the WCTU, in particular, and in women's activism in general, a change resulting in the resignation of Wittenmyer and other more conservative members.

    After leaving the WCTU, Wittenmyer once again focused much of her energy on addressing the consequences of the Civil War. When the National Woman's Relief Corps, the women's auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, was founded in 1883, she served as its first chaplain and six years later as its president. She was an active member of the corps, championing the interests of aging veterans and the widows of soldiers. She also campaigned successfully for federal pensions for the hundreds of women who had served the Union as military nurses. Meanwhile, in 1895 she completed her best-known book, Under the Guns, a memoir of her experiences during the war. In 1898 Congress expressed its appreciation for her service to the nation by granting to the frail and aging Wittenmyer a pension of her own. On February 2, 1900, Annie Turner Wittenmyer, one of the most dedicated relief workers and reformers of the 19th century, died at her home near Sanatoga, Pennsylvania.
Sources The Wittenmyer Papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. Her autobiography is Under the Guns (1895). See also Tom Sillanpa, Annie Wittenmyer, God's Angel (1972); and Elizabeth D. Leonard, Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War (1994). An obituary was in the Davenport Democrat and Leader, 2/3/1900.
Contributor: Robert F. Martin

Cite as: Martin, Robert F. "Wittenmyer, Sarah Ann “Annie” Turner" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017