By Antoinette G. van Zelm, Assistant Director, Center for Historic Preservation
Monuments to women are few and far between on the historic landscape. Surprisingly, early in the twentieth century a group of Tennessee women began an initiative to erect a monument to women who had remained loyal to the United States during the Civil War. I made this intriguing discovery while researching the activities of the Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC) in Tennessee. Currently, I am still following leads to learn more about this unique monument campaign, which apparently never came to fruition.
The WRC was the national women’s auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Union veterans organization that wielded significant political power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Founded in 1883, the WRC became a force in its own right, quickly developing into the second-largest women’s organization in the United States (behind the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union). By 1900, the WRC had 118,000 members working through 3000 corps (or local chapters) in 36 states, including Tennessee.
The WRC had gained a foothold in urban areas of Tennessee during the 1880s and 1890s. By 1900, 183 women belonged to nine corps (five white and four black), with the white corps concentrated in East Tennessee and the African American corps located in the cities of Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. True to the goals of the WRC, Tennessee’s members assisted aged veterans and commemorated Union victory. Though small in number, Tennessee’s WRC women were viewed by national WRC leaders as important representatives of the organization within the former Confederacy.
In 1896, Tennessee’s Lookout Corps (one of three WRC corps in Chattanooga) proposed to build a monument to loyal women as “a perpetual reminder to all posterity of woman’s devotion to and love for her country.” The women hoped the monument could be placed in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which had just opened the year before as the first Civil War national military park. Local and state GAR leaders supported the idea, but state and national WRC leaders were more hesitant. WRC national president Lizabeth A. Turner believed the initiative would take too much attention away from needy veterans and their families.
The Tennessee women persisted in advocating the monument in honor of loyal women, however, and by 1900 they had received the endorsement of the national WRC. The next year, the “Loyal Woman’s Monument Association,” under the auspices of the Lookout Corps, received a charter from the state of Tennessee. Fascinatingly, the organization had multiple, diverse goals–including the support of scientific endeavors and promotion of the fine arts–but its overriding purpose was “the erection of a monument or monuments to the memory of the loyal women in the war of 1861 to 1865 between the states.” The association, which had both female and male members, had the power to purchase real estate or receive it as a gift. The news of the founding of the Tennessee monument organization made its way into The New York Times, which carried a short blurb in its July 14, 1901, edition.
My next steps are to discover what the monument association did and how its goals changed between the turn of the century and the Great Depression. According to a 1933 historical sketch of the Tennessee WRC written by the group’s historian, the monument campaign had raised more than $3000, which had been invested in two city lots near the Chattanooga National Cemetery. World War I and the depression had stymied progress on the project, but when the economy improved the Tennessee WRC hoped to build a meeting hall there for the GAR, WRC, and other patriotic groups, a building that would also serve as a memorial.
Additional research avenues to explore include the relationship between the creation of the Loyal Woman’s Monument Association and the activities of Confederate organizations in Tennessee. In 1895, the United Confederate Veterans had suggested that monuments to Confederate women be erected throughout the southern states. Might this have motivated the Unionist women of Chattanooga to propose their own monument? Additionally, did the white WRC women who spearheaded the monument campaign ever consider reaching out to their African American sisters for assistance?
The existence of the monument association reflected the desire of a group of Tennessee’s Unionist women to honor women’s contributions to the conflict. Turning this goal into a reality proved to be fraught with difficulties, however, as I continue to discover. Taking the historical view and understanding how shaping the public memory of the Civil War has engaged (and divided) citizens for more than a century provides much-needed perspective on today’s discussions about the Civil War memorials in our midst.