By Ronald S. Coddington, historian and editor of the magazine, Military Images.
If a wartime sculptor had created a memorial to Elida Rumsey in bronze or stone, she would likely be shown at the zenith of her influence: her head uplifted in song, with one foot firmly planted on a rebel flag and an armful of library books and religious tracts.
This is how uncounted numbers of sick and wounded Union soldiers who passed through Washington, D.C., remembered this especially ardent patriot.
The daughter of a New York City hosiery shop owner, she and her family had relocated to the nation’s capital about the start of the war. Elida, then eighteen years old, was shaken by the level of secession sentiment in the city. The undercurrent of disunion fueled her love of country, which expressed itself in charitable efforts for soldiers.
Soon after her arrival, she joined a quartet of vocalists who sang during Sunday services at the U.S. House of Representatives. There she met a widowed father of two, John Allen Fowle. A Boston dry goods merchant sixteen years Elida’s senior, he had arrived in Washington in 1861 to accept a clerical position in the Navy Department.1
It was a match made in heaven, for the two shared the same philanthropic impulses. John became the chairman of a Navy relief organization, and sponsored a series of religious meetings for soldiers. Elida joined the effort, and according to one account her singing sustained the gatherings and boosted attendance.
In November 1861, they began to visit local hospitals. Elida’s voice brought cheer to the patients, most notably at Columbia College Hospital, where John and Elida conducted prayer meetings in a room connected to a ward.3
The highlight of the gatherings was Elida’s singing. One writer described how popular she was with the patients, “That room was crowded night after night, and overflow meetings were held in a grove near by. The interest steadily increased, the boys often doing double duty in order to be present, and they were continued as long as it was safe; but the enthusiasm of the soldiers could not be repressed when Miss Rumsey’s sweet voice stirred the souls and rekindled the noble, self-sacrificing spirit that had brought them to such a place, and cheers shook the very walls. The soldiers planned what they wanted her to sing from week to week, and she threw into the songs all her great desire to bring the boys back to their better selves, and help them to feel that they were not forgotten nor alone.”
About this time, Elida and John shared an experience that prompted one of the most often told stories of their war experience. When news came that a group of Union prisoners held in Richmond were being exchanged, they went to a railroad station to see them as they left the cars. “They looked utterly disheartened and demoralized by disaster and suffering; and their enthusiasm was all gone,” noted one of Elida’s biographers.4
Someone in the forlorn group recognized Elida and asked her to sing. John called out, “Boys, how would you like a song?” to gain attention and to give Elida time to prepare.5 Though John’s question was met by a tepid response, Elida launched into “The Red White and Blue,” one of the popular songs of the period. The biographer recounted what happened next. “Soon they crowded around her with more interest than they had yet shown since leaving prison; but comparatively few could see her. At the close of the song they called for another, and a pile of knapsacks was thrown on the ground. Standing on this rude rostrum she sang "The Star-Spangled Banner." Her natural enthusiasm was intensified by the surroundings, and the desire to inspire the boys with the courage they had all but lost. Her voice was full of power, and her whole attitude instilled with patriotism, as she brought her foot down on the imaginary rebel flags
The biographer added, “Our boys, now restored to the former earnestness, rent the air with cheer after cheer.”6
Elida and John experienced the horrors of war firsthand when they set out on a mission of mercy following the Second Battle of Bull Run. On August 31, 1862, the day after the fighting ended, they set out in a wagon loaded with 450 loaves of bread, meats, spirits, bandages, shirts and other supplies for the 30-mile trip to Manassas Junction.
“They had no government pass, so it was really a hazardous undertaking,” noted one writer, who revealed that Elida had applied for a position to Dorothea Dix, chief of nurses in Washington, and been rejected. “While Miss Dix and her faithful nurses were detained three miles away, little Miss Rumsey, who she could not accept as a nurse because she was too young and not as homely as a hedge-fence, was inside the lines carrying succor to men who had been without food for 24 hours.”7
These and their other encounters impressed upon Elida the need for positive influences to help soldiers cope with depressing circumstances and surroundings. From this realization sprung the idea of providing pictures and books to stricken soldiers as an alternative to card playing and idle chatter. In short, to displace evil with good.
Her solution was the Soldiers’ Free Library, and she was joined by a supportive John to make it a reality. Located on land granted by Congress near the Judiciary Square Hospital not far from the U.S. Capitol, it opened in late 1862. The 65 by 24-foot building, with a reading room that seated 250, was constructed with funds donated by wealthy benefactors and earned from musical concerts by Elida. Thousands of volumes and subscriptions to newspapers and magazines were collected as word of their mission spread. Bibles, hymn books and other religious materials were given away for free. The War Department, with the permission of Secretary Edwin M. Stanton, dispatched a convalescent soldier to keep the library organized.8
This was Elida’s crowning wartime achievement.
By this time the couple were engaged. On March 1, 1863, they tied the knot in a highly publicized event on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, reportedly a first. The great hall and galleries filled with an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people, including senators, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and other dignitaries. President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln had hoped to attend, but official duties kept them away and they sent a bouquet of flowers. The audience looked on as Elida, attired in a simple poplin dress adorned with a red, white and blue bow and a matching bonnet, and John took their vows in front of the Speaker’s desk. The reverend who performed the Episcopal ceremony, Chaplain Alonzo H. Quint9 of the Second Massachusetts Infantry, had been the pastor of the church attended by John before he moved to Washington.10
At the end of the ceremony, “Sing us something!” was shouted from the galleries. Elida launched into the "Star-Spangled Banner."11
The library flourished through the remainder of the war, when the American Missionary Society became its new occupants. The building was utilized as a meeting place, and later as a school for African American children. In 1869, it became part of the new National University,12 an ambitious initiative originally advocated by George Washington and other founding fathers. The library was used as a temporary lecture hall until 1873, when it was demolished to make way for improvements to Judiciary Square.13
Though the building was gone, the significance of its existence was not forgotten. Elida and John were hailed as important pioneers in the free library movement by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who funded the establishment of libraries across America and other English-speaking countries during the latter part of the century.14
Elida and John left Washington at the end of the war and lived in Brooklyn until 1877, when they settled in Dorchester, Massachusetts. They started a family that grew to include four children, three of whom lived to maturity, and an adopted war orphan. John supported his family with a lucrative career in the wool business. Elida became involved in numerous volunteer organizations, and founded Grandchildren of the Veterans of the Civil War. She also established a free library for neighborhood children.15
Her home became a frequent stop by veterans whom she had touched with her musical and charitable work. She was always ready to share anecdotes and sing.
In 1913, a fictional account of Elida’s Civil War exploits was the subject of the film Songbird of the North. The movie premiered on or about July 4 and was advertised in theaters across the country throughout the rest of the year. Two giants of the silent screen era portrayed the lead characters—Anita Stewart as Elida and Ralph Ince as Abraham Lincoln. It is not known if Elida and John ever saw the film.
Three years later, John died at age 90. Elida passed away in 1919 after she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She was 77.