War Born: Orphaned Children of the American Civil War and the Evolution of Orphan Care

Lauren Letizia ’23

War breeds victims. Whether the victims are mutilated soldiers, widowed spouses, childless parents, or parentless children, war will always create sorrow. The American Civil War claimed the lives of 750,000 soldiers by 1865. This figure does not account for the incalculable suffering of the American civilians who now had to navigate a world without their loved ones. Perhaps the most vulnerable segment of civilian victims was the orphaned children. The war left tens of thousands of children orphaned or “half-orphaned,” meaning the children lost a father but still had a mother.[1] According to the US Census Bureau, the number of orphaned children housed in orphanages rose from 7,700 in 1850 to 60,000 in 1880.[2]

Between 1861 to 1865, many of the farms and much of the infrastructure within the Confederate states were damaged and destroyed by enormous battles and bombardments. As a result, many Southern children experienced the pain of war firsthand. For example, two of Virginia’s most prominent orphan asylums were the Richmond Female Humane Association (RFHA) and the Richmond Male Orphan Asylum (RMOA). Though established before the Civil War, these organizations came to fruition during the conflict and Reconstruction. They were typically run by boards of directors as well as a president. Before the war, organizations like the RFHA and RMOA would often reserve placement for children of wealthy or upper-middle class parentage. After war was declared, the care of orphaned children of Confederate soldiers quickly became a societal badge of honor, and the RFHA and RMOA began to accept poorer children. Because of this expansion, the orphanages educated their charges in skills that would supply economic or social value to their larger communities, such as sewing, housework, or physical labor.[3]

As the war intensified, Southern business owners, homemakers, and others turned increasingly to child labor as slavery eroded and young men left for the battlefield. In 1862, the RMOA reported that 22 boys had left its facility, “including four runaways, and the remainder ‘having been placed in positions more advantageous under the circumstances, or having been returned to their mothers, who needed aide, and could find them employment in these trying times.’”[4] After the abolition of slavery and the war’s end, white orphanages would advertise their wards as better labor alternatives to the newly freed African Americans. Asylums also utilized this avenue to increase the number of children they could house, leasing children to apprenticeships, factories, and farms opened beds.

Richmond Male Orphan Asylum at 1900 Amelia St., 1909
(“It’s All Relative: Richmond Families (1616-2016)” exhibit at The Valentine, Oct. 13, 2016-June 18, 2017, in Richmond, Va. The Valentine. No. P.74.35.01.)

 During Reconstruction, the RFHA and the RMOA tried a new tact to raise money from the few remaining wealthy elite. They prominently linked the practice of aiding the orphaned children of Confederate soldiers to Southern patriotism and Lost Cause ideology. By donating money, clothing, and other goods to these needy children, claimed the orphan asylums, Southerners maintained their fallen heroes’ dignity and honor.

On the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Northern states also faced the challenge of caring for dependent children. Pennsylvania, for example, contributed the second largest number of soldiers to the United States Army (New York was first). The state lost approximately 15,000 men to combat or mortal wounds. Many men who came home later died from wartime injuries or maladies. If one includes in the state’s total death count those who perished from disease and these other delayed factors, that number exceeds 30,000 soldiers.[5] Therefore, thousands of children were orphaned, half-orphaned, or lived in homes that could not sustain them.

 During the antebellum era, the United States experienced a wave of social and civil movements spurred by the Second Great Awakening from 1790 to 1840. In the North, the Awakening hammered home community outreach and benevolence concepts based on Evangelical and Protestant theology. Philosophical thoughts such as Transcendentalism promoted the creation of utopian communities and espoused the recognition of human dignity. After 1840, the Second Great Awakening had indeed awakened vital social missions such as the Temperance Movement, abolitionism, prison and asylum reform, and care for the poor and orphaned.

Additionally, within Pennsylvania and other northern states, a powerful pro-elementary education movement took hold during the antebellum era. At a banquet in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 1826, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens decreed, “Education. May the film be removed from the eyes of Pennsylvania and she learn to dread ignorance more than taxation.”[6] The embrace of widespread childhood education helped grow support for other “morality-improving” benevolent institutions such as orphan asylums throughout the North in the lead-up to the war. Additionally, by the beginning of the Civil War, American perceptions of poverty and “the poor” were shifting significantly due to the reverberations of the Second Great Awakening and its emphasis societal uplift and reform. (It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that such reform efforts became more intertwined with the mission of social control). As state and federal governments passed laws more compassionate to this segment of the population, such as ending both debtors’ prisons and the imprisoning of children in adult jails, many Americans categorized the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving.” Widows and orphans were considered the epitome of the “deserving” poor.[7] The “undeserving” poor were gamblers, alcoholics and the chronically unemployed. Unfortunately, at the time of the Civil War, many orphanages were privately- or church-owned, located in the country, or unequipped to handle the number of orphans created by the war. As a result, in late 1864, Pennsylvania and other states established official asylum systems that were controlled and maintained by the state. However, although Northern and Southern states tried to implement improved options for orphan childcare, institutional violence, and neglect still managed to fall through the cracks.

One of the most famous examples of orphan abuse took place at the National Homestead in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The establishment of the Homestead was inspired by the death of Union Sergeant Amos Humiston. Humiston was killed during the Battle of Gettysburg with a photograph of his three children in his pocket. The image was found by a local girl and was later published in newspapers by Dr. John F. Bourns,  in an effort to return to photograph to Humiston’s family. His widow eventually reclaimed the image. Moved by the Humistons’ story, Dr. Bourns decided to launch a fundraiser for the family and to construct a widows’ and orphans’ home. The Homestead was opened in 1866 with great support from prominent veterans like General Ulysses S. Grant. However, it began to slide into infamy.

“The Children of the Battlefield”
(“Wills House Virtual Identity: Philinda and Amos Humiston,” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/gett/learn/historyculture/wills-house-virtual-identity-philinda-and-amos-humiston.htm)

 In the 1870s, the headmistress, Rosa J. Carmichael, abused the orphans in her care. She constructed a dungeon, complete with chains, in the Homestead’s basement for those she deemed mischievous or unruly. As the stories leaked into town from former wards, Carmichael was charged with neglect and cruelty in 1876. The townspeople called for the closure of the Homestead, and by 1877, it was permanently shuttered.

General U.S. Grant with orphans of the National Homestead
(In Errol Morris, “Whose Father Was He?” Part Three. New York Times, https://archive.nytimes.com/opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/whose-father-was-he-part-three/)

Despite such instances of neglect and abuse of white orphans, overall, the orphan experience was vastly different for African American children and the formerly enslaved children. They experienced racism and neglect in both the North and the South. Black children were not permitted in Southern asylums such as the RFHA and the RMOA and were usually subjected to harsh labor and apprenticeships throughout the country. In the Northern states, separate orphanages and organizations were founded for Black children. One of the most prominent African American orphanages was the Howard Orphanage and Industrial School in New York City. When enslaved women escaped the South before and during the Civil War, they were often forced to relinquish their children to find work. These children would either be relegated to servitude somewhat akin to slavery, forced into homelessness, or housed in jails with adults. In 1866, a widowed Black woman named Sarah Tillman decided to take in 20 African American children in Manhattan. She gained support from a Black Presbyterian minister named Henry Wilson, and they founded an orphan asylum.

African American school children; Howard Orphanage and Industrial School
 (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 22, 2023. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-fd06-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

Theirs was a challenging mission, as racism was rampant in the North. For example, in 1863, the Quaker New York Colored Orphan Asylum was explicitly targeted and burned to the ground during the city’s draft riots and had yet to be rebuilt by 1866. Soon after its opening, the orphanage entered financial turmoil and was forced to indenture its wards into service. This practice was highly criticized by female abolitionists and black community leaders, who were specifically concerned about the fate of Black children. In the late 1890s, the asylum added trade school to its core mission, empowering its wards to make money and learn valuable professional skills. The Howard Orphanage and Industrial closed in 1918, but its benefactors rerouted their finances toward improving Blacks’ educational opportunities throughout New York and the country. 

Girls learning to bake at the Howard Orphanage and Industrial School (c. 1900)
(Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed February 22, 2023. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-fd14-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99)

The America Civil War forever altered the United States’ physical and social landscape. Not only were cities and communities destroyed, but over half-a-million men were dead, and millions of enslaved people were free. Amongst the chaos of battle and its aftermath, the nation’s most vulnerable children were in dire need. Because of the war, federal and local organizations began implementing networks and foundations to care for orphaned and disadvantaged populations. By no means free from classism, racism, and abuse, the United States had set up a new path towards universal concern for citizen welfare and relief.

[1] James Marten, ed. Children and Youth During the Civil War Era. (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 173-174.

[2]  Susan Whitelaw Downs and Michael W. Sherraden. “The Orphan Asylum in the Nineteenth Century.” Social Service Review 57, no. 2 (1983): 272–90. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30011640.

[3] Marten, Children and Youth During the Civil War Era, 173.

[4] “Report of Board Managers, Presented to Annual Meeting, Spring of 1862,” Philip Francis Howard Papers, Library of Virginia, https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/civil-war/Record-Archives.htm.

[5] Frederick H. Dyer, A Compendium of the War of the Rebellion, Vol. 1, Number and Organization of the Armies of the United States (New York: Thomas Yoseleff Publisher, 1959), 12.

[6] Sarah D. Bair, “Making Good on a Promise: The Education of Civil War Orphans in Pennsylvania, 1863–1893.” History of Education Quarterly 51, no. 4 (2011): 460–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41303897.

[7] Bair, “Making good on a Promise,” 461.

Leave a Reply