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A Day at the Knightstown Soldiers' Home

24 May 1866

   On May 24th, 1866, a reporter from the Howard County Tribune spent an evening visiting the newly opened Soldiers' Home for the care and keeping of those veterans of the late Civil war had rendered homeless and helpless. This is his report to the citizens. The land was acquired just south of Knightstown in Rush County in early 1866, but The Home wasn't formally opened and dedicated until 15 Jun 1867. The time of this visit was about four months after the Home originally opened.

Knightstown, Ind. May 24th

   For nearly a year the Home was at the Indianapolis city hospital. But a few weeks since, the board bought at a cost of $8,500, what is generally know as the "Knightstown Springs" farm, and four weeks ago the home was permanently located there. The change was a delightful one to the soldiers, for they were tiring of the dreary walls of the Hospital, where everything reminded them of the scenes and suffering in the land where they had sacrificed so much; but out here in the pure country air, amid the green grass, and birds, and flowers, they begin to feel that life's pleasures are not all lost to them.
   It was six o'clock in the evening when we arrived at the home. Being as tired and hungry as we are capable of feeling, as we caught sight of the "blue coats" through the trees, our first thought was of "hard tack," coffee, a la Army, and that other accompaniment of which I need not speak here, with a "roll up" in blankets. But coming a little nearer, an occasional glimpse through the open doors of the neat iron cots with their clean counterpanes and snowy pillows and here and there a little stand with its dainty white cover and piles of books and paper, standing near an open window immediate introduction to a substantially filled tea table, told us our fears were in vain. But what a lovely spot! Certainly one of the finest, naturally, that ever bore the name of Indiana. To be sure the old and almost worn out buildings give it a rather dilapidated appearance just now, but hammers are ringing from morning till night, and before many moons it will look quite differently. Some of the cottages in the yard, of which there are six or seven, are in somewhat better repair. They contain two or three rooms each and each room has its door and two or three windows opening out onto the bright green lawn in front. They are mostly occupied by the sick. The labors of the day are over for most of them and they, gathering around these cottage doors, or upon the broad veranda in front, read the evening papers, tell the home news of the day, or discuss graver matters of Presidential and Congressional politics; or stretching themselves upon the green grass under the trees, relate little incidents in their soldier-life, or funnier tales of their boy-hood days, I feel that at least one query I have long entertained is solved. Will men be happy and contented in this home we are seeking to give them? Another yet remains, will they be industrious and subject to discipline there? Tomorrow will assist in the solution. Accordingly, as soon as the duties of the day are fairly begun, our curiosity is abroad on a tour of inspection.
   We find a half dozen or more of the stronger ones engaged in light work in the garden, others are at the barn doing morning work there. A large red boot near the gate reminds us that we have a shoe maker who will do making or repairing in the best of style, and the tap, tap of his hammer in yonder building assures us he is at work. Four or five others are starting in another direction with a lot of carpenter's tools, to make some repairs somewhere. One is at work in the kitchen, another in the dining room, and a third sweeping the halls, while old 'Chris,' broken down but good natured and cheerful, is peeling potatoes for dinner. Charlie, industrious and ingenious as two or three of some well men I've known, is at work with brick, trowel, and paints, constructing ornamental flower beds in the front yard. He has so arranged the painted bricks so as to represent the different corps badges, and just now is at work upon a fine eagle; all voluntarily, he assures us. Some of the younger ones with dinner and books are starting to school, while "Uncle Alex," with hair and beard that must have felt the frost. Of sixty autumns to have made it so white, is bustling hither and thither as though both heart and hands were full of business; and although we know he is generally Ward-master, and a sort of general presence everywhere where anything is needed, yet we sometimes wonder if even all of this can keep men so busy. Others whose names I cannot recall are equally busy, some with the sick, others doing the errands, or whatever their strength will permit. But we had almost forgotten "Tom" who is superintending the repairing of a cistern in the back yard. He is fifty-one years old and has lost one arm, but he has a discharge that is worth forty arms, if a man had so many to lose. It tells you that he lost it during that fearful fight at Petersburg while saving the flag, after the color-bearer and three others who had attempted its rescue had been shot down. (Query -When the Rebels of two years ago, now such warm friends of soldiers talk so complacently of "our brave soldiers," I wonder if they include Tom and his two Negro brothers, each of who lost a limb in the service of their country.) We would love to speak of others here, whose crippled forms tell plainer than any discharge how "they fought like brave men and well" but space forbids. Every scar they wear is a badge of which they who wear them may well be proud. If ever we felt like bowing our heads before mortal men, it is in the presence of these men, the Nobility of America. - But these arms and limbs, and eyes that are gone, this helplessness that has come upon them, shall not be without a reward. For a hundred years from now, when we and all that we have done shall have been forgotten, the deeds of these brave men shall be told as the stories of American heroism.
   But as this report grows long, the remainder shall be brief. There are at present sixty-five inhabitants of the Home; the buildings will perhaps accommodate a hundred. About a score of the number here are over fifty years of age; seven are confined to rooms by reason of sickness, and only twelve of the sixty-five are at present drawing pensions. Many of them have been taken from the "poor-houses" of the land, and f it were not for this provision many others might be there.
   The farm contains fifty-six acres mostly under cultivation. Only two men outside of the institution are employed upon the place, a carpenter just now does the permanent repairing, and a man to do the heavy plowing. The soldiers do the remainder, and they do it with pride and pleasure that shows how well they appreciate what has been done for them. They have planted five acres of a small garden besides corn, potatoes, and etc. In addition to the fruit and ornamental trees already here, this spring a friend donated one thousand fruit trees and one hundred shade trees. By the time the necessary building and repairing is done, they hope to be able to make the Institution nearly self-sustaining.
   Dr. Wishard, the superintendent, is Christian gentleman and a soldier. I believe God, through all the war, has been preparing him to take charge of just this place. For any man who can fill the position of Surgeon, Steward, Superintendent, and farmer, as he does, who can run all that vast machinery with so little friction, and without any of the restraint or formality of "red tape," is a rarity. May God spare him and his good lady just as long as the Soldiers' Home last.
   Just over the way in a little white cottage, is the Children's Home; the orphans whose fathers fell fighting for the dear old flag. Miss Susan Fussell, a good woman who has seen much of this life, is their mother and teacher. Months ago as she stood by the lonely hospital cot and saw the fathers die, God put into her heart to do just this work; and today while I hear their merry laughter as they chase each other through the grove in their childish glee, I thank Him that these little waifs which the great storm of war has thrown upon our hearts, have found some warm enough to take them in. And I am thankful too, that they who stood so manfully by those brave men through their days of strength and victory, have not forgotten them now in their time of suffering and dependence. And is it not meet they who have sacrificed so much for this fair land of ours, should now, when the contest is over, enjoy the fairest spot that land affords; that those who have guarded at such fearful cost these homes of ours should now in their misfortune have the cheeriest home of us all?

2006 UEB


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