April 7, 2011

Elida Rumsey Fowle

Elida Rumsey Fowle (1843-1919) was known during the Civil War as the “Songbird of the North,” as she entertained Union soldiers with rousing patriotic songs, and is reputed to have been the first to sing in public Julia Ward Howe’s anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The Rumseys had moved to Washington, DC from Tarrytown, New York in 1861, and Miss Rumsey gave informal concerts at her family’s home on Judiciary Square. Popular, she was one of a quartet asked to sing for Sunday services at the House of Representatives. It was here that she met her future husband, John Allan Fowle of Boston. After services, the two began to visit hospitals in the vicinity, giving religious tracts from the American Tract Society, and homemade jellies and cakes to recuperating Union soldiers. Many times, Elida was induced to sing such songs as “The Rebel Flags” and “The Dying Soldier Boy,” songs written by Fowle expressly for Elida Rumsey. After a short courtship, the two were married in the House of Representatives by Chaplain Alonzo Quint, the minister that held services there on Sunday mornings. They were married in 1863 with almost four thousand people attending their wedding. With members of Congress, the Senate and numerous Union soldiers who were recipients of their largess, it is still the only wedding to have taken place in the Congressional chambers. With a request from the gallery, Elida Rumsey Fowle stood on the desk of the Speaker of the House and sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Just after receiving their wedding guests, the Fowles went to the library they had worked so diligently to open in Washington, DC for the benefit of Union soldiers and known as the Soldiers Free Library. The Fowles had collected funds and books from numerous benefactors in the North. Among their friends was Eleanor Baker of Dorchester, who purchased fifty books herself, and enlisted the aid of her friends in Dorchester. The Fowles provided a place for soldiers on leave to find a quiet place, with stationary, pens and stamps to write letters to loved ones at home. Books, tracts and scrapbooks were among the literature available, and occasionally an impromptu concert filled the library with song. They built the library from a small collection into one of renown, and asked each soldier using the collection to sign a pledge to abstain from “profane language, from alcoholic drink, as a beverage, and from all other vices in the Army and Camp.” Their departure from Washington, DC in 1863 prompted a resolution to thank the couple for their work in Washington, with a Bible and photograph album being presented to them by their friends. After the Civil War, the Fowles went to Brooklyn, New York where John A. Fowle was in the wool brokerage trade. They remained there until 1877, when they moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts. They purchased a brick row house on Boston Street (now Columbia Road) across from the firehouse. In retirement, the Fowles remained active, with Mrs. Fowle founding the Wintergreen Club, a reading room in Upham’s Corner for children. She founded the “Grandchildren of the Veterans of the Civil War,” and became active in the Dorchester Historical Society, which was founded in 1891. Her husband wrote a short history of the Old North Burying Ground in Upham’s Corner, across from their home, in 1912 and the couple received greetings on the 50th wedding anniversary, which was celebrated in the Hall of Flags at the Massachusetts State House with over two thousand people in attendance. Their activities also included the raising of two daughters of Aunt Sally, a slave of Colonel Robert E. Lee. It was Aunt Sally that gave Mrs. Fowle a silver salver and a few pieces of china from Arlington House, the Lee home in Virginia, to keep for protection. A bond was developed between the two, and after the war the Fowles raised two of her children in the North, educating them in the north. Their stories and experiences of the Civil War and their own participation in the events of that time attracted a plethora of friends. Their vast collection of Civil War relics was deposited at the Blake House in Dorchester. Upon her death in 1919 she was buried at Forest Hills Cemetery; Mrs. Fowle was the last remaining member of the Nurses of the Civil War. With her went many of the firsthand memories of a full and active life that revolved around the Civil War. The Fowles are buried on Larch Avenue at Forest Hills Cemetery.

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