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 Needy Civil War Orphans Gave Rise to Soldiers’ & Sailors’ Children’s Home

January 7, 2009 - In the wake of the Civil War, thousands of children were left orphaned or destitute. This is a seldom mentioned part of American history, but one that is remembered by those at the Indiana Soldiers' and Sailors' Children's Home. The bloody aftermath of our Civil War and the humanitarian crisis it gave birth to are at the center of the Home's origin.

The site on which the Home now stands was once known as Knightstown Springs due to the many sulfur-rich springs that dot the area. A primitive spa industry had grown up around the springs in the early 19th century because it was thought that drinking or bathing in the water was beneficial to one's health. Enough people did this that a man named Aaron Aldrich constructed a hotel at the springs to take advantage of travelers to the location.

The business progressed for a while, but soon floundered. The Aldrich Hotel and 54 surrounding acres were purchased by the state in 1865 as a place to house injured Civil War veterans. In 1871, after a fire forced the movement of the remaining veterans to a facility in Ohio, the Home was given over completely to the care and education of children. The impetus for that shift in emphasis can be traced to two people, George Merritt and Susan Fussell.

Merritt, who would later help found Indiana National Bank, was a partner in a wool manufacturing business called Merritt and Coughlon. His business had received a tremendous boost from the brisk economy brought on by the Civil War. Wool was in great demand for use in blankets and other military goods. Merritt also served as a volunteer in the Indiana Sanitary Commission, a wartime organization that was established to provide medical care and supplies to soldiers.

It was these experiences that he came into contact with hundreds of wounded and dying men. He told of how the foremost concern of these troops was for the children they would leave behind. Merritt always promised these men, many of whom made the supreme sacrifice for their country, that their children wouldn't be abandoned. Once the war was over, he began to look for a way to keep his promise.

It was Merritt's good fortune to meet a like-mind- ed woman named Susan Fussell. According to Bruce Trump, social studies teacher and unofficial historian of the Home, "Fussell was a school teacher in Pennsylvania by the time she was 15. When her brother, who lived in Indiana, enlisted in the Union Army, Fussell moved here to help take care of his family. When she had stabilized her brother's family, she volunteered as a nurse and fol- lowed Indiana troops south through Kentucky and Tennessee."

Fussell was stationed at a Sanitary Commission outpost in Memphis, where she cared for wounded soldiers from battles at both Shiloh and Chickamauga. These battles, both of which took place in Tennessee, were two of the bloodiest of the Civil War. At Chickamauga alone, 3,969 were killed and 24,430 were wounded.

At some point during her arduous duty, Fussell suffered a collapse due to the extreme emotional stress and harrowing physical demands of being close to combat. She came back to Indiana to recuperate and was then sent to take charge of a ward in a military hospital in Louisville. She was struck, just as Merritt had been, by the overwhelming concern the injured soldiers had for their children. And so, when the war was over, she returned to Indiana and, just like Merritt, began looking for a way to help those children.

With Merritt's assistance, Fussell gathered 10 displaced children and began caring for them at a military hospital in Indianapolis. The two crusaders still lacked any kind of permanent home until 1867 when Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton signed the law that made the Home a state-run facility. With a $5,000 grant from Merritt, Fussell was able to take her children to the Home that same year and begin using the money to create a haven for the hundreds of others who would follow.

And follow they did. By 1871, the year a fire forced out the few remaining veterans, there were 307 kids housed at the school. The staff of the Home in these early days was comprised mostly of war widows and mothers who had lost their sons. As Trump says, "It was Merritt's idea to move these women to the Home. He thought that, aside from teaching and taking care of the children, they could find a sense of pur- pose in life to help them deal with the losses they had suffered."

Fussell left the Home in 1877 and took the original 10 children to Spiceland. She had never had biological children, but her bond with the orphans in her care was as strong as if they had been her own. She lived in Spiceland until her death in 1889.

On the surface, Merritt and Fussell had little in common. Merritt was a wealthy entrepreneur and Fussell was a working-class woman. The one common denominator between the two was their religion. Both were active members of the Society of Friends, a religion that stresses philanthropic works as a vital duty. Although records for this period of the Home's history are sparse, it's likely that their religion, along with their shared experiences in the Sanitary Commission, played some role in their meeting and in their determination to start the Home.

 

The story of the Home since those early days reads like the history of America since that time. Enrollment has risen and fallen over the years due to periods of war and peace and of economic prosperity and hard times. The largest enrollment the Home ever had was in 1935, during the height of the Great Depression, when 1,010 children were living there.

Much has changed over the last century and a half. The Home has grown from its original 54 acres to 420 acres today. From the modest beginning of Susan Fussell and her 10 children, the Home now employs approximately 180 people and has educated thousands. The population of the Home has also changed. It was noted early on in its development that, during times of peace, there wouldn't be enough children in need to justify continuous operation of the Home. For this reason, they gradually began to admit children orphaned for reasons other than war, and also those whose parents were alive, but unable to care for them. Most of the children who live at the Home today are "at-risk" of such neglect. And although the Home still gives preference to children of military families, it is no longer a strict requirement for admittance.

The programs, technology and challenges have also evolved, but one thing remains constant, and that is the mission of the Home. It seeks to teach and care for children, some of whom arrive there via difficult family circumstances and some who are from the local community, with the hope that all will benefit from the Home's opportunities.

The late Bill Brewer was superintendent of the Home for 38 years (1962-1990), and he summed up the goal of the Home in 2001, saying, "If the kids become good citizens, then we've been successful. You can't go anywhere in Indiana without finding our kids working in just about every trade there is. They don't have to be famous. As long as they can make a living, raise their families, and be good citizens, we've done our job."

 

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