The Army Aid Society


In 1862, a group of men and women came together in Norristown to find a way to support the Union Army.  They called themselves the “Army Aid Society.”  According to its constitution, the society’s purpose was to supply “articles of comfort and convenience to the volunteers from Montgomery County who have enlisted in the Army.”

The Historical Society has a collection of the Army Aid Society’s minutes, correspondence, and lists of donors.

Groups like the Army Aid Society sprang up all over the country during the Civil War.  Most were called “Ladies’ Aid Societies,” and Norristown’s Army Aid Society was dominated by women who seemed to have held all the leadership positions in the organization.


A page from the minutes showing the supplies sent to the soldiers

The day to day work of the society was to raise money and make clothes and food to send to the soldiers.


Ticket to a fundraiser

Also part of this collection is a scrapbook of envelopes printed during the Civil War.  More colorful and patriotic than modern envelopes, these creative designs resulted from the new postal rate that allowed letters of up to one half of an ounce to be mailed for three cents (according to National Geographic).  Prior to that, the Post Office charged by the sheet, so no one used envelopes.  With all the men leaving their homes for the war, tens of thousands of Americans were now buying envelopes.

Many of the envelopes have political cartoons:



Others were more colorful:



The minute book for the Army Aid Society, covers the entire existence of the society.  In May, 1865, the group recorded its resolutions on the death of President Lincoln.


A month later, the group disbanded.  The Union had been saved.

A Civil War Substitute


A couple of weeks ago, I opened a box that has been sitting on a shelf in the lower stacks for some time.  Benjamin Franklin Hancock was the father of General Winfield Scott Hancock and a lawyer in Norristown.  The box contained a few of the elder Hancock’s personal papers and a lot of papers from his law practice.

One set of documents that I thought was particularly interesting were those of Benjamin E. Chain, another Norristown lawyer. First I found his discharge paper from the 34th Regiment of the Pennsylvania militia.


It’s an interesting document because he seems to have only been in service for about three months.  His discharge probably has something to do with this next document.



As the above indicates, the Enrollment Act of 1863 (also known as the Draft Act) allowed men to hire a substitute to serve in their place.  The going rate was about $300, though it could be more. That was out of the reach of most laborers, but Chain was a lawyer who had been practicing for over a decade.

I was curious to learn a little more about the substitute, an Irish immigrant named Thomas McDevitt.  I found him on a muster roll though Ancestry.


McDevitt served in the 81st Pennsylvania, and he survived the war living until 1912.  Benjamin E. Chain died in 1893 at the age of 69.

While I knew that men could hire substitutes to avoid the draft during the Civil War, I didn’t know they could hire a substitute after they had already been enlisted.  Perhaps some of our Civil War buffs  (I know you’re out there) can tell us more about it.

“To the Scholars at Willow Street School…”

This morning in our collection, I found a very fragile letter from 1868.  It was written by Dr. John Francis Bourns the founder of the National Homestead for Orphans of Soldiers and Sailors to the children attending Willow Street School in Norristown.  According to the letter, the children raised $114.87 for the Gettysburg orphanage which housed the orphans of men killed in the Civil War.  In the letter, Bourns tells the children that other fairs have been held to support the orphanage, but none had been so successful.


The first page of the letter

I couldn’t find anything else in the collection from the Willow Street School, but a search through the scrapbooks turned up an article by Edward Hocker (or “Norris”) about forgotten schools of Norristown.  He had come across a reference to the school in the Herald describing the very fair referred to in the letter.  The article appeared on October 8, 1868 and described the room at the school as being “tastefully decorated.”  The children were selling items that they had made themselves.  There was also a collection of pictures included a series of the monuments of Greece by T. A. Low, though the writer in the Herald declared the image created by the school’s principal Miss Emma P. Garrigus called “Departed Spirits” to be the best of the exhibit.

However, Hocker knew nothing else about the school.  He writes that there’s never been a public school in Norristown with that name, so it must have a small, private academy.  He turned to another local historian, Charles Major, who found that the school was in a brick building on the southeast corner of Willow and Spruce Streets.


The final page of the four page letter.

In our card catalog, I found a card referencing the application for a charter for the Willow Street School Association.  The document was filed on April 9, 1868.  The card was created in 1954 and says that the document is in private hands.

So that’s all I could find about the Willow Street School.  The National Homestead in Gettysburg was much easier to research. After the Battle of Gettysburg, Dr. Bourns saw a photograph of three children hanging on the wall in a tavern.  The photograph had been found by the tavern keeper’s daughter on the battlefield.  Dr. Bourns undertook to discover the original owner, and sent out a description of the photograph.  Eventually, a woman in upstate New York recognized the photograph to the newspapers.  Dr. Bourns eventually delivered the photograph to Philinda Humison personally.  The search for the family in the photograph led Dr. Bourns to establish the National Homestead orphanage in 1866 (the Humiston’s would live there for three years).


The picture of the Humison children.

Unfortunately, the orphanage later came under the control of a woman named Rosa Carmichael who abused the children by locking them in the basement among other things, and it was shut down in 1877.  The building now houses the National the Soldier’s Museum.

“A rank secessionist”

On October 2, 1862, a group of men sat down to write a letter.  The Civil War had been raging for over a year, and then men were writing to report the presence of a traitor.

The letter was addressed to Algernon Jenkins, Esquire, the director of the Springhouse and Sumneytown Turnpike.  Jenkins was also a member of Gwynedd Friends Meeting and the father of Howard M. Jenkins, author of Historical Collections Relating to Gwynedd.  You can click on the letter to make it larger.


While the anonymous letter writers do not name the traitor who works for the turnpike, they do not mince words, calling him a “rank secessionist” and a “black traitor.”

This letter comes from one of the more extensive collections at the Historical Society, the Charles F. Jenkins Collection.

George M. Randall

George M. Randall was born in Ohio, but he spent his youth in Norristown.  It was in Norristown that he began his military career at the age twenty when President Lincoln called for volunteers at the beginning of the Civil War.  He joined the 4th Pennsylvania Volunteers under Colonel John F. Hartranft for a 90 day enlistment.  When the regiment was disbanded just before the Battle of Bull Run, Randall joined the regular army in the 4th United States Infantry Regiment.  He saw action at Antietam and in siege of Petersburg.

Randall ended the war a captain in the regular army and decided to make the military his career.  He was sent west to fight in the Indian Wars and served for a time with General Custer as his chief of scouts.  He was not with Custer at the time of the Battle of Little Big Horn.  At one point he was captured by a Native American tribe and condemned to be burned at the stake, but he was saved by the intervention of the chief of another tribe.  In 1870, that chief was among six captive chiefs that Randall brought on a tour of Philadelphia and Norristown.  This was typical strategy of the U.S. government to convince the Native Americans of the strength of the United States and futility of further resistance.  The chiefs were shown several sights in Norristown and always attracted a curious crowd.

At the end of the 19th century, Randall was sent up to Alaska as thousands made their way north for the Gold Rush.  There, he organized the military department of Alaska and laid the first telegraph line greatly improving communication with the rest of the United States.

When the army was reorganized in 1901, he was made a Brigadier General.  After Alaska he served in various places throughout the country and in the Philippines from 1903 to 1905.  He retired from the army in 1905 and settled in Denver, CO, where he died in 1918.

USS General General George M. Randall (AP-115)

But his story wasn’t quite over.  In 1944 the USS General George M. Randall was launched.  It was a troop transport that was mainly active in the Pacific.  During the Korean War (1950-1953), the USS General George M. Randall was the first ship to return the remains of Americans killed in action to the United States.  It was also the ship that, a few years later, brought Elvis Presley to his post in Germany.  The ship was decommissioned in 1961.

Sources: Times Herald, July 28, 1937, March 7, 1945, March 19,1951;

Diary of John H. Ashenfelter

John H. Ashenfelter was a soldier in the 138th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, a regiment that mustered in on August 16, 1862.  The Historical Society has in its collection Corporal Ashenfelter’s 1864 diary.  He only kept the diary about a month, but we can learn quite a bit about him from just a few entries.  For example, he was a religious man, attending church on Sundays and frequently attending prayer meetings during the week.  He writes about eating beans and turnips and often having “dresparade.”

In one moving entry, he writes of his sister:


In a later entry, he records a review of his regiment by General Grant, who had been given command of all Union armies the previous month.  It’s difficult to read, but clicking the image will make it bigger.


Most of the entries describe the slow days of a regiment in camp, but at the beginning of May, the 51st was given its marching orders.  They were heading into the Battle of the Wilderness.  The final day recorded by Ashenfelter is a long day marching that ends, “no fighting at all.”


The entry for May 5, 1864 was written by John Ashenfelter’s cousin, Charles Barnes.


Ashenfelter had anticipated his own death.  At some point he had written this note in the back of the diary:


Private Jesse S. Moyer


Jesse S. Moyer enlisted in Company C of the 138th Pennsylvania Volunteers in August of 1862.  His company was recruited primarily from Norristown and Bridgeport.  The 138th regiment saw action in several major engagements of the war, including the Wilderness, Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor .  Jesse wrote two accounts of his service.  His handwriting is small and difficult to read, but provide interesting details of life on the march.

Moyer002                                   Moyer001

He survived till the end of the war, mustering out in June of 1865 at the ripe old age of 21.


This collection of his papers was donated to the Historical Society of Montgomery County by his son, Samuel H. Moyer (accession number 1957.10603).

Please join us on May 24th at 11am for a Memorial Day ceremony at Montgomery Cemetery, located at 1 Hartfranft Ave., in West Norriton.  We’ll have an exhibit of many of our military related papers and artifacts.