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Civil War group has modern charitable goals in mind

Jan. 8, 2013

Elegantly dressed ladies and gentlemen swept the ballroom of the Wauwatosa Woman's Club in a style harking back to Civil War days.

The West Side Soldiers Aid Society, a group from Hales Corners, hosted the event Saturday with a particular purpose - in this case, to raise money for jerseys for the adaptive cycling team of the spinal cord injury center at the Veterans Association Hospital - but with grander traditions in mind.

Civil roots

The current West Side Soldiers Aid Society began in 2003 as homage to a group by the same name that was created to help destitute Civil War veterans from 1862 to 1867.

The group was and is led by women, which may not seem too unique now but was a controversial and pioneering group for their time, according to member Patricia Lynch. The original group took up what they called a "sacred duty" of protecting soldiers postwar after witnessing destitute soldiers at churches and on the street around Milwaukee.

Lynch wears a dress that is a complete re-creation of a dress worn by Fanny Burling Buttrick, one of the original lady managers from the Civil War-era West Side Soldiers Aid Society. Her husband was an officer and she would often accompany him to the battlefield, sometimes cooking the officer's breakfast with cannonballs screaming over her head. Many of the modern group's 65 members have picked an original member to emulate.

Buttrick and the original ladies of the West Side Soldiers Aid Society were cast as "angels of mercy" for their work taking care of soldiers. Lynch, a caregiver and history buff, wants to dispel some of those rumors. The angels of mercy were not clad in white gleaming linen. According to her, they had a very dirty job of bandaging wounds, cooking in dirty conditions and pounding the pavement for the soldiers.

The work of the original West Side Soldiers Aid Society ended with the purchase of the grounds that are now the VA Medical Center in Milwaukee.

A Social affair

Not only do the women try to refresh our memory of Civil War-era caregivers, but a branch of them called the West Side Victorian Dancers working to rekindle the social aspect dance while raising money for veterans.

"Social dance was kind of glue for the community," Lynch said. "Young people were introduced into society in dances and it was the place for young people to have some unchaperoned moments on the dance floors. The dance teachers of the 19th century believed that dance was essential for health."

A social dance is a social gathering that branches to be more than just a dance. It is coordinated, much like a square dance, with its own set of rules and social conduct. One rule is if a man brings his wife to a fancy dance, he must only dance with her once or twice and must make himself available for all women at the dance.

A tableau - some form of short skit, either a sing-along, a skit or a re-enactment of a play - is introduced in the middle of the dance. Saturday's dance, for instance, saw a re-enactment of the witch scene from Hamlet.

Guests are encouraged to dress in costume at the social dance. Women can wear shorter skirts to show off some ankle.

Paying a debt

The Saturday event cost $15 and all proceeds went to charity. The WSSA has raised $1,500 for the jersey project so far and have also raised $2,000 for the Fisher House of Wisconsin. They also hold quilt raffles in April, with the funding going to the Fisher House.

The women continue to hold ballroom dances in Hales Corners Village Hall every second and fourth Tuesday. Their next event is slated for Jan. 26 at the Hales Corners Library and is free.

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