Civil War minister helped orphans in Fort Smith
By THOMAS SACCENTE
Jan. 21, 2018
FORT SMITH, Ark. (AP) — A minister from Springfield, Illinois, played a big role in finding homes for children in Fort Smith who were orphaned by the Civil War.
Francis Springer served as the post chaplain at Fort Smith from 1863-67, according to the Fort Smith National Historic Site website. Tom Iverson, a retired Fort Smith resident who on occasion performs first-person interpretations of Springer and gives talks about him, said Springer was an important figure in Fort Smith history from his perspective because of all he did for the residents of the city during his time there.
"It was his calling to take care of the citizens, and the orphans especially," Iverson said. "He sent close to 300 orphans up to Illinois to be placed into homes, and I find that remarkable."
Iverson said Springer was involved with different groups in Fort Smith.
The Times Record reports that the introduction of the book, "The Preacher's Tale: The Civil War Journal of Rev. Francis Springer, Chaplain, U.S. Army of the Frontier," edited by William Furry, goes into detail on Springer's life. It states Springer was born in Roxbury, Pennsylvania, on March 19, 1810, as the youngest of two children to John and Elizabeth Springer. Elizabeth Springer died in 1814 and John Springer died in 1815 as a result of the War of 1812.
"But before John Springer passed away, he found homes for his motherless children among his friends and neighbors in southern Pennsylvania," the book states. "However, his children would not be together long. Francis and his foster parents soon moved to Maryland, while sister, Elizabeth, and her guardians remained in Pennsylvania."
Springer was licensed as a minister in October 1836 by the Lutheran Synod of Maryland and ordained in 1837. Springer married Mary Kriegh in the spring of 1837, and they moved west to Springfield in 1839.
The Springers acquired some notable new neighbors in 1844: Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and their infant son, Robert. The book states Springer and Lincoln had much in common.
"In age they were but 13 months apart," the book states. "Both were born into poverty, and as professional men in the 1840s, they were both struggling to become successful members of their community. By 1850, each was making a name for himself in the Midwest — Lincoln as a lawyer and politician, Springer as an educator and theologian. Both abhorred the institution of slavery, certainly for what it did to the African race but also for what it did to undermine freemarket labor, something each considered a foundation of American industry and society."
Furry, who is also the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society, said the Springers and the Lincolns remained neighbors until 1847.
Springer was superintendent of city public schools in Springfield when the Civil War broke out, the book states. In September 1861, at age 51, Springer enlisted in the 10th Illinois Cavalry. He was made unit chaplain and given an officer's commission. The regiment was involved in several skirmishes before becoming part of the Army of the Frontier in November 1862.
In January 1863, Springer worked with Dr. James M. Johnson of Arkansas to recruit a regiment of Arkansans, which became the First Arkansas Infantry. This unit was mustered into service on March 25, 1863 and later joined Brig. Gen. James G. Blunt's Army of the Frontier at Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, which marched into and took possession of Fort Smith on Sept. 1, 1863.
From there, Springer was appointed post chaplain at Fort Smith the following November, as well as the head of the Bureau of Refugees and Freedmen there. Among Springer's responsibilities were feeding, clothing, sheltering and otherwise providing for the widows, orphans, freed or escaped slaves and refugees who were coming into Fort Smith.
?First thing he did is he opened up a school for the refugees," Iverson said. "He was a firm believer in education, and he believed that blacks should be educated. He saw a need for taking care of the refugees here because once the Union took back over, the place was inundated with refugees from all over the Indian Territory, northern Arkansas, southern Arkansas. They just all poured into Fort Smith because they had nowhere else to go. The Confederates still controlled a good portion of the Indian Territory and the rest of Arkansas."
The book states Springer was instrumental in establishing at least two charitable institutions to help the orphans the Civil War created. This included the Home for the Friendless in Springfield and the Fort Smith Orphans Asylum. Springer was personally responsible for finding homes in the North for more than 300 orphan children.
Furry said this included his great-great grandmother and other relatives.
Springer also helped establish a weekly newspaper called the "Fort Smith New Era," for which he served as writer, columnist and part-time editor throughout the next four years. Most of the articles Springer wrote were published anonymously or under the pen name "Thrifton."
?And from reading his journals, you can tell which articles were his because of the way he wrote," Iverson said. "He was very articulate, and he didn't pull any punches about who he liked and who he didn't like, certain commanders he didn't care for. He was very involved in that, and any other community type activities that he did."
Springer returned to Springfield in 1867 and resumed being an educator and minister, the book states. He died Oct. 21, 1892.
Information from: Southwest Times Record, http://www.swtimes.com/