• Brigette Cook Jones

The Civil War and Orphan Annie


The Civil War started in 1861 and ended in 1865. This epic war effected many people - and Mary Alice Smith, the real Orphan Annie, was no different.

In 1861, she started out living with her Grandmother in the little town of Carrollton, Indiana. By 1865, she would be living in the little town of Philadelphia, Indiana working as a maid in a tavern along the National Road with a short stint at the home of Reuben and Elizabeth Riley in between.

Many stories about Mary Alice's life claim that her father died as a result of the Civil War - but this is incorrect. Her father did fight in the Civil War, but he survived and was sent home. He enrolled in Sept of 1861 and mustered out in May of 1865. He served in a couple of different units, and did see action in Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. His family was living in western Indiana at the time. This was his second marriage for him as the marriage to Mary Alice's mother ended in death (hers) or divorce (I don't know which at this time).

Mary Alice's future husband would also answer the call to arms of his country. He actually served twice. The first time was for a week - where he and his brothers answered the frantic call of Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton for citizens to arm themselves in response to Morgan's raid. He also served again in a 100 Days unit towards the end of the war. However, this military service was enough for him to file for a pension from the government and a military headstone for his grave.

John Rittenhouse, the uncle who brought Mary Alice to the Riley Home, also signed up to serve in the Civil War. In fact, it is probably this service that had the most affect on Mary Alice's fate. The story is that in 1861 Mary Alice was contently living with her Grandmother in Carrollton. At that time her Grandmother became "too poor to take care of her." I don't know if this was a financial situation or a health situation, but Mary Alice was taken to live with her Uncle John and Aunt Malinda Rittenhouse. There was a large family in the Rittenhouse home, and the uncle was getting read to go off to fight in the Civil War. It was felt that the family could not handle another mouth to feed. So Mary Alice was brought to the Reuben Riley Home in Greenfield in November of 1861 to help Mrs. Riley.

The date is fairly significant because John Rittenhouse is the one who brought Mary Alice to the Riley Home, and he would be enrolled in military service in December 1861. Reuben Riley was also at home. He had served for 3 months from April to August of 1861. He had returned home to recuperate from an injury, and would eventually re-enlist for a 3 year service in August of 1862. James Whitcomb Riley, the son of Reuben and the Hoosier Poet who originally created the Orphant Annie character, remarks in his prose piece, "Where is Mary Alice Smith?" - "She came to us on a cold day in early winter." Furthermore, James writes about a "reputed uncle" of Mary Alice Smith as the one who brought her to the Riley home. The poet’s own father was at this arrival and negotiated with the uncle. The ONLY way for this exchange to have happened - for both Reuben Riley and John Rittenhouse to be together - is it had to take place before December of 1861 (when John Rittenhouse enlisted), and when Reuben was home recuperating between August of 1861 and August of 1862. "Early winter" - - could only mean - November 1861.

Mary Alice's sojourn with the Riley family was according to her, "the happiest time in my life." She was treated as a member of the family, and commented that Mrs. Riley was such a "good mother." There is no indication that she was treated as a "bound servant" as many sources like to claim. In fact, she was specifically brought in by Reuben Riley to help his wife with the small children: Elva May and Alexander Humboldt and to help with some of the household chores. James Whitcomb Riley would have been one year older than Mary Alice - - and probably why he remembers her so well - being close to her in age.

According to James Whitcomb Riley, Mary Alice would stay with the Riley family "only a season." So she was with them less than a year. Many stories have erroneously stated that she was with the Rileys for several years, or claim that she came to live with them later in time. Based on my research, I am fairly certain on the November 1861 date as her date of arrival, and probably late spring/early summer of 1862 as the time of her leaving.

James Whitcomb Riley says in his prose poem, that ultimately, her "uncle's fortunes change" and he returns and collects his niece. John Rittenhouse's military service is very hazy. He was older when he enlisted in December of 1861, and in all of the records that I have found - his mustering out date - is "not stated" or "never notified." I am unclear what this exactly means, but at this time I cannot find any information about John Rittenhouse serving for any length of time. I also cannot find any information about John Rittenhouse applying for a military pension. This is a mystery that may need some further investigation.

It appears that John Rittenhouse returned home after only being in military service a short time. Maybe he was rejected because of his health or age? However, Mary Alice's fate and living situation would change again. Upon John Rittenhouse's return home, he "collects his niece and returns home." I know that at this point, Mary Alice is placed in a tavern along the National Road where she becomes a "girl of hard work." She would work in this tavern for the next six years, and this would be where she would meet her husband, John Wesley Gray.

Mary Alice's fortunes were tied to the events surrounding the Civil War - either directly or indirectly. Most of the men in her life can claim Civil War service as part of their experience, and it shaped their lives as well as hers. However, most significantly - it was the Civil War that caused her to come to the Riley Home. Mrs. Riley was going to need some extra help while her husband was convalescing, and it was thought that Mary Alice would remain with the Rileys upon Reuben Riley's return to Civil War service. Also, Mary Alice's uncle and aunt - the Rittenhouses - brought her to the Riley Home as a necessity due to John Rittenhouse’s impending service. If it hadn't been for the Civil War - Mary Alice may never have come to live with the Riley's and then James would never have met - his Orphant Annie.


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