United States Sanitary Commission

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United States Sanitary Commission

The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) was a volunteer agency run under government auspices that sought to ensure the health and safety of Union Army soldiers during the American Civil War. It also collected donations of clothing, blankets, food, and medical supplies for military personnel, trained volunteer nurses, and ran a service that located lost or missing soldiers on behalf of their families. Commonly referred to as "the Sanitary" during its years of operation between 1861 and 1865, the USSC served as an umbrella organization for the scores of soldiers' aid societies formed at the local level. One volunteer, Katharine Prescott Wormeley, called it "the great artery which bears the people's love to the people's army" in her 1863 book, The United States Sanitary Commission: A Sketch of Its Purposes and Its Work (p. xv).

A Surge of Patriotism

When the war began in April 1861, a Chicago journalist and women's rights activist named Mary Livermore was in Boston visiting her ailing father. She was a committed abolitionist, as a result of an earlier job as a tutor on a Virginia plantation, where she had been appalled by the treatment of slaves. She was also active in the Universal-ist religious movement; with her husband, a minister, she edited the Chicago-based Universalist newspaper, New Covenant. During her visit to Boston, Livermore was stirred by the patriotic fervor and outpourings of support she witnessed on the streets in the days following the declaration of war. One aspect of this was the hasty assembling of volunteer units in response to President Abraham Lincoln's request for 75,000 civilians to serve a three-month stint protecting federal property until regular troops could be mustered. In her 1888 memoir, My Story of the War: A Woman's Narrative of Four Years Personal Experience, Livermore reported that Boston's historic Fanueil Hall was the designated assembly point for these militias, who arrived from elsewhere in New England by train and "were escorted by crowds cheering vociferously" down residential and commercial streets where nearly every address displayed the U.S. flag (p. 90).

In New York City, affluent women met on April 25 to form the Women's Central Relief Association (WCRA), whose goal was to organize soldiers' aid efforts. Its founding members invited a prominent New York Unitarian minister, Dr. Henry W. Bellows, to participate, and Bellows soon traveled to Washington with a delegation of physicians. Their aim was to meet with government officials and formally define the WCRA's role in the war effort. Bellows soon decided, however, that a larger organization with a more overtly medical mission was necessary. His model for this new organization was the British Sanitary Commission, which had helped eliminate brucellosis—an infectious disease transmitted from livestock to humans—during the Crimean War of 1853-1856.

Military officials, however, were uneasy with the idea of an American sanitary commission, believing that civilian interference in Army camps would only prove problematic. Even President Lincoln warned that a USSC could become the proverbial "fifth wheel" in the war effort, but despite these reservations, he signed a bill authorizing its creation as an official government entity of unpaid volunteers on June 18, 1861. The president was convinced by USSC supporters that a centralized agency was the best way to placate the growing number of women asserting their intention to contribute to the war effort in a useful way. A Western Sanitary Commission under similar charter was organized three months later in September 1861, and headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, in order to meet the needs of Union soldiers in that region of the country.

Leadership and Organization

The executive leadership of the USSC was entirely male. Its first executive secretary was a prominent New Yorker, the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who took a break from his post as commissioner of Central Park, which he had designed, to run the USSC. The WCRA was eventually subsumed into the USSC, but its first few months of collecting goods for soldiers — such as hospital gowns and bedding—proved extraordinarily fruitful at the first USSC collection depot in New York City.

The work of the volunteers was initially disorganized, but as one Mrs. Sherwood recalled years later in an article she wrote for the New York Times, Bellows was confident that blunders were an inevitable part of a new organization. "Dr. Bellows would say, as we told him of more boxes gone to the wrong place, 'let us go ahead and make more mistakes"' (May 28, 1898). Bellows soon began writing instruction pamphlets that were distributed to USSC auxiliaries; these dealt with such matters as the ideal way to pack and label shipments of clothing and blankets, and the proper method of making items like sanitary bandages.

Another key USSC figure was Louisa Lee Schuyler, who came from a prominent New York family. Schuyler was the great-granddaughter of the first Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and organized the WCRA's New York office, then went on to coordinate bandage-collection efforts in the city. In Chicago, the Northwestern auxiliary of the USSC was run by the aforementioned Livermore and Jane Hoge. Hoge was active in charitable work aiding the poor and immigrants in Chicago, and went on to serve as a volunteer nurse aboard hospital ships the USSC later created.

A Range of Volunteer Efforts

The volunteer efforts coordinated by the USSC took many forms. In the initial months of the war, for exam-pple, there was a call for Northern women to organize sewing circles to make hoods known as havelocks. These hoods were linen and were worn over a regulation uniform cap; they offered soldiers protection from both rain and sun. Fueling the demand for havelocks were worries that Union soldiers might suffer sunstroke in the Southern states, where the climate was considered dangerously tropical by Northerners. A veritable "havelock mania" raged across several states during the first year of the war. By May 20, some 1,100 of the cap covers had been sewn by the Ladies Havelock Association of New York City, according to a New York Times report from that day—but the headgear was later deemed useless, for it actually increased body temperature, and the mania died away.

Scores of Northern women also demonstrated their desire to contribute to the war effort by collecting lint for bandages. A New York Times article dated April 22, 1861, with the quaint title "Work for the Ladies," urged women's groups in churches to organize bandage-making crews. It also promised that such women would have allies: Recounting how women in Paris had made bandages for injured soldiers during the Paris Commune uprising of 1848, it declared, "[t]here are French ladies in this city who would gladly give their aid now to anything that may be undertaken here." Jane Woolsey, a young woman from an affluent New York City family, described the activity that ensued in a letter to a friend: "Inside the parlor windows the atmosphere has been very fluffy since Sumter, with lint-making and the tearing of endless lengths of flannel and cotton bandages and cutting out of innumerable garments" (Attie 1998, p. 35). Woolsey would go on to become a well-known pioneer in medical education thanks to her experiences as a volunteer nurse during the war.

Women who lived far from USSC offices also contributed. In her New York Times article, Mrs. Sherwood recalled the packages the USSC branches received from women around the country, often containing clothing and food that donors hoped would find their way to soldiers in need. One letter accompanying a donation read, "These clothes belonged to my poor Bob. He would have gone to war had he lived, but he died last Winter, and I send these clothes for some young man whom they may fit, and some jelly for the sick in the hospitals" (May 28, 1898).

Over time, a standard list of useful items was established and these items were packaged together in what became known as Comfort Bags. Bags contained such items as pen and paper, shaving supplies, and even needles and thread so that soldiers could repair their own uniforms. A miniature Bible or a small knife for woodcarving—a popular hobby at the time—might also be included. In his 1866 memoir, Hospital Life in the Army of the Potomac, Doctor William H. Reed recalled the arrival of one such shipment of Comfort Bags:

In all my hospital experiences I have never seen anything which has given such real pleasure to the men. Those who were able to move gathered round the stoves in their wards, the cripples of all kinds crept up and sat up! on the adjoining beds, each waiting for his gift. As it was handed to him, he went to the bottom of it with the pleased curiosity of a little child searching the stocking for the gifts of Santa Claus on Christmas morning. (p. 151)

In a number of major cities, efforts to raise money to meet the USSC's needs periodically took the form of charity events known as Sanitary Fairs. These popular events were staged in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, and New York. They featured booths with donated items for sale— including costly antiques and works of art—and gave those outside the USSC volunteer network a chance to contribute their support. The Fairs raised enormous sums for the USSC, which were used for administrative purposes, such as sending out field agents, or to train nurses, and also to assemble and distribute Comfort Bags, with the goal of providing one to each Union soldier every month.

Some of the work performed by USSC volunteers tapered off as the war dragged on and the enthusiasm of the first months waned. Reports of corruption occasionally surfaced, including claims that local farmers paid by the USSC to deliver donated supplies instead sold them to troops, or that unscrupulous Army officers took the Comfort Bags or other items for themselves. The USSC leadership launched internal investigations whenever such allegations arose, realizing that their mission depended heavily on the public's trust.

Hygiene Inspections

In addition to collecting supplies for soldiers through its local depots and volunteer workers, the USSC trained nurses and regularly sent experts to Union camps to inspect hygiene conditions. The agents—of whom Livermore was one—looked into sanitary practice at field hospitals and kitchens, ensured that latrines had been dug in a place where freshwater supplies could not become contaminated, and issued recommendations on how to improve conditions. In early 1863, reports began appearing in Northern newspapers that infectious diseases were killing far too many Union soldiers, and that this was directly attributable to unhygienic camp conditions. In response, the president of the Western Sanitary Commission, James Yeaton, sent a letter to the New York Times in which he reported on his visits to General William T. Sherman's corps after their defeat near Vicksburg, Mississippi, at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou. Yeaton found that the incidence of sickness was not as dire as he expected, but did note that "the great danger to be apprehended is from the want of a proper vegetable diet. Symptoms of scurvy have already made their appearance, and it behooves friends at home to make prompt efforts to aid in remedying this." His letter urged readers to donate pickles, sauerkraut, and other canned fruits and vegetables (New York Times, March 22, 1863).

Hospital Ships

The USSC established hospital ships that plied the rivers and brought wounded Union soldiers from the areas near battlefields further north to safety and medical care. In her 1867 memoir The Boys in Blue: Or, Heroes of the "Rank and File," Hoge recalled witnessing men being loaded onto the ships. "Many of these men were raving in the delirium of fever, fainting from exhaustion, or maddened with festering or undressed wounds, unamputated limbs, and raging thirst, which must be quenched before the removal could take place" (p. 67). Hoge also recounted the aftermath of the April 1862 Battle of Shiloh in southwestern Tennessee, which left more than 8,000 Union wounded. "The cabin floor of the hospital boat, where the operations were performed, ran in streams of blood, and legs and arms, as they were rapidly dismembered, formed a stack of human limbs" (p. 67).

The USSC Postal Service

Another division within the USSC located Union soldiers on behalf of their families. Though both Union and Confederate mail services worked remarkably well during the war, families sometimes waited months for a letter from a loved one in the field. To help locate missing soldiers, or determine if they had become a casualty of war, the USSC established a Hospital Directory that featured names of all Union soldiers recuperating in Washington, DC, hospitals. This directory eventually came to encompass all military medical facilities under the supervision of the War Department, and was one of the most costly expenditures of the USSC—but also the most priceless. In her 1863 book Wormely refers to the many heartbreaking inquiries the division received; one particular one provided the names and last-known whereabouts of two of the letter-writer's nephews, and concluded with the remark that "these are two out of fourteen nephews that I have no account of since the battle of Fredericksburg" (p. 235).

Aid to Newly Discharged Veterans

The last major fundraising effort for the USSC, a second Chicago Sanitary Fair, opened several weeks after the end of hostilities, and the funds raised were used to continue the USSC's work in aiding newly discharged veterans returning to civilian life. Those veterans who could not find their families or were permanently disabled came under the auspices of the Special Relief Department of the USSC. According to a New York Times report, this department's duties included investigating "the condition of discharged men who are assumed to be without means to pay the expense of going to their homes, and… [furnishing] the necessary means where the man is found to be truly and really in need" (January 29, 1865).

One of the USSC's last significant efforts was the publication of a booklet titled The Soldier's Friend, which was distributed to Union soldiers. It listed the location of USSC branches and depots, as well as addresses for the newly created Soldiers' Homes, which offered returning soldiers a way station as they made their way back home—or refuge if they discovered there was no home left to which they could return. The booklet also featured valuable information on artificial limbs, back pay, and pensions. In this capacity, the USSC served in place of a national organization or agency to help veterans, the first of which came into existence in April 1866 as the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for former Union soldiers. Only in 1921, following World War I, would a federal-level agency, the Veterans' Bureau, come into being to provide official federal assistance to those who had served their country.

The USSC disbanded in May 1866, a month after the Grand Army of the Republic was founded. Though prominent men served in its executive ranks, a tremendous amount of work was carried out by Livermore, Hoge, Woolsey, Schuyler, Wormeley, and countless other women. Many of them gained their first experience in financial and organizational administration, and went on to serve in the social-reform movements that gained momentum later in the century.


Attie, Jeanie. Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

"From City Point." New York Times, January 29, 1865.

"The Havelock Cap-Covers." New York Times, May 20, 1861.

Hoge, Jane [Mrs. A. H. Hoge]. The Boys in Blue; Or, Heroes of the "Rank and File." Chicago: C. W. Lilley, 1867.

Livermore, Mary A. My Story of the War: A Woman's Narrative of Four Years Personal Experience as Field and Hospital Nurse in the Union Army. Hartford, CT: A. D. Worthington, 1888.

Miller, Francis Trevelyan, and Robert Sampson Lanier, eds. Prisons and Hospitals. Vol. 7 of The Photographic History of the Civil War. New York: Review of Reviews, 1911.

Reed, William Howell. Hospital Life in the Army of the Potomac. Boston: W. V. Spencer, 1866.

"The Sanitary Condition of Gen. Grant's Army." New York Times, March 22, 1863.

Sherwood, Mrs. "Memories of 1861-64; The Sanitary Commission." New York Times, May 28, 1898.

"The Wants of the Western Sanitary Commission." New York Times, August 22, 1862.

"Work for the Ladies." New York Times, April 22, 1861.

Wormeley, Katharine Prescott. The United States Sanitary Commission: A Sketch of Its Purposes and Its Work. Boston: Little, Brown, 1863.

Carol Brennan

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United States Sanitary Commission