Volunteer Work to Support Troops

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Volunteer Work to Support Troops

When President Abraham Lincoln called up 75,000 Union volunteers after the surrender of Fort Sumter (April 13, 1861), civilians in Philadelphia were there to meet the trains and provide "coffee and sandwiches from their own homes to the men in the streets" (Library Company of Philadelphia 2006). As more and more troop trains arrived, local barrel makers William Cooper and Henry Pearce donated the use of a two-story brick building, designated thereafter as the Cooper Shop Volunteer Refreshment Saloon. Local merchant Barzilai S. Brown started a second facility, the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon. Operational by late May 1861, the Refreshment Saloons provided reading materials, bathing facilities, changes of clothing, letter writing materials, and other comforts, as well as meals. Indeed, by the time the saloons closed in December 1865, they had served more than one million meals (Library Company of Philadelphia 2006).

The immediate response of Philadelphians is one early example of the great outpouring of volunteer support for Civil War soldiers and their families. Civilian support was immediate, universal, and heartfelt. As men from the North and South mobilized to fight, their service was mirrored by the family members they left behind, primarily women.

In the North, Union soldiers were supported by more than 10,000 volunteer aid societies that provided blankets, food, supplies, and medical aid (Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities). On April 20, 1861, the Soldier's Aid Society of Northern Ohio formed in Cleveland, supplying blankets and clothing to Union volunteers from the Ohio area. Rebecca Rouse served as its first president (Ohio Historical Society). On April 25, 1861, Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Dr. Dorothea Dix, and others established the New York Women's Central Association of Relief (WCAR) to train nurses for work in army hospitals and to raise funds for medical supplies (Giesberg 2006, p. 32).

Often the unpredictability of troop movements prevented effective delivery of supplies. As a result, two commissions—the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) and the United States Christian Commission (USCC)—were formed to expedite efficient delivery of goods and services. Many of the individual soldiers' aid societies in the North immediately allied themselves with one of these commissions. In its first report, the USSC acknowledged that

The present is essentially a people's war. The hearts and minds, the bodies and souls, of the whole people and of both sexes throughout the loyal States are in it. The rush of volunteers to arms is equaled by the enthusiasm and zeal of the women of the nation, and the clerical and medical professions view with each other in their ardor to contribute in some manner to the success of our noble and sacred cause. (Bellows, Harris, Harsen, et al. 1861)

The USSC is credited with cutting the disease rate of the Union army by half and raising almost $25 million in support for the Northern war effort (United States Sanitary Commission 2005). Katherine Wormeley, who was active in the work of the USSC, called it "the great artery which bears the people's love to the people's army" (United States Sanitary Commission 2005). USSC volunteers "tirelessly canvassed neighborhoods for donations, worked as nurses, organized diet kitchens in the camps, ran hospital ships, knitted socks and gloves, sewed blankets and uniforms, baked food, and organized Sanitary Fairs that raised millions of dollars worth of goods and funds for the Federal Army" (United States Sanitary Commission 2005).

What motivated these outpourings of support? The novelist Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote in her Civil War journal, "As I can't fight, I will content myself by working for those who can" (Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities). Alcott herself worked for a month during the winter of 1862 to 1863 at the Union Hotel Hospital in Georgetown, DC. Although she contracted typhoid pneumonia and was forced to give up her nursing work, she used her experiences at the hospital to write "Hospital Sketches," serialized in the Boston Commonwealth and published in book form in August 1863. In "Hospital Sketches" she wrote, "All that is best and bravest in the hearts of men and women, comes out in scenes like these; and, though a hospital is a rough school, its lessons are both stern and salutary; and the humblest of pupils there, in proportion of his faithfulness, learns a deeper faith in God and in himself" (Alcott 1863, p. 84).

In the South, the reality of war hit closer to home. Because most of the war was fought on Southern soil, civilians were more intimately involved in battlefield realities, particularly nursing and hospital care.

The Ladies Aid Society of Montgomery, Alabama, was the first group organized to meet the medical needs of Confederate soldiers. The Young Ladies Hospital Association of Columbia, South Carolina, formed after the first Battle of Bull Run, instituted the Columbia Wayside Hospital in one room of the state capitol building. An observer at the time noted that the young women were "unused to labor, but willing minds made up for their lack of skill, and it was wonderful how soon they learned to cut out and make up homespun shirts, knit socks, roll bandages, and etc., and before long many a box of substantial comforts was sent to the boys in the army from the girls at home" (Marten 2003, pp. 310–311).

Confederate nurse Kate Cumming wrote this moving account of her work:

This morning, when passing the front door, a man asked me if I had anything to eat, which I could give to some men at the depot awaiting transportation on the cars. He said that they had eaten nothing for some days. Some of the ladies assisting me, we took them hot coffee, bread and meat. The poor fellows ate eagerly, and seemed so thankful. One of the men, who was taking care of them, asked me where I was from. When I replied Mobile, he said that Mobile was the best place in the Confederacy. (Cumming 1866)

Southern women also planned and attended bazaars, fairs, concerts, raffles, and dances to raise money for army supplies, and even sponsored specific Confederate gunboats through fund-raising drives (Frank 2004).

Occasionally, volunteers had to be cajoled into making personal sacrifices. In her Civil War journal for October 13, 1871, the Southerner Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote of dear friends who refused to allow their seamstresses to work on garments for the soldiers until their own winter clothes had been finished. Boykin wrote,

I told them true patriotesses would be willing to wear the same clothes until our siege was raised. They did not seem to care. They have seen no ragged, dirty, sick and miserable soldiers lying in the hospital, no lack of woman's nursing, no lack of woman's tears, but an awful lack of a proper change in clean clothes. They know nothing of the horrors of war. One has to see to believe. They take it easy, and are not yet willing to make personal sacrifices. The time is coming when they will not be given a choice in the matter. (Chesnut 1973, p. 1693)

At the conclusion of the war, Frank B. Goodrich compiled The Tribute Book: A Record of the Munificence, Self-Sacrifice and Patriotism of the American People during the War for the Union (1865). In it he noted "the records of money given, not money earned; of a labor of love, not of labor for hire and salary; of self-assessment, of tribute rendered always willingly, always unasked" (Marten 2003, p. 3). Volunteer support during the Civil War, in all its forms, is a testament to the willingness of Americans, from both the North and South, to support their soldiers.


Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: J. Redpath, 1863.

Bellows, Henry W., Elisha Harris, J. Harsen, and W. H. Van Buren. "U.S. Sanitary Commission Report No. 1: An Address to the Secretary of War." May 18, 1861. Disability History Museum Web site. Available from http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/.

Chesnut, Mary Boykin. "A Diary from Dixie." In American Literature: The Makers and the Making, Book C, ed. Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.

Cumming, Kate. "A Nurse's Diary." In A Journal of Hospital Life in the Confederate Army of Tennessee, From the Battle of Shiloh to the End of the War: With Sketches of Life and Character, and Brief Notices of Current Events during That Period. Louisville, KY: John P. Morgan, 1866. Available from http:// WWW.pbs.org/.

Donald, William J. "Alabama Confederate Hospitals." Alabama Review 15 (October 1962): 271-281; 16 (January 1963): 64-78.

Frank, Lisa Tendrich. "Women during the Civil War." New Georgia Encyclopedia. Athens: Georgia Humanities Council and University of Georgia Press, 2004. Available from http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/.

Giesberg, Judith Ann. Civil War Sisterhood: The United States Sanitary Commission and Women's Politics in Transition. Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2006.

Library Company of Philadelphia. "Civil War Volunteer Saloon and Hospitals Ephemera Collection 1861-1868." McAllister Collection, Library Company of Philadelphia, 2006. Available from http://lcpdams.librarycompany.org:20018/.

Marten, James Alan. Civil War America: Voices from the Home Front. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. "Fitchburg Forms Ladies Soldier's Aid Society: September 16, 1861." Mass Moments Web site. Available from http://www.massmoments.org/.

Ohio Historical Society. "Soldiers' Aid Society." Ohio History Central: An Online Encyclopedia of Ohio History. Available from http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/.

United States Sanitary Commission. "The U.S.S.C." 2005. Available from http://www.forttejon.org/.

Diane Hulett