Sanitary Commission, United States

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SANITARY COMMISSION, UNITED STATES. The United States Sanitary Commission was created by executive order of President Abraham Lincoln on 13 June 1861. Its organization was the idea of a group of women and men who wanted to help the Union cause by developing a response to the inadequacy of the Army Medical Bureau in coping with the medical and sanitary needs of the army. On 29 April Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first U.S. woman to earn an M.D., had organized a meeting of 3,000 women in New York City to form the Women's Central Association for Relief (WCAR), devoted to women's volunteer relief efforts. The WCAR would become the nucleus of the Sanitary Commission. But women, acting on their own, could not at that time hope to convince government to form a new national organization, so a group of men led to Washington by the Unitarian minister Henry Whitney Bellows convinced government officials to form the commission. Bellows was appointed president and Frederick Law Olmsted, the future designer of Central Park, was general secretary.

The commission worked through local affiliates. By 1863 there were 7,000 such branches throughout the north, all composed of and administered largely by women. Blackwell and the noted mental health reformer Dorothea Dix were early involved in recruiting volunteer nurses, but lost their influence as men took control of the commission. The commission's 500 paid agents were men, while tens of thousands of women labored as unpaid volunteers. These volunteers held bazaars and organized Sanitary Fairs to raise money to purchase medical supplies, clothing, and food to send to army camps and hospitals and to support the 3,000 women who served as army nurses. The work of the Sanitary Commission eventually helped to make nursing a respectable profession for women, advanced medical care within the army, and taught many women the organizational skills they would apply to founding thousands of women's voluntary groups after the war.


Giesberg, Judith Ann. Civil War Sisterhood: The U.S. Sanitary Commission and Women's Politics in Transition. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Maureen A.Flanagan

See alsoWomen in Military Service ; Women's Rights Movement: The Nineteenth Century .