Sanitary Commission, U.S.

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Sanitary Commission, U.S. (1861–65).Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, New York minister Dr. Henry W. Bellows led a delegation of physicians to Washington, where they lobbied for improved sanitation and medical care in the Union camps. In June 1861, this voluntary group received official status as the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), charged with inspecting the camps, collecting medical supplies, and advising a somewhat reluctant Medical Bureau. President Abraham Lincoln accepted the plan with skepticism, fearing that the USSC would become the “fifth wheel on the coach.” Before long, the Sanitary Commission's agents were a familiar and welcome sight to Union soldiers. The commission played a crucial role in promoting the appointment in 1862 of a progressive surgeon general, William Hammond, and in breaking army resistance to the use of female nurses.

Under the direction of executive secretary Frederick Law Olmsted, the commission proclaimed a deep passion for order and efficiency and insisted that those goals could only be achieved through careful centralized control. Seven thousand local auxiliaries throughout the North raised funds and shipped food, medicine and clothing to ten regional depots. As the financial demands continued, the USSC turned to nearly thirty local sanitary fairs (1863–65), which netted $4.4 million.

The Sanitary Commission can be interpreted as evidence of the emergence of a more centralized, modernizing society. But although many local bodies eventually affiliated with the commission, others sent their own agents into the field. And even those local branches of the “Sanitary” retained some traditional practices.

The USSC also raises interesting questions about wartime gender roles. Although men dominated the national leadership, women made up the vast majority of local volunteers, and Chicagoans Mary Livermore and Jane C. Hoge became central figures in the commission's midwestern branch. Even if the activities of the Sanitary Commission rarely challenged traditional gender roles, the local bodies provided new opportunities for women to hone public skills.
[See also Nurse Corps, Army and Navy; Union Army.]


William Quentin Maxwell , Lincoln's Fifth Wheel: The Political History of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, 1956.
Robert H. Bremner , The Public Good: Philanthropy and Welfare in the Civil War Era, 1980.

J. Matthew Gallman