The U.S. Sanitary Commission

From 1861 to 1865m, a bloody Civil War raged between the North and the South.

"The Civil War was fought at the end of the Middle Ages." At the outset, North and South alike had no ambulance corps, few ambulances and no general military hospitals. Everything had to be improvised.

Randall and Donald, The Civil War and Reconstruction, Heath, Lexington MA, 1969, p. 312

The Union government itself devoted far greater attention to the hospitalization and general care of the troops than in former wars, but the burden was too great for the government, and private initiative made a memorable contribution in the work of the United States Sanitary Commission. Under its public-spirited president and secretary (H.W. Bellows and Frederick Law Olmsted) the commission served as a valuable civilian auxiliary to the medical bureau of the war department in tending the wounded and ministering to the morale and comfort of the soldiers.

ibid., p. 488

More than any other institution, the Sanitary Commission systematized the benevolence of the whole North. An English officer hardly exaggerated when he wrote of its organizing power: "The Sanitary Commission has, in fine, disciplined and instructed the whole people and enlisted every man, woman and child in the military service of the country." It was unquestionably the greatest volunteer organization of benevolent character that America had yet produced

ibid., p. 317

In the north, from the start of the war, there had been stirrings of a volunteer spirit. In New York particularly, women began to talk of sending relief to the front, or of going themselves to help with the nursing. Much of this initiative came from Pastor Henry W. Bellows of the First Unitarian Church in New York City, a farsighted and energetic man. On 29 April 1861, a meeting was held in the hall of the Cooper Institute. 'Our gallant soldiers to be soothed in these hardships. And their wounds dressed by delicate hands,' read a headline in the New York Herald the following morning. Three thousand 'brave and philanthropic women,' it reported, had come forward and 'among these thousands of Spartan women were those whose delicacy of physique showed that they had been nurtured in the lap of luxury.' Soon, they were meeting 'in the churches, in the schools, in the salons of the rich' to prepare lint and bandages. Pastor Bellows realized that this vast surge in charitable instinct needed harnessing in a more effective way. On a train to Washington to discuss the co-ordination of relief work, he fell into conversation with two doctors, William van Buren and Jacob Halsen. They talked about Florence Nightingale's work with the wounded in the Crimea and the need for a national body to bring together the volunteers and to gather much-needed information about the army and wounded soldiers.

Caroline Moorehead. Dunant's Dream. Carroll & Graf, New York. 1998

The instituting of the United States Sanitary Commission marks a new era in world history. It is the most grandiose act of philanthropy humanity has ever conceived and accomplished. Through its influence, all of American society has been modified. It is the great thought which preoccupies public attention almost to the exclusion of any other. I have had the most convincing proof of this on a recent trip I made in my native land, my visit having the specific aim of studying the conditions of health in the American armies and the organization of the Sanitary Commission.

Thomas W. Evans, La Commission Sanitaire des Etats-Unis, 1867

It should be added that the influence of the Sanitary Commission has spread beyond the borders of the United States. In Europe, public attention has been aroused. Thus, in the recent Germano-Danish conflict, first aid committees, which were regularly organized according to the exact model of those existing in America, have rendered the greatest of services.

ibid, p xiii.

The same lack of sanitary care and proper food complained of in these letters had wrought fearful havoc in the British army, in the war of the Crimea, in 1855, only six years before, and the American people remembered it. Out of twenty-four thousand troops sent to the Crimea, eighteen thousand had died in less than nine months,---a mortality, it has been said, "never equalled since the hosts of Sennacherib fell in a single night." They died from lack of care, proper sanitary regulations, and the diet necessary to the sick. With their slowly dimming eyes they could see the vessels anchored in the harbor, freighted with the food and medicine, clothing and tenting, sanitary supplies and preventives, for want of which they were perishing.

All were tied up with the red tape of official formalism until Florence Nightingale, with her corps of trained nurses, and full power to do and command as well as advise, landed at Scutari, and ordered the storehouses opened. Then want gave place to abundance, and, through her executive skill and knowledge of nursing and hospital management, the frightful mortality was arrested.

There was a resolute determination in the hearts of the people, that neither inexperience nor dogged adherence to routine should cause such wholesale slaughter of their beloved citizen soldiers. Whether sick or well, they should receive such care as the soldiers of no nation had ever known before. No failure of their plans of relief abated their ardor, and no discouragement stayed the stream of their beneficence. Especially did women refuse to release their hold on the men of their households, even when the government had organized them into an army. They followed them with letters of inquiry, with tender anxiety and intelligent prevision, which eventually put them en. rapport with the government, and developed a wonderful system of sanitary prevention and relief. For the outcome of their patriotism and zeal, their loyalty and love, was the Sanitary Commission.

"The Woman's Central Association of Relief" was the name of a large and remarkable organization, formed in the city of New York, very early in the war. In connection with other similar organizations, they decided to send a committee to Washington, to learn, from the highest authorities, "in what way the voluntary offerings of the people could best be made available for the relief 6f the army."

Dr. Bellows was chairman of this committee, and before he returned from Washington, a plan of organization for the U. S. Sanitary Commission, drawn up by himself, received the sanction of the President and the Secretary of War. Not heartily, however, for the very highest officials of the government regarded the whole plan as quixotic, and consented to it only because "it could do no harm." President Lincoln himself failed at first to comprehend the. large humanity of the organization, and described it as "a fifth wheel to the coach." But for the zeal, intelligence and earnestness of his numerous women constituents, it is more than probable that Dr. Bellows would have retreated before the rebuffs and hindrances opposed to his humane efforts.

The object of the Sanitary Commission was to do what the government could not. The government undertook, of course, to provide all that was necessary for the soldier, whether sick or in health; whether in the army or hospital. But, from the very nature of things, this was not possible, and it failed in its purpose, at times, as all governments do, from occasional and accidental causes. The methods of the Commission were so elastic, and so arranged to meet any emergency, that it was able to make provision for any need, seeking always to supplement, and never to supplant, the government. It never forgot that "it must be subordinate to army rules and regulations, and in no way break down the essential military discipline, on the observance of which everything depended."

In a few months, the baseless prejudice against the Commission melted away. The army surgeons, at first opposed, became enthusiastic in its praise. And the people, who were, in the outset, bent on dispensing their charities only to the companies and regiments organized in their neighborhoods, came finally to accept the larger methods of the Commission, which disbursed the sanitary supplies it received to any hospitals or soldiers that needed them, without. regard to sectional limits. The government accorded to the Commission increased facilities for performing its work. The railroads transported all its freight free of charge---the express companies carried its packages at half price---and the telegraph companies remitted the usual charges on its messages.

Mary A. Livermore, My Story of the War, War: A Woman's Narrative of Four Years Personal Experience. Hartford: A.D. Worthington & Co., 1888.


Nina Brown Baker, Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1952.

"The United States Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the American Red Cross, received its national charter in June 1861. "Sanitation" was a new word, and a new science. The American army administration had no place for it. A New York Unitarian clergyman, Dr. Henry Bellows, had been impressed by the work of the British Sanitary Commission in the Crimean War. .."

Mary A. Livermore, My Story of the War, War: A Woman's Narrative of Four Years Personal Experience. Hartford: A.D. Worthington & Co., 1888.

"Whence came these hospital supplies, or the money for their purchase? They were gathered by the loyal women of the North, who organized over ten thousand "aid societies" during the war, and who never flagged in their constancy to the cause of the sick and wounded soldier. As rapidly as possible, "branches" of the United States Sanitary Commission were established in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, and other cities---ten in all. Here sub-depots of sanitary stores were maintained, and into these the soldiers' aid societies poured their never-ceasing contributions. The supplies sent to these ten sub-depots were assorted, repacked, stamped with the mark of the Commission, only one kind of supplies being packed in a box, and then a list of the contents was marked on the outside. The boxes were then stored, subject to the requisitions of the great central distributing depots, established at Washington and Louisville. Through these two cities, all supplies of every kind passed to the troops at the front, who were contending with the enemy."

Mabel T. Boardman, Under the Red Cross Flag at Home and Abroad, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1915.

"The purpose of the Commission---and to which it clung with an ever-steadfast tenacity---was defined by its officers in these words: 'The one point which controls the commission is just this: A simple desire and resolute determination to secure for the men who have enlisted in this war that care which it is the duty of the nation to give them. That care is their right, and in the Government or out of it, it must be given them, let who will stand in the way.'"

William Q. Maxwell. Lincoln's Fifth Wheel. The Political History of the United States Sanitary Commission. New York: Longmans, Green, 1956.

The men and women who had faith in the Sanitary Commission worked for the oneness of humanity; they would pull down the barriers of prejudices and set aside harmful distinctions. Confidently they applied their ideas to the care of armies. "What chloroform is to surgery, humanity is to war," wrote Dr. Bellows to Henri Dunant. "It does not stop bloodshed, but it spares needless suffering." During the past ninety years the nations have benefited from the Geneva Convention of 1864; but the advantages they won have been more than offset by modern methods of dealing death and destruction. Has the optimism of men like Bellows and Dunant gone down to defeat? The humanitarian in the middle of our twentieth century cries out: "There cannot, at the present time, be any question of 'humanizing' war."