The United States Sanitary Commission was a private relief agency created by federal legislation on June 18, 1861, to support sick and wounded soldiers of the U.S. Army during the American Civil War. It operated across the North, raised its own funds, and enlisted thousands of volunteers. It was directed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
Women in the USSC
Arising from a meeting in New York City of the Women's Central Relief Association of New York, the organization was also inspired by the British Sanitary Commission of the Crimean War. The volunteers raised money ($25 million), collected donations, worked as nurses, ran kitchens in army camps, administered hospital ships, soldiers' homes, lodges, and rests for traveling or disabled soldiers, made uniforms, and organized Sanitary Fairs to support the Federal army with funds and supplies. Women that worked hard, often traveled great distances, and in other than ideal situations, included Louisa May Alcott, Almira Fales, Eliza Emily Chappell Porter, Katherine Prescott Wormeley, Mary Livermore and many others.
The Sanitary Fairs offered ways for local communities to see themselves as part of a larger nation. The first Sanitary Fair during the war occurred in Chicago from October 27 to November 7, 1863. Called the Northwestern Soldiers' Fair, it raised almost $100,000 for the war effort. It included a six-mile-long parade of militiamen, bands, political leaders, delegations from various local organizations, and a contingent of farmers, who presented carts full of their crops. The fairs generally involved large scale exhibitions, including displays of art, mechanical technology, and period rooms. These sorts of displays called upon ideas of the American past, a history that local communities held in common. Often, different communities competed with each other over their donations to the national cause. People in various cities and towns across the North contributed to the same war effort because they saw themselves as having shared fortunes in their common nation. The USSC leadership sometimes did not approve of the excitement and lavishness of the fairs. They wanted to encourage sacrifice as a component of membership in a nation. Although the fairs were one way to create a national identity which might motivate citizens to perform their duties, the commission leadership did not want the fairs to become the focus of USSC work.
The USSC worked with Union veterans after the war to secure their bounties, back pay, and apply for pensions, until it was finally disbanded in May 1866.
Henry Whitney Bellows, a Massachusetts clergyman, planned the USSC and served as its only president. According to The Wall Street Journal, "its first executive secretary was Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park." George Templeton Strong, New York lawyer and diarist, helped found the commission and served as treasurer and member of the executive committee. Also active in the association was Col. Leavitt Hunt, a New York lawyer and photographer, who wrote to President Abraham Lincoln's secretary John George Nicolay in January 1864, asking that Nicolay forward him a copy of the President's signature that Hunt's mother, the widow of Vermont congressman Jonathan Hunt, desired to attach to several casts of the President's hand to be sold to raise funds for the war effort.
- Henry Whitney Bellows served as the President of the Commission.
- Samuel Howe served as a Director of the Commission.
- Frederick Law Olmsted served as the Executive Secretary of the Sanitary Commission.
- Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse for the Sanitary Commission at a Union Army Hospital in Georgetown.
States could use their own tax money to supplement the Commission's work, as Ohio did. Under the energetic leadership of Governor David Tod, a War Democrat who won office on a coalition "Union Party" ticket with Republicans, Ohio acted vigorously. Following the unexpected carnage at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, it sent three steamboats to the scene as floating hospitals with doctors, nurses and medical supplies. The state fleet expanded to eleven hospital ships. The state also set up 12 local offices in main transportation nodes to help Ohio soldiers moving back and forth.
The U.S Sanitary Commission is memorialized by a group of re-enactors who portray The Boston Branch of the commission at various civic events, educational programs, and Civil War re-enactments. The group is based out of the Greater Boston area of Massachusetts.
- Western Sanitary Commission, a smaller rival based in St. Louis
- Hospital Ships of the Sanitary Commission
- Stillé, Charles J. (1866), History of the United States Sanitary Commission, Being the General Report of Its Work during the War of the Rebellion, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., pp. 40–62, retrieved July 17, 2010
- Lawson, Melinda. Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
- "US Sanitary Commission historical website". Retrieved December 23, 2005.
- Dugan, Ianthe Jeanne (June 22, 2007). "Civil War Letters Shed Light on Pain Of Troop's Families" (subscription required). The Wall Street Journal.
- Willis, John C., "George Templeton Strong", Sewanee: The University of the South, retrieved July 17, 2010
- Eugene E. Roseboom, The Civil War Era, 1850-1873 (1944) p 396
- Attie, Jeanie. Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War (1998), focus on the Sanitary Commission online edition
- Giesberg, Judith Ann. Civil War Sisterhood: The U.S. Sanitary Commission and Women's Politics in Transition (2006)
- Martin, Justin. Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted (2011) pp 178–230
- Maxwell, William Quentin. Lincoln's Fifth Wheel: The Political History of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (1956) online edition
- Tise, Pam. "A Fragile Legacy: The Contributions of Women in the United States Sanitary Commission to the United States Administrative State" (Applied research project). Texas State University. (2013)
- Olmsted, Frederick Law. The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted. Vol. 4: Defending the Union: The Civil War and the U.S. Sanitary Commission, 1861-1863 (1986) excerpt and text search
- NYPL, USSC Civil War Soldiers Inquiry Database
- Santiary Commission history, civilwarhome.com.
- The United States Sanitary Commission Philadelphia Branch collection, containing materials on several humanitarian efforts made by the association during the Civil War, are available for research use at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
- List of 30 USSC soldiers' homes, lodges, and rests in 25 cities in 15 states North and South in 1865.
- The U.S Sanitary Commission, Boston Branch re-enactor organization.