Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Christian Commission

Silver pin, perhaps worn by an agent of the Christian Commission during the Civil War.

In the fall of 1861 a group of YMCA members met in New York to form The Christian Commission, organizing men who belonged to peacetime tract and testament societies to carry their work into the field distributing evangelical Christian literature to soldiers.

Their logo

From the beginning there was a conflict over goals, recalled by President George H. Stuart in his autobiography. He told a gentleman "who wished the Christian Commission to confine its efforts entirely to spiritual matters, leaving the temporal welfare of the soldiers to the Sanitary Commission that 'there is a good deal of religion in a warm shirt and a good beefsteak.' "

Fundraising in Wheeling (West) Virginia, June, 1863 with a
Strawberry Festival

Walt Whitman, visiting wounded Union soldiers in Washington, was unimpressed with their work, writing that those pressing religious literature on uninterested, helpless men looked to him like "a set of foxes and wolves."

Christian Commission warehouse in Washington.
The photographs are from the Library of Congress

Converting non-Protestants and comforting believers was always their primary cause, but temporal welfare played a part in their work. Agents collected donations of bedding, food, money and medical supplies, which were distributed by agents in hospitals. 

Washington Headquarters
The sign on the porch reads "Christian Commission." 
The one-story building next door is probably a warehouse.
Note the crate being wheeled to the door.

Gettysburg College owns a manuscript diary of an anonymous "Missionary with the U.S. Christian Commission." The catalog summarizes his work:
"The diary itself is simply a day by day account of one of these missionaries as he travels through army camps and hospitals ministering to the wounded and dying. Much of this includes spreading Christianity through copies of scripture as well as furnishing the men (or in some cases, refugees) with supplies."

It appears, however, that a good proportion of  supplies were transferred to small aid organizations such as state sponsored societies. Several women aid officers discussed in this year's Hospital Sketches stories reported receiving supplies from the organization in field hospitals.

July, 1862

Field Headquarters of Christian Commission, Germantown, Virginia

Quilts were among bedding items donated. An agent recalled:
"I was laboring in the 5th Corps, near Petersburg, under our good Brother Pratt. One day the supply wagon, from City point, left at our quarters a large box, containing a nice mattress, bed quilts, sheets, pillows and cases, towels and handkerchiefs..."
Several surviving quilts feature this stamp from the Sanitary Commission

But after years of searching, I have to deduce that the number of quilts stitched for the Christian Commission was far lower than the many thousands sent to the Sanitary Commission. We have several surviving examples of quilts with Sanitary Commission connections but I have yet to find one with any evidence in it that it was made for or handed out by the Christian Commission.

Detail of a quilt made for the Sanitary Commission by the 
Fort Hill Sewing Circle, Hingham, Massachusetts.

In 1864 the C.C. distributed 412 
"Quilts and Spreads" to soldiers in Virginia in 3 months.
Shirts, socks and drawers were the major commodities.

Five men in front of a Christian Commission building,  Falmouth, Virginia

One possible reason for the comparative lack of quilts is that the YMCA's Christian Commission was an organization of men. The Sanitary Commission and the smaller state aid groups may have been founded by men but women soon rose to positions of authority. Women were often the hospital agents distributing their supplies, but not in the Christian Commission. C.C. agents were unpaid volunteer men, a principle that was at the heart of the disputes between the two commissions. 

Camped under a brush arbor for shade

As Lori D. Ginzberg in Women and the Work of Benevolence wrote: "The Christian Commission claimed that unpaid agents were the more pure of heart, the Sanitary Commission that they were inefficient."  Another dispute was over basic religious philosophy. The Christian Commission was based on Evangelical Protestantism; the Sanitary Commission was considered secular---"unchristian." S.C. President Henry Bellows was a Unitarian, always suspect among certain sects. Ginzburg noted that Robert Bremner suggested the C.C. "appealed to the pious elite and the S.C. appealed to the professional and intellectual elite," which might explain poet Walt Whitman's antipathy.

Annie Turner Wittenmyer,(1827-1900)

Annie Wittenmyer's agents were an exception to the standard of male agents. In 1863 the wealthy widow established the Christian Commission Diet Kitchen, which set up special facilities in military hospitals, dedicated to healthy and appetizing meals prepared and served by caring female volunteers.

A cup of coffee at a Virginia field hospital

See Wittenmyer's book of recipes, rules and advice for Diet Kitchen agents:

Fair in San Francisco August & September, 1864

One quilt with a link was shown at an 1864 Christian Commission Fund Raising Fair in San Francisco. The Ladies' Social Circle of Eureka, California stitched a flag quilt, not to donate to the Commission, but to present to General Ulysses S. Grant. 

Banner Quilt 
by the Ladies' Social Circle 

Collection of the Clarke Museum in Eureka

The Alta California described two other quilts:
"A magnificent silk quilt made in patchwork to resemble the flags of all nations. There is another silk quilt, made of six dozen patches, each about ten inches square, each braided with an elegant or unique cushion pattern. This quilt, marked by Mrs. Hendricks, and embroidered by the ladies of the Second Baptist Church, is considered a work of art in its way."

Composite photograph of the fair attributed to William S. Jewett
California Historical Society

The Daily Morning Call reported often on the fair which went on for weeks in August and September, 1864

Their first article began nicely. "The great Union Hall, in Howard street, yesterday afternoon, was swarming with a busy hive of ladies and artisans, hurrying up the decorations and working against time in the effort to get all things in readiness for the great Fair in behalf of the Christian Commission." The description deteriorates into satire quickly. 
"Here is one arch which bears this motto: 'Santa Clara's Offering to the Soldiers,' and under it were five handsome young ladies and two pretty glass work-baskets laden with fresh flowers - a most extraordinary offering to an army of wounded soldiers, it occurred to us."

The problem: The reporter for the Morning Call was a young Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, who saw absurdity in the wartime event. 
"At the left of the stage, under a splendor of silken flags, the smallest and fairest of hands will dispense some of the most useful and useless things to be found in the Fair - cigars and soap. (That sentence does not seem to sound right, somehow, but there is no time now to skirmish around it and find out what is the matter with it.) At the other corner of the stage is the Christian soda fountain. At the right of the entrance door they were building a 'moss covered well' around an old oaken bucket which is to be filled with lemonade; (why not bay rum, or Jamaica rum, or some thing of that kind?)"

Building taken over by the Christian Commission in Richmond
at the end of the war. The civilians gathered in front may be refugees
awaiting supplies.

An award for a financial donation to Massachusetts students.
"U.S. Christian Commission
To the Mt. Holyoke Class of '64
Sow we beside all water

Apparently the graduates donated money traditionally spent on class pins
and the Christian Commission thanked them this substitute gift.

See a preview of Lori D. Ginzberg's Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-century United States (Yale University Press, 1992) here at Google Books:

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