Saturday, December 24, 2022

Why a Sanitary Commission?

Library of Congress
Sanitary Commission in the field, 1863, Alexandria, Virginia

Brady Studios Photograph
Men who administered the Sanitary Commission during the Civil War:
William Van Buren, George Templeton Strong, President Henry Whitney Bellows,
 Cornelius R. Agnew & Oliver Wolcott Gibbs

The Union's Sanitary Commission worked best when the men who ran the organization cooperated well with the women laboring at the grassroots level. Above, the top brass who saw a need for such an organization in the first weeks of the war. 

Brady Studios photo of the White House in 1861

When civic-minded New Yorkers attorney George T. Strong, his father-in-law Samuel Ruggles and Unitarian minister Henry Whitney Bellows visited Washington to confer with the War Department's Medical Branch they were so dismayed by hospital conditions and the logjam of bureaucracy in the Union Army they decided to act on their own.

"The old Medical Bureau was, by the universal consent of all but its own members, the most narrow, hidebound, fossilized, red-tape-y of all the departments in Washington. It was without influence or weight...Lincoln actually did not know who the Surgeon-General was." George Templeton Strong

Surgeon General Dr. Clement Alexander Finley (1797-1879)
His term of office was less than a year. The Sanitary Commission convinced
Lincoln to give them a say in his replacement.

William Hammond replaced Finley in 1862.

In June, 1861 Lincoln signed an executive order establishing a Sanitary Commission. Initial goals were to facilitate the distribution of supplies Northerners were gathering, assistance the War Department ignored. The Commission absorbed the early women's aid groups such as New York City's Women's Central Association of Relief.

During the war almost 300 local aid societies operated under the Commission, raising five million dollars in cash donations and the equivalent of fifteen million in supplies including clothing, food and bedding. They organized supply depots, railroad and ship transportation for patients and supplies and staffed dozens of hospitals, all run by the men's standing committee in New York who met daily. 

 Sanitary Commission warehouse at 244 F Street
in Washington

When initial enthusiasm for soldiers' aid flagged in 1863 members worked hard at public relations, staging fundraising Sanitary Fairs in war-weary cities. The profitable fairs revived interest in their mission.

A quilt at New York City's Metropolitan Fair

Philadelphia Headquarters

Tables selling needlework at the St. Louis Sanitary Fair

The Sanitary Commission was indeed a remarkable organization.

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