Sanitary Commission Saves Lives in the Civil War

  • Prosperity
  • 1861

Once the Civil War began, charitable groups rushed to aid soldiers. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency founded in 1861 by a Unitarian minister, became nationally important. The Lincoln administration officially recognized the group, but many government officials were unhelpful or worse. The USSC plowed on regardless, preventing disease in camps and hospitals by providing expert advice on drainage, ventilation, and medical procedures. It created a hospital directory that allowed families to track their wounded and dead. Its critiques helped spur a much-needed reorganization of the federal Medical Bureau, and it provided vast amounts of food, medical supplies, and clothing to soldiers and to prisoners on both sides of the war. It later helped soldiers and kin negotiate the military bureaucracy to secure pensions and back pay.

The decentralized organization of the Sanitary Commission—it was composed of more than 7,000 local aid societies—often allowed it to provide supplies more quickly than the government could. By the time it disbanded the year after the war’s end, the USSC had raised $7 million in cash and $15 million of in-kind donations, provided over 1 million nights’ lodgings, and collected over $2.5 million in soldiers’ wages. Most of its volunteers were women, including novelist Louisa May Alcott, and a nurse named Clara Barton, who would later found the American Red Cross. In addition to raising medical standards and giving the field of public health a boost, the USSC received high praise from contemporary political observers such as the British statesman Gladstone. Philosopher John Stuart Mill lauded “the spontaneous self-devotion and organizing genius of a people, altogether independent of government.”