The US Sanitary Commission

In June 1861, the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) formed in the North to coordinate the efforts of local women and aid societies to supply the Union Army. With approximately 7,000 aid societies supporting the Union, the USSC's task was profound. As an umbrella organization, the USSC coordinated millions of dollars of food, medicine, and clothing for Union soldiers, and it provided a structure for the thousands of individual women who volunteered to serve as nurses, knit socks, make uniforms, raise money, or donate supplies. The USSC created formal branches in 10 cities— with the largest headquartered in Chicago—and also created 25 soldiers' homes to provide for the needs for soldiers who were heading to and from the front. At the soldiers' homes, an estimated average of 2,300 mostly sick and injured soldiers daily received food, medical care, a bed, and help with pension forms and other paperwork. Elizabeth Blackwell, one of the founders of the USSC and the first woman to earn a professional medical degree in the United States, recognized the chaos that existed before the creation of the USSC. ''There has been a perfect mania amongst the women to 'act Florence Nightingale''' (Giesberg 2000, 22). The USSC successfully channeled women's desires to be wartime nurses into areas where they were needed.

In addition to distributing supplies and placing nurses where they were needed, the USSC also conducted Sanitary Fairs to raise money to support the soldiers and the efforts of smaller branches. In late 1863, a fair in Chicago raised more than $100,000 and subsequent fairs elsewhere raised even more money. The New York Metropolitan Fair was the most successful of its kind, raising $1,183,505. These fund-raisers required a tremendous amount of organization as well as skills that were hardly common before the war. More than 3,000 volunteers helped with the spring 1864 Philadelphia Fair. The sight of women selling goods, let alone organizing the entire affair, certainly shocked many Northerners. As William Sherman explained to his wife, ''I don't approve of ladies selling things at a table. So far as superintending the management of such things, I don't object, but it merely looks unbecoming for a lady to stand behind a table to sell things'' (Lewis 1932, 520). Despite these concerns, the USSC eventually conducted about 30 fairs and raised millions of dollars for the Union war effort.

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