“Scolding” and Serving: The U.S. Sanitary Commission

Remember the post a few weeks ago about Georgeanna Woolsey? She was a Civil War era nurse and oversaw the United States Sanitary Commission’s tents near the Gettysburg Railroad station. So what exactly was the U.S. Sanitary Commission and what did they do? Let’s explore…

The Seal of the United States Sanitary Commission

The Seal of the United States Sanitary Commission

The Organizers

As soldiers enlisted during the spring of 1861, business men with charitable tendencies looked ahead and foresaw a lack of supplies. You have to understand that prior to the outbreak of the war, the United State’s army was quite small…but with the war starting it had grown exponentially larger. The military guys could handle the basic logistics, but what about all the extras – the nice homemade stuff, surpluses of medical supplies, and volunteer non-military personnel? Looking ahead, some men saw logistical problems the government would not be able to solve, but maybe private citizens could work together and overcome the difficulties.

Henry W. Bellows, George T. Strong, and Frederick Olmstead were the organizers and most influential leaders of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC). Headquarters were established in Washington D.C.

The armies fought their first battle, and immediately the commission began receiving requests for supplies. Then there was also the trouble of trying to keep camps clean…

“Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness”

Sanitary means “of or relating to the conditions that affect hygiene and health, especially the supply of sewage facilities and clean drinking water.” Hmm… I suppose you can now guess one of the commission’s main goals: they worked to improve soldiers’ health.

Although effective, the commission’s methods weren’t popular in the camps. USSC inspectors arrived and walked through the camps, reporting their findings to the appalled committees back in Washington.

Then “suggestions” were made. Things like “dig some latrines, don’t throw your garbage in the street, clean the hospital facility, scoop and dispose of the horse manure” were not popular advice in the camps. There was military backlash against the USSC, but they were right. Clean camps equaled healthier soldiers. Eventually, though, some started to listen to the nagging and scolding agents and camp life improved.

Supplies, Supplies, Supplies

Aside from cleaning up camps and hospitals, the Sanitary Commission stockpiled supplies and then played a guessing game of where the next battle would be fought. Once a battle started, it was a race to get the supplies to the disaster area.

At Gettysburg, supplies from the Sanitary Commission were definitely arriving by July 6th, three days after the battle ended. Considering that they couldn’t use the railroad at the time and the roads were jammed with military wagons, it’s impressive that they were able to get in that quickly.

USSC Fair held in Brooklyn in 1864

USSC Fair held in Brooklyn in 1864

So, where did the supplies come from? Well, the USSC was non-profit, volunteer run. The supplies came mostly from homes across the north. Ladies rolled bandages, prepared food, sewed clothing, and packed the items to send to the commission for distribution.

To acquire the supplies that couldn’t be made at home, there were Sanitary Commission Fairs – exhibitions, concerts, and displays. All the proceeds were donated to the organization to buy items like surgical instruments, medicines, and religious books.

It’s estimated that the USSC raised about $25 million dollars to support the war effort!

Many Hands Make Light Work?

The USSC had inspectors checking the camps. They had doctors, nurses, chaplains, supply agents, the governing board, and local civilian event organizers. It was a massive organization orchestrating the efforts of the Northern home front to support the soldiers.

With so many helpers, it might seem that the tasks were easy. Far from it. The volunteers working to make life better for the soldiers toiled long hours to accomplish as much as they could.


A headquarters building of the USSC – probably near or in a Union camp

Were They Appreciated?

No. And Yes. The work of the USSC was perhaps not as well liked by the army as it should’ve been. While the inspectors were advising improvements to save lives from disease, the officers and men saw them as naggy civilians telling the army what to do. Tension between the army and commission was not uncommon – especially in the hospitals.

However, the soldiers did appreciate the homemade foods, clothing, and amusements distributed by the USSC. The surgeons were thankful for the extra medical supplies and volunteer help in the hospitals.

So, ultimately, the military had mixed feelings about the USSC, but I think the common soldiers came to appreciate their efforts.

Why Is The USSC Important?

I think the most important thing we can learn from the USSC is the power of the American people. Sure, there were volunteer armies on the battlefield, but could those troops have stayed there as long as they did without the support from the Northern home front? I don’t think so.

The USSC is an important example of private citizens – civilians – giving generously of their time, money, and resources. Organized and supported entirely by the American people of the North – with no government subsidies, I might add – the United States Sanitary Commission represents the self-less aspect of traditional American character.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What large organizations in America (or globally) help get supplies and relief to disaster areas? Do you think the efforts of the USSC may have influenced the modern groups we have today?



11 thoughts on ““Scolding” and Serving: The U.S. Sanitary Commission

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