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Brooklyn Museum - Brooklyn Sanitary Fair - 2

The United States Sanitary Commission was a private relief agency created by federal legislation on June 18, 1861, to support sick and wounded soldiers of the U.S. Army during the American Civil War. It operated across the North, raised nearly $25 million to support the cause, and enlisted thousands of volunteers. The president was Henry Whitney Bellows, and Frederick Law Olmsted acted as executive secretary.It was modeled on the British Sanitary Commission, set up during the Crimean War.


Henry Whitney Bellows, a Massachusetts clergyman, planned the USSC and served as its only president. According to The Wall Street Journal, "its first executive secretary was Frederick Law Olmsted, the famed landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park."[1] George Templeton Strong, New York lawyer and diarist, helped found the commission and served as treasurer and member of the executive committee.[2]

Also active in the association was Col. Leavitt Hunt, a New York lawyer and photographer. In January 1864, he wrote to President Abraham Lincoln's secretary John George Nicolay asking that Nicolay forward him any documents he might have available with the President's signature. Hunt's mother, the widow of Vermont congressman Jonathan Hunt, planned to attach Lincoln's signature to copies of several casts of the President's hand, to be sold to raise funds for the war effort.[3]

Women in the USSC

Arising from a meeting in New York City of the Women's Central Relief Association of New York,[4] the organization was also inspired by the British Sanitary Commission of the Crimean War. The American volunteers raised money (estimated at $25 million), collected donations, made uniforms, worked as nurses, ran kitchens in army camps, and administered hospital ships, soldiers' homes, lodges, and rests for traveling or disabled soldiers. They organized Sanitary Fairs in numerous cities to support the Federal army with funds and supplies, and to raise funds for the work of the USSC.[5] Women who were prominent in the organization, often traveling great distances, and working in harsh conditions, included Louisa May Alcott, Almira Fales, Eliza Emily Chappell Porter, Katherine Prescott Wormeley, Mary Livermore and many others.

Sanitary Fairs

The Brooklyn Sanitary Fair, 1864, raised funds for the Commission (colored lithograph)

Organizing the Sanitary Fairs offered ways for local communities to be directly part of supporting the war effort of the nation. The first Sanitary Fair during the war was held in Chicago from October 27 to November 7, 1863. Called the Northwestern Soldiers' Fair, it raised almost $100,000 for the war effort. It included a six-mile-long parade of militiamen, bands, political leaders, delegations from various local organizations, and a contingent of farmers, who presented carts full of their crops. The fairs generally involved large-scale exhibitions, including displays of art, mechanical technology, and period rooms. These sorts of displays called upon ideas of the American past, a history that local communities held in common. Often, different communities competed with each other over their donations to the national cause. People in various cities and towns across the North contributed to the same war effort because they identified as having shared fortunes in their common nation.[6]

The USSC leadership sometimes did not approve of the excitement and lavishness of the fairs. They wanted to encourage sacrifice as a component of membership in a nation. Although the fairs were one way to create a national identity which might motivate citizens to perform their duties, the commission leadership did not want the fairs to become the focus of USSC work.[6]

During the American Civil War the U.S. Sanitary Commission operated 30 soldiers' homes, lodges, or rests for Union soldiers. This soldiers' home was at Camp Nelson, Kentucky.

In addition to setting up and staffing hospitals, the USSC operated 30 soldiers' homes, lodges, or rest houses for traveling or disabled Union soldiers. Most of these closed shortly after the war.[7]

The government constructed the the Pension Building in Washington, DC to handle all the staff to process the pension requests and administer them. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After the war, the USSC volunteers continued to work with Union Army veterans to secure their bounties, back pay, and apply for pensions. It supported the "health and hygiene" of the veterans. They had a Department of General Relief which accepted donations for veterans, too.[5] The USSC organization was finally disbanded in May 1866.[8]

Letter from Col. Leavitt Hunt to John George Nicolay requesting copy of Abraham Lincoln's signature

Notable Members

  • Henry Whitney Bellows served as the President of the Commission.
  • Samuel Howe served as a Director of the Commission.
  • Frederick Law Olmsted served as the Executive Secretary of the Sanitary Commission.
  • Louisa May Alcott served as a nurse for the Sanitary Commission at a Union Army Hospital in Georgetown.

States could use their own tax money to supplement the Commission's work, as Ohio did. Under the energetic leadership of Governor David Tod, a War Democrat who won office on a coalition "Union Party" ticket with Republicans, Ohio acted vigorously. Following the unexpected carnage at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, it sent three steamboats to the scene as floating hospitals with doctors, nurses and medical supplies. The state fleet expanded to eleven hospital ships. The state also set up 12 local offices in main transportation nodes to help Ohio soldiers moving back and forth.[9]


The U.S Sanitary Commission is memorialized by a group of re-enactors who portray The Boston Branch of the commission at various civic events, educational programs, and Civil War re-enactments. The group is based out of the Greater Boston area of Massachusetts.

See also


  1. Dugan, Ianthe Jeanne (June 22, 2007). "Civil War Letters Shed Light on Pain Of Troop's Families" (subscription required). 
  2. Willis, John C., "George Templeton Strong", Sewanee: The University of the South,, retrieved July 17, 2010. 
  3. Letter from Col. Leavitt Hunt to John George Nicolay, January 1864, General Correspondence of Abraham Lincoln, American Memory, Library of Congress, accessed 23 September 2013
  4. Stillé, Charles J. (1866), History of the United States Sanitary Commission, Being the General Report of Its Work during the War of the Rebellion, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., pp. 40–62,, retrieved July 17, 2010. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Great Central Fair Buildings, Philadelphia". 1864-07. Retrieved 2013-07-28. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Lawson, Melinda. Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
  7. "Soldiers' Homes and Lodges" in The Sanitary Commission Bulletin 3:1279. Available at Google Books.
  8. "US Sanitary Commission historical website". Retrieved December 23, 2005. 
  9. Eugene E. Roseboom, The Civil War Era, 1850-1873 (1944) p 396

Further reading

External links

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