The United States Sanitary and Christian Commissions and the Union War Effort
The outbreak of war in April 1861 triggered an immediate response among Union civilians. While hundreds of thousands answered the call for troops, others began thinking about how best to supply and support the armies from the home front. Among these were the men and women of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) and the United States Christian Commission (USCC), huge civilian relief agencies established by elite reformers to coordinate aid for Union troops. Although both commissions were set up to help the Union war effort, they had very different ideas about the best way of going about this. While the Christian Commission developed an explicitly evangelical rationale which saw the conversion of the armies to Christianity as its most vital duty, the Sanitary Commission’s mission was more secular, focusing on saving lives and designing dispassionate, scientific solutions to promote the health and vigour of the armies.
Among the reformers who established the Sanitary Commission were Henry Whitney Bellows, a prominent New York Unitarian clergyman, Frederick Law Olmstead, the celebrated travel writer and landscape architect of Central Park, and George Templeton Strong, the noted diarist. This unlikely assortment of intellectuals, clergy, and businessmen was inspired by the work of the British Sanitary Commission in the Crimea, and by the scientific research undertaken by public health pioneers on both sides of the Atlantic in the first half of the nineteenth century. They wanted the Union army to operate at maximum efficiency and lethality, and so sought to eradicate poor health and hygiene – and any ill which might impede the fighting fitness of the armies. The Sanitary Commission saw itself as a vital advisory body to the federal government, informing politicians on issues like hospital management, recruiting and training medical personnel (including female nurses), and coordinating home-front relief work.
In fact, the Sanitary Commission first emerged in May 1861 as a deliberate attempt to supersede the Women’s Central Relief Association (WCRA). The WCRA had been established by a group of New York men and women to centralise and streamline the activities of the many Ladies Aid Societies that sprang up spontaneously in the aftermath of Fort Sumter. It included Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the US, and Louisa Lee Schuyler, a prominent reformer from one of New York’s oldest and most respected families. But some – reflecting the prevailing assumption that women were unsuited to public, managerial work – were unconvinced that the women of the WCRA were equal to the task. Charles Stillé, the historian of the Sanitary Commission, embodied the condescension and doubt which faced many female Civil War workers when he described the women of the WCRA as “full of zeal and enthusiasm in the cause … but very much divided in opinion as to the best means which they should adopt, and with a very imperfect idea of organisation.”
The Sanitary Commission was therefore heavily involved in gathering supplies donated by home-front societies and funneling those supplies to where they were most needed. It also spearheaded a wide range of schemes aimed at improving the efficiency of the Union war effort – including devising a new “pavilion” layout for military hospitals to minimise the spread of disease, chartering and outfitting old ships to move injured Union soldiers up and down the York and Pamunkey Rivers, coordinating huge Sanitary Fairs to raise funds and morale on the home-front, and establishing “Soldiers’ Homes” offering food, lodging, and support for soldiers discharged from the army or travelling home on leave.
Both Commissions were deeply concerned with the diet of the Union armies – which, even when not diminished by supply problems, was generally stodgy, bland, and monotonous. The Sanitary Commission was particularly concerned about scurvy and its impact on the fighting fitness of the armies, and began urging its donors to focus on providing fresh or canned vegetables – pickles, sauerkraut, potatoes and other “invaluable anti-scorbutics.” At hospitals at Murfreesboro and Nashville, the Commission provided tools and seeds, and convinced hospital management to hand over control of plots of land for cultivation, and set about establishing gardens to provide a steady supply of fresh vegetables for the convalescing patients.
While the Sanitary Commission focused on the physical benefits to be derived from fresh food, the Christian Commission saw spiritual and emotional benefits in a varied, digestible diet. The Christian Commission Diet Kitchens were the brainchild of Iowa reformer Annie Wittenmyer, who would later become the first president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Wittenmyer’s kitchens aimed to provide sick and injured men with individually tailored meals to aid their recuperation. Wittenmyer and her team of female Diet Kitchen managers believed that diet was crucial to both physical and emotional wellbeing, and that light meals prepared with love and individual attention would remind men of the comfort and sympathy of home, and raise their spirits. Beginning in the winter of 1863, the Christian Commission rolled out a network of nearly 100 Diet Kitchens in major military hospitals. As well as providing nourishing, tasty food to convalescing men, the Diet Kitchens also represented an alternative form of female war work from nursing and home front aid society work.
The Christian Commission’s belief that caring for bodies was a conduit to caring for the soul was also reflected in their use of new-fangled contraptions like coffee wagons. These steam-powered machines could apparently prepare coffee for 1200 men an hour, and could travel at a heady eight miles an hour, trundling up and down the rows of tents and stretchers. George Stuart, the Philadelphia dry goods merchant who served as President of the Commission throughout its lifespan, was not shy about singing the coffee wagons’ praises: “How many lives of men wet, muddy, battle-worn, lying down on the ground, without shelter or fire,” he asked, “have been saved by the hot draught of coffee thus administered to them?”
Much of the Christian Commission’s work, however, was more pointedly spiritual in nature. The Christian Commission was founded by reformers already involved with the Young Men’s Christian Associations, which had flourished in North America in the 1850s. Just as the YMCAs were set up to provide spiritual and material support for young men who migrated from rural areas to the cities in search of work, the Christian Commission sought to help new recruits to the army, who found themselves thrust into an unfamiliar, hostile, and potentially godless environment. The delegates of the Christian Commission – volunteers who were sent South to the armies for periods of six weeks at a time – were tasked with distributing millions of religious tracts, Bibles, hymn books and pocket testaments, preaching sermons, and organising Bible studies and prayer meetings.
One vital duty for Christian Commission delegates was engaging in religious conversation with the men they encountered—encouraging them to consider the state of their souls, and to seek salvation before it was too late. This task became most urgent in the army hospitals, where delegates frequently encountered soldiers close to death. Delegates watched men’s last moments carefully for signs that they had undergone a conversion experience. “If they have died in the Christian’s faith,” Commission leaders reminded its workers, “they are not lost. Though suddenly cut off, they have only given up this short, weary, changing life, for a bright, peaceful immortality!”
This preoccupation with the state of men’s souls was indicative of the Christian Commission’s wider mission: to convert the entire Union army and precipitate a snowball effect which would perfect the entire nation and, eventually, the world. In the Commission’s eyes, the deaths of Christian soldiers in the service of the Union—a political entity the Commission believed to be ordained and blessed by God—became martyrdoms almost on a par with the death of Christ himself. As J B Roberts, a leading member of the Commission, told one public meeting, “The Union soldier sacrifices himself for the nation as Christ sacrificed himself for our redemption.”
The Sanitary and Christian Commissions thus outlined distinct and ambitious aims over the course of the war, and devised innovative solutions to the problems – inefficiency and irreligiosity, respectively – which they identified as the major obstacles to Union victory. They also represented competing visions of philanthropic endeavour, and their actions and philosophies during the war would go a long way towards shaping the bureaucratisation and professionalisation of charity and relief work in the later decades of the nineteenth century.
About the Author
Rachel Williams is Lecturer in American History at the University of Hull, UK. She is currently working on a book about Civil War relief agencies and evangelical reform.Tags: Annie Wittenmyer, Charles Stille, Christian Commission, Diet Kitchens, Frederick Law Olmstead, George Stuart, George Templeton Strong, Rachel Williams, Sanitary Commission, USCC, USSC, WCRA, Women's Christian relief Association Posted in: Uncategorized