In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Maine Memory Network

The Sanitary Commission: Meeting Needs of Soldiers, Families

Text by Candace Kanes

Images from Maine Historical Society and Maine State Archives

On October 12, 1863, Louisa S. J. Mower of Temple wrote to Mrs. Sarah Sampson of the Maine Soldiers' Relief Association seeking information about her husband, Benjamin Franklin Mower of Co. I, 7th Maine Regiment. He was at the Battle of Gettysburg, then reportedly was left by his company at Williamsport, Maryland, on July 15, 1863. His messmate reported that Mower "had been ill 5 days and was very weak and feverish."

Three months later, Louisa Mower still had heard no more about her husband. She described his ring and a small miniature he carried of Louisa and their son Nathaniel Lincoln Mower when he was an infant. They also had a daughter.

Mower's was one of hundreds of letters sent to the Maine Agency Sanitary Commission or the Maine Soldiers' Relief Association by soldiers or members of their families. The letters asked for help with furloughs to see sick relatives, furloughs to recover from injuries, back pay, forwarding of packages, supplies for imprisoned soldiers, or, like Mower's, sought information about soldiers. Other letters accompanied donations.

The Sanitary Commission worked on both macro and micro levels. The order that created it, signed by President Abraham Lincoln on June 13, 1861, arose from prodding by three New York groups: The recently formed Woman's Central Association of Relief for the Sick and Wounded of the Army, the Advisory Committee of Boards of Physicians and Surgeons of the Hospitals of New York, and the New York Medical Association for Furnishing Hospital Supplies in Aid of the Army.

One history of the U.S. Sanitary Commission noted, "As the men mustered for the battlefield, so the women mustered in churches, school-houses, and parlors, working before they well knew at what to work, and calling everywhere for instruction."

The groups realized that the Union army was made up of regiments organized by each state and that soldiers were and would be minimally trained. They foresaw multiple needs: sanitation, assurance that soldiers were fit – old enough and healthy enough – and, most importantly, coordination of relief efforts. Some of their beliefs about what the Union was facing were based on Britain's experiences in the Crimean War, fought in the 1850s.

The commission was envisioned as a voluntary organization that would raise money from the public – not from the government – to support its "humane and patriotic" activities. Frederick Law Olmsted, later known primarily as a landscape architect, was the commission's first general secretary. Besides organizing many of the Commission's functions, Olmsted helped raise considerable funds for its support.

Many in Washington and elsewhere were doubtful that the Sanitary Commission would work and would not interfere with government departments that were in charge of soldiers and other war details.

Nevertheless, the Sanitary Commission soon proved its value. Illness among troops was deadlier than weapons, the wounded poured into ill-prepared hospitals in huge numbers, and bad roads and injured horses, which made transportation of wounded difficult,. In these and other instances, the Sanitary Commission stepped in to make a difference for soldiers and the army as a whole.

It provided nurses at the battlefields as well as at the increasing numbers of hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area. It coordinated the shipping of supplies for the hospitals and clothing and other goods for soldiers.

The Sanitary Commission took on the health, comfort, and morale of soldiers, working in conjunction with the army and government departments. It saw three areas of responsibility: the material (clothing and other supplies) of soldiers, prevention of disease through an emphasis on cleanliness, well-prepared food, and proper equipment; and relief: providing nurses, hospital supplies, medical aid, and comfort.

Katharine Prescott Wormeley in her 1863 book The U.S. Sanitary Commission: A Sketch of Its Purposes and Its Work, wrote: "boxes, cases, packages, which before had gone independently, and often fruitlessly, on their tender and patriotic mission, and which, if not wholly wasted, fell far short of the generous good intended, now poured into the Central Depot, and went forward from there to the spot where the need of them was ascertained."

Maine organized a state agency of the commission with offices in Portland and Washington, D.C. Several groups including Maine Soldiers' Relief, shared the offices and the work.

The state agency also coordinated assignment of nurses, primarily to regimental hospitals. A number of Maine women were prominently involved in nursing and other relief work at the battlefield. For instance, Isabella Fogg of Calais went to Annapolis, Maryland, as a nurse in 1861 after her son, Hugh, enlisted. She soon signed on with the Sanitary Commission, reporting to the Maine Agency in Washington, and working at the front nursing the sick, dealing with an outbreak of spotted fever, and various other issues.

When she took a short break in Maine in the fall of 1862, she reportedly told the mayor of Portland about problems at the front. He encouraged the state to pay for supplies. In a letter she wrote in November 1862, she said, "Here the sick are in a fearful condition, in every old house and church and hundreds on the ground. You no doubt think your ladies in Washington are doing a great work, but I can assure you, if they were here, they would find the stern reality of want, privation and extreme suffering."

The Maine Camp Hospital Association was organized that fall, partly because of Fogg's reports about conditions for Maine soldiers. The group grew out of the Free Street Baptist Society and raised funds for ill and injured Maine soldiers.

State funds also were allocated to ensure a direct system for helping Maine soldiers and to make sure everything donated for them by Maine citizens got to them.

Fogg continued her efforts, working with hospital transports and organizing hospital stations near Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

Among other noted Maine women nurses was Rebecca Usher. A Sanitary Commission history about nurses notes that, "Miss Rebecca R. Usher was among the first to enter upon the work of humanity." Usher, of Hollis, was assigned to the General Hospital at Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1862-1863, then went to the front near Petersburg, Virginia, where she set up a soldiers' home. She remained there until the end of the war.

While in Chester, Usher witnessed many amputations and other serious medical procedures. She learned about the South from a South Carolina Confederate soldier being treated at the hospital. She was shocked at his descriptions of the way slaves were disciplined. Besides nursing duties, Usher and others at the hospitals helped soldiers write letters, ensured that food was distributed as intended, and often organized libraries.

Another Maine nurse, Sarah Sampson of Bath, followed her husband, Capt. Charles Sampson of the 3d Maine Infantry, to action in Virginia, nursing wounded soldiers. She later joined the relief organization in Washington, helping to respond to the requests for assistance, working primarily on requests from Maine soldiers and families.

Beyond working at the level of whole armies and masses of soldiers, and beyond the actions of various nurses, the commission also focused on individual soldiers and individual family members back home. Over the course of the war, the Maine Agency received many hundreds of letters from soldiers, their families, organizations who wanted to help, doctors, and others concerned with aspects of the war.

The Maine Agency was one place people could turn to get answers and help about furloughs, back pay, pensions, missing loved ones, packages sent to the front, and most other topics that were not strictly military.

Many of the letters from individuals contain emotional pleas. One soldier wrote from Libby Prison, the Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia, asking the Maine Agency to send supplies such as a ham, bologna sausages, canned salmon, milk, and Shaker applesauce, sardines, butter, pickles, cranberry sauce, a coffee pot, and "2 Boxes good Cigars." He said he knew of nowhere else to ask for help and noted that he had money to pay for the items.

Ill or injured soldiers – or their relatives – often asked for furloughs or discharges so they could return to Maine – either for a short time or permanently. Most expressed the conviction they would regain their health and strength if they were at home and cared for by loved ones.

One especially poignant letter came from J.S. Herrick, who was at a hospital in Annapolis, Maryland, tending to her ill son-in-law, Isaac J. Monk, a private in Co. E of the 16th Maine Infantry.

Addressing her letter to Sarah Sampson, Herrick wrote that she needed to return to Maine to care for her parents. She reported that her daughter had been ill and having mental problems since the illness of her soldier husband. She feared that her daughter would become "entirely insane" if Isaac Monk, her husband, did not return home.

In the fall of 1864, numerous soldiers or groups of soldiers wrote to the Maine Agent in Washington asking for furloughs to go home in order to vote in the Presidential election. Cyrus McBride, 1st sergeant, Co. K., 13th Maine, wrote from Harewood Hospital in Washington, D.C., "I want to vote in some place for I think it is the duty of every man to vote on this comeing Election to maintain the Principles that we have been struggling for & for the Officers that will carry them through."

The Maine Agency responded to all the letters it received, although Maine Historical Society's collection of letters does not include the responses. From other sources, it seems that the agency often was successful in securing furloughs, back pay, and answering other questions.

As for Benjamin Franklin Mower of the 7th Maine, who was 31 when he enlisted, the Maine Adjutant General's report for 1863 lists him as ill in a hospital in Washington and as mustered out on Aug. 21, 1864. However, a history of Greene lists his death date as July 3, 1863. Other sources list his death date as July 15, 1863, or as "reported missing after the battle of Gettysburg, and by the hard fortune of war, left to die on the Battlefield." There is no indication of when Louisa Mower found out her husband had died.