The Sanitary Commission: Meeting Needs of Soldiers, Families

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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.