The Civil War"s Sanitary Commission Tried to Supply Medical Supplies
The actions of the Sanitary Commission led to a reform of the U.S.
Army's medical department, and was the basis for further reforms in medical care in the years following the Civil War.
Origins of the U.S. Sanitary Commission
The organization arose from meetings of the administrators of the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first hospital run by women and tending to the needs of women. The hospital managers decided, in April 1861, as the Civil War began after the attack on Fort Sumter, to begin training volunteer nurses for military duty.
The organization was inspired by the British Sanitary Commission, which had operated during the Crimean War and was known for the work of nurses such as Florence Nightingale.
In May 1861, the organizers traveled to Washington, D.C. hoping to get government approval of its work. The Army's medical bureau resisted the idea of the Sanitary Commission, feeling it threatened its own purpose. But, after a meeting with Secretary of War Simon Cameron and President Abraham Lincoln, the organization received official recognition.
On June 13, 1861, Lincoln signed an executive order designating the U.S. Sanitary Commission as an advisory and investigative body.
While the general membership of the Sanitary Commission tended to be heavily female, male leaders were put in place to administer the organization.
Work of the Sanitary Commission
The fundraisers for the organization, located throughout the North, raised funds, often by organizing bazaars known as Sanitary Fairs and other charity projects. About 500 agents, who were mostly male, worked distributing medical supplies to army camps.
The U.S. Sanitary Commission did not directly treat the sick or wounded, though it did initiate teaching programs to educate soldiers about basic cleanliness and hygiene.
Legacy of the U.S. Sanitary Commission
There is no doubt that many soldiers were indirectly helped by the efforts of the Sanitary Commission. And a number of women were encouraged to pursue a career in nursing as a result of involvement with the Sanitary Commission.
Following the Civil War, the influence of the Sanitary Commission was felt in American society. Reformers stressed public health, hygienic practices, and cleanliness. And organizations such as the American Red Cross, founded by former Civil War nurse Clara Barton, ultimately carried on the work of the Sanitary Commission.