Civil War Relief Organizations

This entry is part 11 of 21 in the series A Soldier's Life
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Civil War Relief OrganizationsThe practice of military medicine was virtually unknown in America at the start of the Civil War. But as the casualties, both from battlefield wounds and camp diseases, mounted a number of organizations sprang up to care for soldiers in need.

The first and best known of these organizations was the United States Sanitary Commission. A private relief agency, it was created by an act of Congress on June 18, 1861 to support sick and wounded soldiers. It operated across the North, raised its own funds, and enlisted thousands of volunteers.

At first, the medical corps was indifferent if not actually hostile. The War Department was opposed to the idea and President Lincoln feared that it would be a ” fifth wheel to the coach.” Eventually, the acting surgeon-general was won over and recommended the appointment of ” a commission of inquiry and advice in respect to the sanitary interests of the United States forces,”to act with the medical bureau.

The original plan of the Sanitary Commission is embodied in this set of objectives spelled out in the resolution sent to Congress:

“To inquire into the recruiting service in the various States and by advice to bring them to a common standard; second, to inquire into the subjects of diet, clothing, cooks, camping grounds, in fact everything connected with the prevention of disease among volunteer soldiers not accustomed to the rigid regulations of the regular troops; and third, to discover methods by which private and unofficial interest and money might supplement the appropriations of the Government. ” 

With the passage of the Congressional act authorizing the commission, they immediately began inspections of camps and made suggestions for improvement. Needless to say, they found camp conditions unsanitary and made suggestions for improvement. Most commanders ordered changes and didn’t make the same mistake twice.

The Sanitary Commissions published eighteen short treatises prepared by committees of eminent medical men which were distributed to the regimental surgeons and the commanding officers. Since these surgeons had been almost wholly drawn from civil life and as the Medical Department had not issued any such treatises to them, these little books were of inestimable value.

As the war progressed the Sanitary Commission collected and distributed supplies and foodstuffs to the troops. They collected such diverse articles as quilts, blankets, pin-cushions, butter, eggs, sauerkraut, cider, chickens, and many other things. The standard set by the branch for the local-aid societies was ” a box a month for the soldiers.”

In the West, an organization in St. Louis, known as the Western Sanitary Commission, having no connection with the larger body, was very efficient in the work of relief. Founded in 1861, it established and equipped hospitals, and was able to supply them. The Western Sanitary Commission generally handled all sanitary affairs west of the Mississippi, and operated on a budget of $50,000 a month (about one-fourth the size of the rival national organization). The money came from private fundraising in the city of St. Louis, as well as from donors in California and New England.

The Commission selected nurses, provided hospital supplies, set up several hospitals, and outfitted several hospital ships. It also provided clothing and places to stay for freedmen and refugees, and set up schools for black children. It continued to finance various philanthropic projects until 1886.

Another organization which did good work among the Northern soldiers was the United States Christian Commission, organized by the Young Men’s Christian Association. Its purpose was primarily to improve the morals of the soldiers and, incidentally, their physical condition. It distributed thousands of Bibles, millions of copies of religious books, and many millions of religious newspapers and tracts.

There were many relief organizations and societies in the South during the Civil War. In fact, there may have been more than 1,000. Most of them were local or state organizations since there was no Confederacy-wide group. Not every society stayed together until the end of the war. Sometimes they lacked supplies to continue. As the war years stretched on, morale declined. Many disbanded as early as 1862. Yet many of them persisted throughout the war.

The Ladies’ Relief Society in Lynchburg, Virginia, was one that worked throughout the war. Mrs. Lucy Mina Otey, age 60 and a recent widow who eventually lost three sons in the Civil War, formed a corps of 500 Lynchburg women, the Ladies’ Relief Society, to make bandages and uniforms. As the carnage of war continued, women’s roles quickly expanded to become nurses and hospital matrons.

Mrs. Otey traveled to Richmond and petitioned President Jefferson Davis to establish the independent Ladies’ Relief Hospital. With a capacity for 100 patients, the Ladies’ Hospital was staffed by the Women’s Corps with “Mrs. Captain Otey” as its President. Even though it became an unwritten law always to send the worst casualties to Ladies’ Hospital, their mortality rate was the lowest of the local military hospitals, and it became renowned as one of the finest hospitals in the South.

Another aid society was the Ladies Association in Aid of the Volunteers of the Confederate Army in Greenville, South Carolina. It was organized to assist Greenville’s soldiers and others passing through the city. women from the Greenville Baptist Female College would meet tired and hungry troops at the train station providing them with a bed and food to help them regain their health before returning to the battlefield.

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