The U.S. Sanitary Commission

June 7, 1861 – Secretary of War Simon Cameron reluctantly approved merging northern states’ aid societies into what became the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

The idea for a centralized, national commission began in late April when Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in the U.S., met with 55 prominent New York women to discuss aiding the U.S. Army Medical Bureau. These women joined with a group of male physicians to propose an organization that would supplement the inadequate and obsolete practices of the Bureau in caring for infirmed soldiers and providing for their families.

Logo for the U.S. Sanitary Commission | Image Credit:
Logo for the U.S. Sanitary Commission | Image Credit:

The Bureau had resisted the idea because civilians traditionally did not involve themselves in military matters. But after petitioning various administration officials, including Cameron and President Lincoln himself, the idea was approved and the Commission was officially established on June 9.

Cameron appointed the Commission’s members, which included several well-known professors and physicians. Dr. Henry Bellows, pastor of New York City’s All Souls Unitarian Church, became commission president. Bellows announced that the Commission would work to improve soldiers’ lives in ways the government could not do. Frederick Law Olmstead, the prominent architect of New York’s Central Park, became the Commission’s first executive secretary.

Officially the Commission only had investigatory and advisory power, but it eventually superseded that. At one time employing up to 500 agents, the commission involved itself in ambulance services, hospital care, and nursing. They also helped veterans to collect over $2.5 million in pensions. This month, the Commission’s work began when members issued a general circular requesting $50,000 in contributions.


Sources; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 49; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 36; Jackson, Donald Dale, Twenty Million Yankees: The Northern Home Front (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 120; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 83; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 323, 481; Robbins, Peggy, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 656

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