The U.S. Sanitary Commission

Secretary of War Simon Cameron reluctantly approved merging the many 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. They would also provide resources to combat illness and disease in army field hospitals.

The Bureau had resisted the idea because civilians were traditionally discouraged from involving themselves in military matters. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Cameron also resisted at first; Lincoln commented that such a commission might add “a fifth wheel to the coach.” But once Lincoln was assured that the organizers had no intention of embarking on such work for personal gain, the idea was approved and the commission was officially established on the 9th.

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.

The commission was only permitted to provide aid to volunteer army units, not the Regular Army. It would have investigatory and advisory power, but it eventually superseded that.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 collect over $2.5 million in pensions. This month, the commission’s work began when members issued a general circular requesting $50,000 in private contributions.


  • Jackson, Donald Dale, Twenty Million Yankees: The Northern Home Front. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1983.
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
  • 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.
  • Robbins, Peggy (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

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