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A Weekly Look Back at the Civil WarJune 3, 1861/2011
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US Sanitary Commission

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Northern Women Help Establish the US Sanitary Commission


June 9, 1861. Northern women eager to contribute to the Union cause helped establish the United States Sanitary Commission  

Elizabeth Blackwell
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell

(USSC), a quasi-governmental body organized to advise and serve the army with supplies and health services. Founded with an all-male board and officially endorsed by the Secretary of War, the organization was conceived through the combined efforts of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who had spearheaded the Woman's Central Association of Relief (WCAR) in New York, Unitarian minister Henry Whitney Bellows of Boston, and social reformer Dorothea Dix.


The USSC sought to apply the principles of "Sanitary Science" to questions of "military life." ("Order for Commission," June 9, 1861, Documents of the United States Sanitary Commission, No. 2) It advised the army on sanitation, nutrition, and medical care, and centralized the benevolent activities of northern women. Considered "a major innovation in nineteenth-century warfare," according to an 1866 history, the Sanitary Commission was lauded as


"a colossal network of charity, a system of beneficence as broad as the theatre of war, an aqueduct of continental proportions, with complicated yet smooth running appliances, whose blessed function it was to bring to the tent, and to the hospital of the weary, the sick, the bleeding, or the ragged soldier, that moral and material comfort and sympathy, which had their origin in thousands of distant villages, by ten thousand solitary hearth-stones."

SOURCE: Frank Moore, Women of the War, Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice, Hartford, 1866, pp. 574-5

Women volunteers performed direct service as supply agents, field organizers, and nurses while innumerable local soldiers' aid societies throughout the North funneled essential bandages, clothing, bedding, food, and funds through the Sanitary Commission to hospitals and camps. By September 1861, the women of Troy, New York, for example, had already sent the WCAR, 

"17 flannel shirts, 308 hospital shirts, 118 flannel bandages, 65 pillow-cases, 34 bed-ticks, 14 quilts, 9 sheets, 24 drawers, 42 pillow-ticks, [and] 1 blanket."  

(New York Times, September 23, 1861) 


Some local organizers eventually became paid professionals, beginning their first experience in the government workforce.

Dorothea Dix 
Dorothea Dix
On June 10, 1861.
Dorothea Dix was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses without pay; she acted as a liaison to develop a corps of female nurses for military hospitals and camps through the USSC. Dedicated but dictatorial, she attempted to control the selection, hiring, and placement of nurses following Florence Nightingale's example, not only to monitor the quality of the nursing workforce but also to protect their respectability as women. Women younger than 35 or older than 50 were excluded, and Dix required women with


"habits of neatness, order, sobriety, and industry" and desired "matronly persons of experience, good conduct, or superior education and serious disposition." The dress code in service was "plain, (colors brown, grey, or black,) and . . . without ornaments of any sort." (Dorothea Dix, Circular No. 8, July 14, 1862)

Dix met with considerable resistance from doctors and surgeons, who resented her authority and were skeptical about the imposition of nursing women in army camps and hospitals. And yet at least 3,200 white women eventually served during the Civil War as nurses through the USSC.

- Submitted by Marilyn S. Blackwell


Related Links


History of the United States Sanitary Commission
being the general report of its work during the War of the Rebellion 

Field relief corps of the U.S.... Digital ID: 1150093. New York Public Library
Field relief corps of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Supply wagon and tent of a corps relief agent. Lewis H. Steiner, Chief inspector. Courtesy New York Public Library.
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