United States Sanitary Commission
FormationJune 18, 1861
FounderHenry Whitney Bellows
DissolvedMay 1866
TypePrivate relief agency
HeadquartersUnited States Treasury Building
ServicesSupport for sick and wounded soldiers of the Union Army
Henry Whitney Bellows
Executive Secretary
Frederick Law Olmsted
George Templeton Strong
$25,000,000 (total)

The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) was a private relief agency created by federal legislation on June 18, 1861, to support sick and wounded soldiers of the United States Army (Federal / Northern / Union Army) during the American Civil War.[a] It operated across the North, raised an estimated $25 million in Civil War era revenue (assuming 1865 dollars, $477.93 million in 2024) and in-kind contributions[1] to support the cause, and enlisted thousands of volunteers. The president was Henry Whitney Bellows, and Frederick Law Olmsted acted as executive secretary. It was modeled on the British Sanitary Commission, set up during the Crimean War (1853-1856), and from the British parliamentary report published after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 ("Sepoy Rebellion").[2][3][b]


Organizational chart of the Sanitary Commission by John Y. Culyer, 1864

Henry Whitney Bellows, (1814-1882), a Massachusetts clergyman, planned the USSC and served as its only president.[4][c] According to The Wall Street Journal, "its first executive secretary was Frederick Law Olmsted, (1822-1903), the famed landscape architect who designed New York's Central Park".[5] George Templeton Strong, (1820-1875), New York lawyer and diarist, helped found the commission and served as treasurer and member of the executive committee.[6]

Leaders of the Sanitary Commission.[7] From left to right: Dr. William Van Buren, George T. Strong, Commission President Henry Whitney Bellows, Dr. Cornelius R. Agnew, and Dr. Oliver Wolcott Gibbs.[8]

In June 1861, the Sanitary Commission set up its central office inside the United States Treasury Building, just east of the Executive Mansion (now the White House), on Pennsylvania Avenue and 15th Street in central Washington, D.C. By late October 1861, the USSC Central Office and the U.S. War Department had received detailed studies and reports from the Sanitary Inspectors of more than four hundred regimental camp inspections. The rapidly crowded events of those first six months of the war displayed the sheer gravity of the situation in which the adjustment to the means and agencies were desperately needed to ensure a high health-rate in all those untrained Union Army regiments.[9]

Immediately following the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, the first orders and receipts submitted to the Central Office began to arrive from the military Union Army hospitals at Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., requesting water-beds, small tables for writing in bed, iron wire cradles for protecting wounded limbs, dominoes, checkerboards, Delphinium and hospital gowns for the wounded.[10][d]

The demands of the war soon required more frequent decision-making. This led to the creation of the Standing Committee, which met on a nearly daily basis in New York City where most of its members resided. The Standing Committee initially consisted of five commissioners who retained their position for the entire war: Henry W. Bellows, George Templeton Strong, William H. Van Buren, M.D., Cornelius R. Agnew, M.D., and Wolcott Gibbs, M.D.[11]

In addition to setting up and staffing hospitals, the USSC operated 30 soldiers' homes, lodges, or rest houses for traveling or disabled Union soldiers. Most of these closed shortly after the war.[12]

Letter from Col. Leavitt Hunt to John George Nicolay requesting documents with Abraham Lincoln's signature.[13]

Also active in the association was Colonel Leavitt Hunt, (1831-1907), a New York lawyer and pioneering photographer. In January 1864, he wrote to 16th President Abraham Lincoln's secretary John George Nicolay asking that Nicolay forward him any documents he might have available with the President's signature. Hunt's mother, the widow of Vermont congressman Jonathan Hunt, planned to attach Lincoln's signature to copies of several casts of the President's hand, to be sold to raise funds for the war effort.[13] Other fund raising events included the famous 50 pound sack of flour that was auctioned off by Reuel Colt Gridley. By auctioning off the same sack of flour, which was then re-donated to be sold again, Gridley eventually raised more than $250,000.00 for the Sanitary Commission.

States could use their own tax money to supplement the Commission's work, as Ohio did. Under the energetic leadership of Governor David Tod, a War Democrat who won office on a coalition "Union Party" ticket with Republicans, Ohio acted vigorously. Following the unexpected carnage at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, it sent three steamboats to the scene as floating hospitals with doctors, nurses and medical supplies. The state fleet expanded to eleven hospital ships. The state also set up 12 local offices in main transportation nodes to help Ohio soldiers moving back and forth.[14]

The government constructed the Pension Building in Washington, DC to handle all the staff to process the pension requests and administer them. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. After the war, the USSC volunteers continued to work with Union Army veterans to secure their bounties, back pay, and apply for pensions. It supported the "health and hygiene" of the veterans. They had a Department of General Relief which accepted donations for veterans, too.[15] The USSC organization was finally disbanded in May 1866.[16]

Women in the USSC

United States Sanitary Commission: Our Heroines (Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly April 9, 1864)

Arising from a meeting in New York City of the Women's Central Relief Association of New York,[17] the organization was also inspired by the British Sanitary Commission of the Crimean War. The American volunteers raised money (estimated at $25 million), collected donations, made uniforms, worked as nurses, ran kitchens in army camps, and administered hospital ships, soldiers' homes, lodges, and rests for traveling or disabled soldiers. They organized Sanitary Fairs in numerous cities to support the Federal army with funds and supplies, and to raise funds for the work of the USSC.[15] Women who were prominent in the organization, often traveling great distances, and working in harsh conditions, included Louisa May Alcott, Almira Fales, Eliza Emily Chappell Porter, Katherine Prescott Wormeley, and many others.

Dorothea Dix, serving as the commission's superintendent, convinced the medical corps of the value of women working in their hospitals.[18] Over 15,000 women volunteered to work in hospitals, usually in nursing care.[19] They assisted surgeons during procedures, gave medicines, supervised the feedings and cleaned the bedding and clothes. They gave good cheer, wrote letters the men dictated, and comforted the dying.[20] A representative nurse was Helen L. Gilson (1835–68) of Chelsea, Massachusetts, who served in Sanitary Commission. She supervised supplies, dressed wounds, and cooked special foods for patients on a limited diet. She worked in hospitals after the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg. She was a successful administrator, especially at the hospital for black soldiers at City Point, Virginia.[21] The middle-class women who volunteered provided vitally needed nursing services and were rewarded with a sense of patriotism and civic duty in addition to the opportunity to demonstrate their skills and gain new ones, while receiving wages and sharing the hardships of the men.[22]

Mary Livermore,[23] Mary Ann Bickerdyke, and Annie Wittenmeyer played leadership roles.[24] After the war some nurses wrote memoirs of their experiences; examples include Dix, Livermore, Sarah Palmer Young, and Sarah Emma Edmonds. Bridget Diver also worked for the Commission.

Sanitary Fairs

From the outset, many local groups sponsored fund-raising events to benefit the Commission. As the war progressed, these became larger and more elaborate Sanitary Fairs. One of the first events was in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1863.[25] Groups in other cities soon adopted this plan.[26] Organizing these Sanitary Fairs offered ways for local communities to be directly part of supporting the war effort of the nation. The largest Sanitary Fair during the war was held in Chicago in 1863.[27][28] Chicago held a second sanitary fair in 1865.[29]

Notable members


The U.S. Sanitary Commission is memorialized by a group of re-enactors who portray the Boston branch of the commission at various civic events, educational programs, and Civil War re-enactments. The group is based out of the Greater Boston area of Massachusetts.


See also


  1. ^ The official warrant or order for the organization of the Sanitary Commission appears to have issued from the War Department office, Sunday, 9th June 1861, and to have received President Lincoln's signature four days subsequently.
  2. ^ Additionally, the medical reports of Edmund Alexander Parkes including the British army medical dispatches, the findings of the Royal Sanitary Commission, and first-hand knowledge acquired by Florence Nightingale were compiled in her "Notes On the Care and Treatment of Sick and Wounded During the Late War in the East, and On the Sanitary Requirements of the Army Generally" (London: 1858). These were also considered in the establishment of the United States Sanitary Commission.
  3. ^ Rev. Dr. Bellows, President of the Commission, provided a graphic statement (following his preliminary tour through the Western encampments) in a letter to a New York City auxiliary committee of finance. Camp diseases, the irregularity of life, exposure, filth, heat and crowded conditions were described in this letter.
  4. ^ Additionally, money donations were requested by the Sanitary Commission to support these military Union hospitals. These funds were received by George T. Strong, Treasurer of the Commission, 68 Wall Street, N.Y., and George S. Coe, Treasurer of Central Executive Committee, American Exchange Bank, N.Y.


  1. ^ Stillé, Charles J. (1866). History of the United States Sanitary Commission, Being the General Report of Its Work during the War of the Rebellion. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. p. 490. Retrieved April 9, 2014.
  2. ^ The Sanitary Commission of the United States Army. A Succinct Narrative of Its Works and Purposes. New York: Sanitary Commission. 1864. p. 5. Retrieved August 4, 2015. United States Sanitary Commission.
  3. ^ The New York Times. "Necessity of Sanitary Organization" (Vol. X, No. 3031: Sunday, June 9, 1861). p. 5, column 1. Retrieved: August 4, 2015.
  4. ^ Sanitary Commission, p. 10.
  5. ^ Dugan, Ianthe Jeanne (June 22, 2007). "Civil War Letters Shed Light on Pain Of Troop's Families". The Wall Street Journal.
  6. ^ Willis, John C. "George Templeton Strong". Sewanee: The University of the South. Archived from the original on May 22, 2010. Retrieved July 17, 2010.
  7. ^ "Executive Committee of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Left to right: Dr. William Holme Van Buren, George Templeton Strong, Rev. Dr. Henry Whitney Bellows (Commission President), Dr. Cornelius R. Agnew and Prof. Wolcott Gibbs". www.loc.gov. 2 April 2018. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  8. ^ The Diary of George Templeton Strong, The Civil War 1860-1865, Edited by Allan Nevis, The MacMillan Co., NY 1962
  9. ^ Sanitary Commission. pp. 16–22.
  10. ^ Sanitary Commission. pp. 14–15.
  11. ^ "archives.nypl.org -- United States Sanitary Commission records". nypl.org. Retrieved December 11, 2016.
  12. ^ "Soldiers' Homes and Lodges" in The Sanitary Commission Bulletin 3:1279. Available at Google Books.
  13. ^ a b Letter from Col. Leavitt Hunt to John George Nicolay, January 1864, General Correspondence of Abraham Lincoln, American Memory. Library of Congress. Accessed September 23, 2013
  14. ^ Eugene E. Roseboom, The Civil War Era, 1850-1873 (1944) p 396
  15. ^ a b "Great Central Fair Buildings, Philadelphia". World Digital Library. Retrieved 2013-07-28.
  16. ^ "US Sanitary Commission historical website". Archived from the original on May 15, 2006. Retrieved December 23, 2005.
  17. ^ Stillé, Charles J. (1866). History of the United States Sanitary Commission, Being the General Report of Its Work during the War of the Rebellion. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co. pp. 40–62. Retrieved July 17, 2010.
  18. ^ Thomas J. Brown, Dorothea Dix: New England Reformer (Harvard U.P. 1998)
  19. ^ Jane E. Schultz, "The Inhospitable Hospital: Gender and Professionalism in Civil War Medicine", Signs (1992) 17#2 pp. 363–392 in JSTOR
  20. ^ Ann Douglas Wood, "The War within a War: Women Nurses in the Union Army", Civil War History (1972) 18#3
  21. ^ Edward A. Miller, "Angel of light: Helen L. Gilson, army nurse", Civil War History (1997) 43#1 pp 17–37
  22. ^ Elizabeth D. Leonard, "Civil war nurse, civil war nursing: Rebecca Usher of Maine", Civil War History (1995) 41#3 pp 190–207
  23. ^ Wendy Hamand Venet, A Strong-minded Woman: The Life of Mary Livermore (2005)
  24. ^ Elizabeth D. Leonard. "Civil War Nurse, Civil War Nursing: Rebecca Usher of Maine," Civil War History (1995): 41#3 190-207. in Project MUSE
  25. ^ Lowell Daily Citizen and News, 14 February 1863, p. 2.
  26. ^ Manchester (NH) Daily Mirror, 9 May 1863, p. 4; Salem (MA) Register, 11 June 1863, p. 2.
  27. ^ Bridge, Jennifer R. (2016). "Going to the Fair". In Widmer, Ted; Risen, Clay; Kalogerakis, George (eds.). New York Times Disunion: A History of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 90–92. ISBN 978-0-19-062183-4.
  28. ^ Lawson, Melinda. Patriot Fires: Forging a New American Nationalism in the Civil War North, Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
  29. ^ "Finding Aid" (PDF). museums.kenosha.org. Retrieved 2019-07-02.
  30. ^ "PASSING AWAY. ANOTHER EARLY SETTLER GONE". Cawker City Public Record. 18 January 1894. p. 4. Retrieved 28 May 2022 – via Newspapers.com. Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.

Further reading