Friday, June 12, 2015

Civil War Women--the United States Sanitary Commission

United States Sanitary Commission Seal
A footnote from history by Stephanie Grace Whitson

At the outset of the Civil War, women collected quilts and other supplies--at first for local regiments--but then, as the war continued and needs grew, it became obvious that an organized national effort was needed. After all, collecting and creating didn't mean getting supplies to the front. 

In October of 1861, President Lincoln announced the formation of the United States Sanitary Commission. Regional commissions soon formed and worked with the Union Army to prioritize needs and to streamline the flow of supplies.

Although President Lincoln named men to lead these sanitary commissions, women oversaw their day-to-day operations. The back of the stereoscopic card at left lauds the efforts of the commission: "it saved thousands of lives ... it relieved untold suffering."

Why that word SANITARY? In the middle 1800s, scientists and doctors understood for the first time that germs spread disease. Before the American Civil War, European doctors had discovered that thoroughly cleaning operating rooms and hospitals greatly reduced the spread of illness and death. Through the “Sanitary Commissions” citizens helped medical workers provide the cleanest possible conditions for Army hospitals.

Sanitary Commissions received bedding, clothing, and food from hundreds of local aid societies, then sorted, repacked, and systematically shipped them to the front. They also staffed hospitals and encouraged their cleanliness to halt the spread of disease.

Jessie Benton Fremont
Jessie Benton Fremont was instrumental in the formation of the Western Sanitary Commission headquartered in St. Louis, which provided supplies and services to Union armies west of the Allegheny Mountains. The WSC established hospitals (among those more than a dozen hospital ships), trained nurses, kept records of the sick and the dead, conducted inspections of medical facilities, and even provided care for Confederate prisoners of war.

Camp Nelson, pictured at right, was established by the Sanitary Commission in Kentucky. 

During one month, the Western Sanitary Commission sent General Grant's Army over 3,000 hospital shirts and sets of "drawers," 80 pincushions, over 6,000 items of "reading matter," and 60 bottles of blackberry syrup. (Blackberry syrup was prized for its medicinal qualities--it was believed effective in the treatment of dysentery, an illness that proved fatal to thousand of soldiers during the war.) 

That word "sanitary" may seem strange to us today, but women in every era have organized to meet the needs of the loved ones facing the challenges of the battlefield. Have you participated in an organization that supports the military? God bless you. 


Best-selling, award-winning author and speaker Stephanie Grace Whitson celebrated her 20th year as a published novelist in 2014. When she isn't writing or reading about American history, she enjoys riding the Honda Magna motorcycle she named Kitty. Her most recent novel is set in Missouri during the Civil War. Learn more at


  1. Thanks for explaining the origins of the Sanitary Commission. I've read about it in books and often thought the name was odd but I've never had the need to research it. My son is in the National Guard and has a lovely patriotic quilt that some kind woman made for a soldier. I've donated items to the Blue Star Mothers but I haven't been involved with the organization.

  2. Here's to you, Blue Star Mother ... and thanks to your son for his service!

  3. Finally I know why it was called the sanitary commission!n am wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com