The American Civil War claimed an appalling number of lives. And while casualties are an unfortunate product of war, it may be surprising to learn that for every man killed in battle, two died from disease. Many of these diseases - dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid and malaria - "were caused by overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the field. Preaching the virtues of clean water, good food and fresh air, the [U. S. Sanitary] Commission pressured the Army Medical Department to 'improve sanitation, build large well-ventilated hospitals and encourage women to join the newly created nursing corps.' Despite the efforts of the Sanitary Commission, some 560,000 soldiers died from disease during the war."
Surprisingly the U. S. Sanitary Commission was "organized by civilians, run by civilians and funded by civilians." Church congregations, ladies aid societies and groups of all kinds volunteered to make and collect goods for soldiers in the field. An effort to create an effective system of collection and distribution was begun by the ladies of New York in 1861, and subsequently, they held a conference to coordinate all the individual efforts of relief societies throughout the United States. Doctors, clergymen, lawyers and other interested parties who recognized a need for better coordination of relief efforts, attended the conference. As a result the development of Articles of Organization to form what would become the Sanitary Commission. After members of the delegation lobbied the War Department, the Department sanctioned the creation of the U. S. Sanitary Commission on June 9, 1861. The first President of the Commission was Rev. Henry W. Bellows, D.D. of New York and the General Secretary of the Commission was the noted landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead. The work of the Sanitary Commission was divided into three distinct departments:
The Preventive Service employed a corps of medical inspectors who visited camps, hospitals and transports of each army corps in the field. These inspectors were attentive to dangers from change of climate, exposure, malarious causes, hard marching or any failure of supplies or transportation."
The Department of General Relief embraced three-quarters of the work done by the Sanitary Commission. Its duty was to supply food, clothing, bandages, hospital furniture [and medicines] for the wounded on the field and the sick and wounded in camp, field, post, regimental and general hospitals." According to Dr. Herschel L. Stroud in a recent article on flags of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, "the manner of getting the wounded from the battlefield to an aid or dressing station, and thence to a field hospital, was made possible by the use of flags." The cloth pennant pictured here is made of cotton with black lettering. The pennant is 24 inches by 12 inches in size, and was sewn onto a tent indicating the Sanitary Commission station in the field.
The Soldiers' Homes came under the third department, the Department of Special Relief. These homes furnished shelter, food and medical care to men who, for one reason or another, could not get it directly from the government...that is men on furlough or sick leave, recruits, stragglers and men who were left behind by their regiments or were permanently discharged from hospitals."
The U. S. Sanitary Commission, contributing significantly to alleviating the suffering of soldiers, was the forerunner of the American Red Cross. Additional information about the Sanitary Commission can be obtained through the following sources located at the Military History Institute: "History of the United States Sanitary Commission..." J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1866. [E631.A34 186]. "My Story of the War." A woman's narrative of four years personal experience as nurse in the Union Army, and in relief work at home, in hospitals, camps and at the front during the war of rebellion. By Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, A. D. Worthington & Co., 1890. [E621.L79 189] "Lincoln's Fifth Wheel." The political history of the U. S. Sanitary Commission"
This Sanitary Commission pennant is in the collection of the United States Army Heritage and Education Center (USAHEC). The USAHEC represents an unprecedented partnership between the Federal government, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, local governments and the private sector, and is dedicated to preserving and sharing the stories of America's citizen soldiers - from icons to unsung heroes. Comprised of four buildings and an outdoor Museum Park, the USAHEC is one of the components of the National Museum of the Army.
As the Center's supporting foundation, the Army Heritage Center Foundation, is developing a wide range of educational programs, both on-site and online, to help Americans better understand the American soldier and the prominent role their Army has played in American history. With your support to the Foundation, you will help to preserve and proudly display the letters, documents, photographs and artifacts from nearly 230 years of service. You can help educate future generations on the proud history and achievements of our Army, and you can honor a family member, a friend or a comrade in arms. To learn how, contact the Army Heritage Center Foundation at 1 866 ARMY HTG, write to P. O. Box 839, Carlisle, PA 17013 or visit their website: www.armyheritage.org Army Heritage Center Foundation