The New International Encyclopædia/Sanitary Commission, United States

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SANITARY COMMISSION (from Lat. sanitas; health, from sanus, sound, healthy, sane; connected with Gk. σάος, saos, σῶς, sōs, safe, sound), United States. An organization formed during the Civil War primarily for the relief of the sick and wounded soldiers of the Union army. On the day on which President Lincoln's call for volunteers was issued the women of various cities in the North organized societies for the purpose of affording relief and comfort to the sick and wounded volunteers. They stated their purpose to be “to supply nurses for the sick; to bring them home when practicable; to purchase clothing, provisions, and matters of comfort not supplied by the Government; to send books and newspapers to the camps; to preserve a record of the services of each soldier; and to hold constant communication with the officers of the regiments in order that the people might be kept informed of the condition of their friends.” On April 29, 1861, the Women's Central Relief Association was organized at Cooper Union, New York, under a constitution drawn up by the Rev. Dr. Henry V. Bellows, and a committee was appointed to ask for the official recognition of the association. They were kindly received, but their request for the appointment of a board with power to visit camps and hospitals and to supervise the sanitary administration according to the approved ideas of sanitary science was refused. The Government, however, consented to allow the commission to act in an advisory capacity to the medical department and to visit the camps and hospitals with a view to recommending sanitary regulations and reforms.

By an order of the War Department issued June 9, 1861, Dr. Bellows, Prof. A. D. Bache (chief of the Coast Survey), Wolcott Gibbs, M.D., Samuel G. Howe, M.D., Prof. Jeffries Wyman, M.D., W. H. Van Buren, M.D., R. C. Wood, surgeon-general U.S.A., G. W. Cullum, U.S.A., and A. Shiras, U.S.A., in conjunction with such others as might be associated with them, were constituted “a Commission of Inquiry and Advice in Respect of the Sanitary Interests of the United States Forces.” They were to serve without pay, but were to be supplied with an office at Washington. The commission was charged with directing its inquiries to “the principles and practice connected with the inspection of recruits and enlisted men, the sanitary condition of volunteers, the means of preserving and restoring the health and of securing the general comfort and efficiency of the troops, the proper provision of cooks, nurses, and hospitals, and other subjects of a like nature.”

The commission was organized by the election of Dr. Bellows as president and Frederick Law Olmsted as secretary. Declining Government support on the ground that it preferred to remain independent, the commission addressed itself for funds to the life insurance companies of the country and to the people at large. Responses, although generous, were at first insufficient, but in October, 1862, the outlook was brightened by the receipt of $100,000 from the people of California. Before the close of the war California had contributed more than $1,300,000. This example of generosity aroused enthusiasm and excited emulation, so that the receipts of the commission increased from $20,000 per month to more than $200,000. The total amount of cash received in the treasury of the commission during the war was $4,924,048. Next to California the largest amounts contributed by the States were: Massachusetts, $121,928; Nevada, $107,642; Oregon, $79,406; Washington (Territory), $20,918; Maine, $24,938; New York, $20,741. Even Louisiana contributed more than $3,000. Many foreign countries also aided. From London came a gift of $36,700; from Paris, $13,372; from Buenos Ayres, $18,412; from the Sandwich Islands, $17,955. Besides the actual amount turned into the treasury large sums were raised and expended by the various branches of the commission. The value of contributions other than money was estimated at $15,000,000, four-fifths of which came from local societies of which there were estimated to be more than 7,000.

The efforts of the commission were in the first place directed toward the prevention of sickness and disease among the soldiers by advising the regimental surgeons in the selection of camp sites, by regulating the drainage and by inspecting the food and supervising the cooking. To ameliorate the condition of the sick and wounded and at the same time prevent the spread of contagion, model pavilion hospitals were provided. Soldiers' homes for the sick and convalescent were established in many places to supply the deficiencies of the Government medical service. During the war thirteen such homes were maintained in the West, where more than 600,000 soldiers were lodged and 2,500,000 meals given. Hospital steamers equipped with surgeons and nurses were improvised and put on the Mississippi River and its tributaries. By this means thousands of wounded soldiers were removed with comparative comfort from the battlefields of the West to well-equipped hospitals in the North. A hospital car provided with a sort of swinging bed or hammock was invented by one of the members of the commission and was put into general use in moving wounded soldiers from the battlefields to the general hospitals. During the war 225,000 sick and wounded soldiers were transported in hospital cars from various battlefields in the East and West to the general hospitals. One of the special services of the commission was the relief which it afforded in the way of hospital supplies on the battlefield. After the battle of Antietam, when 10,000 soldiers lay wounded on the field and the trains containing the medical supplies were stalled near Baltimore, the Sanitary Commission performed some of its most valuable service. Its long wagon train had followed the army, and for several days the only available supplies were those which it furnished. In this instance the commission is said to have issued over 28,000 shirts, towels, pillows, etc.; 30 barrels of lint and bandages; over 3000 pounds of farina; over 20,000 pounds of condensed milk; 5000 pounds of beef stock and canned meats; 3000 bottles of wine and cordial; besides several tons of fruit, tea, sugar, cloth, and hospital conveniences.

The special relief service of the commission consisted in the establishment of temporary soldiers' homes at convenient depots where weak and sick men on the march could be treated and sent on to camp. Some 40 or more of these were established throughout the South. There was also a system of hospital directories organized for the purpose of keeping a record of soldiers in the hospitals so that their condition and whereabouts could be readily ascertained. The pension bureau and claim agency undertook, without charge, to aid soldiers in the prosecution of their claims by securing records or papers concerning their service and by advising such as were ignorant and incompetent. Over $2,500,000 due discharged soldiers was secured for them. The hospital inspection service consisted of a corps of physicians under an inspector in chief, who visited the general hospitals and reported to the Sanitary Commission such information as was deemed useful to the medical department. Finally the bureau of vital statistics collected a vast amount of information of permanent value relative to the health of the army, diet, influence of climate, nationality of soldiers, their physical characteristics, etc. Consult Stillé, History of the United States Sanitary Commission (Philadelphia, 1866).