United States Sanitary Commission, Sketch of Its Purposes (1864)


[I] in a national life like our own,--a democracy, where the people universally take part in political affairs,--the government has no option in the case. The popular affections and sympathies will force themselves into the administration of army and all other affairs in times of deep national awakening. The practical question was not, Is it best to allow the army to depend in any degree upon the care of the people as distinguished from the government? Considered on administrative grounds alone, that question, we have no doubt, should be answered negatively. But no such question existed in a pure and simple form. It was this question rather, How shall this rising tide of popular sympathy, expressed in the form of sanitary supplies, and offers of personal service and advice, be rendered least hurtful to the army system, and most useful to the soldiers themselves? How shall it be kept from injuring the order, efficiency, and zeal of the regular bureau, and at the same time be left to do its intended work of succor and sympathy,--to act as a steady expression of the people's watchful care of their army, and as a true helper and supplementer of what the government may find it possible or convenient to do from its own resources? It was this mixed question the Sanitary Commission found itself called to answer, and its whole plan and working have been one steady reply to it. It could not be deemed wise, much less was it possible, to discourage and deaden the active sympathies of the people. They would follow their regiments to the field with home-comforts and provisions against wounds and sickness. The women would hurry to the hospitals and camps. For the first six months after the war began, the departments at Washington were fairly besieged by humane committees, masculine and feminine; business was interrupted, clogged, and snarled by the obtrusion of aid and comfort. Every regiment that went into the field had another regiment of anxious friends pushing into the camp to look after it, and supply its possible or real wants. State and local relief committees were named Legion; and it looked as if the Commissariat and Medical Departments were going to be swamped in popular ministrations. The beauty and glory of the affections which led to this self-sacrificing attendance and provision were not to be lost or dimmed by neglect. Nay, they were to be cherished with the utmost assiduity and the fullest sense of their national value.

On the other hand, the method, efficiency, and development of the governmental resources, the order and sway of the Medical Department, were not to be sacrificed or delayed by the allowance of an unregulated, superfluous, and sentimental beneficence. Scylla was to be shunned, and Charybdis not grazed. The people could not, let them try as hard as they would, do the government's work. They could neither build nor furnish nor work the hospitals. They could not even supply them with nurses; for men, as well as women, are absolutely necessary in that service, in military hospitals. On the other hand, a popular volunteer army could not live at all cut off from home sympathy, and from the demonstration of popular interest and watchfulness; nor could government fitly undertake certain services which the people were ready to render to the army, and which might, with extreme wisdom and pains, be permitted, and even encouraged, without injury to discipline and official responsibility.

Between these two important and indispensable interests, home feeling, and governmental responsibility and method, the Sanitary Commission steered its delicate and difficult way. It assigned to itself the task, requiring constant tact, of directing, without weakening or cooling, the warm and copious stream of popular beneficence toward the army. This owned its heat and fulness very much to its spontaneous and local character. Towns, cities, counties, States, were deeply interested in their own boys. To labor, night and day, for the very regiment that had rendezvoused in its square, or upon its common, to knit socks for feet that had crossed their own thresholds, and make garments to cover hearts that throbbed with their own blood, was not only easy for the people,--it was a necessity. And to send these by the hands of trusted townsmen, who should see these comforts put upon the very backs, or into the very mouths, they were designed for, was the most natural plan in the world, and seemingly the very best, as it certainly was the pleasantest. Why should not each State look after its own soldiers,--and each county, and each town, and each family? Certainly, this principle of local interest and personal affection could be depended on for longer and freer labors than any other. Was it safe to attempt to modify it, to mend it, to enlighten it, and to enlarge it? It was at least necessary to try to do this. Such a spontaneous, local liberality, however productive of materials and supplies of comfort, was absolutely unfurnished, as a very short experience proved, with the means and facilities for conveying, delivering, and applying its resources to the army. While our soldiers were mustering at a few near points, and drilling and disciplining for the contest, it was comparatively easy to reach particular regiments through special delegations, and with special supplies. But, after a few months, the armies of the Union left these convenient centres, and a very few miles of mud road between a corps and its base soon showed local committees the immense difficulties of private and special transportation. Moreover, when sickness began to appear, and anxiety for the well and strong was concentrated upon the feeble and ailing, the people soon began to discover that a soldier, after all, belonged more to the army than to his own regiment, and was ultimately thrown more on the care of the federal government and the general staff than upon his own surgeon and immediate officers. Slowly the nation learned that new thing in the experience of this generation, what a General Hospital is, and what the course taken with a sick soldier must be. They discovered that in the suddenness and unexpected character of army movements, men were very soon put far beyond the reach of the knowledge and following of any local protectors; that regiments were liable to be thrown from North to South, from East to West; from Alexandria to Port Hudson and Vicksburg; from Newbern to Nashville and Chattanooga; and that their own sons and brothers, if they were to be followed and watched over at all, must be looked after by a national and ubiquitous body, which was with the army everywhere, at home at all points, and with ends and objects that recognized neither State nor county nor regiment, but saw only the United States or Union soldier, and ministered to him impartially according to his need, with absolute indifference as to where he hailed from. To explain this state of things at the earliest moment became the urgent duty of the Sanitary Commission. Naturally, but unfortunately, so many State and local associations were already at work, and represented in or near the great camps, that a swarm of angry and jealous rivals gathered about the plan of the Sanitary Commission, and have never ceased to sting its agents with disparaging reports. So kind and worthy were the intentions of those whom these associations represented, and in many cases so honorable and laborious the efforts of these agents, so natural their prejudices and jealousies, that, while strongly disapproving the principle involved in them as radically subversive of what they were laboring to popularize, the Sanitary Commission could not find the heart to oppose them. It therefore simply strove to make its own plan widely understood, and, by doing the work in hand in the only thorough and satisfactory manner possible, to win by the degrees the confidence of the more distant and interior communities. On the whole, the intelligence with which the people have understood and appreciated its method is worthy of all admiration; and the mingled sense and magnanimity with which they have gradually substituted for their original motive the federal principle, which, though larger, nobler, and more patriotic, lacks personal incitement and local warmth and color, is a new proof of the capabilities of our people. . . .

[T]he wonder is, that, in spite of them, there should have been so prodigious a triumph of the Federal principle in the humane work of ministering to the army. Local, personal, and religious prejudices have all yielded, more or less slowly, but steadily, to the self-vindicating claims of the Sanitary Commission. . . .

This is chiefly due to the wonderful spirit of nationality that beats in the breasts of American women. They, even more than the men of the country, from their utter withdrawal from partisan strifes and local politics, have felt the assault upon the life of the nation in its true national import. They are infinitely less State-ish, and more national in their pride and in their sympathies. They see the war in its broad, impersonal outlines; and while their particular and special affections are keener than men's, their general humanity and tender sensibility for unseen and distant sufferings is stronger and more constant. The women of the country, who are the actual creators, by the labor of their fingers, of the chief supplies and comforts needed by the soldiers, have been the first to understand, appreciate, and co-operate with the Sanitary Commission. . . .