The Sanitary Commission was a known profit organization that was sanctioned by the U. S. government in 1861 to help provide supplies and aid to the medical corps. It was not the first organization of its kind but it was the first to have a major and lasting effect on the army. The Sanitary Commission aided soldiers, supplied hospitals with the necessary supplies and provided an efficient means for smaller local aid societies to distribute their supplies. They also created many of the guidelines that helped to shape todays modern medical care and began the project of organizing and recording patients’ needs and recovery times.
However, such a large organization that was maintained primarily by volunteers couldn’t buy all the supplies it needed by itself. They of course had the help of those other smaller aid societies scattered across the north and midwest but they could only supply so much. The Commission needed a way to help encourage more people to give. Especially during the more trying and difficult times of the war when morale was lowest among citizens. So they created what they called Sanitary Fair’s to help raise money to pay for medical supplies, transportation and other essential materials that they would use in both battlefield and camp hospitals.
The Sanitary Commission was originally much like other aid groups during the beginning of the war. It was originally called the Ladies Aid Society and its founder was Elizabeth Blackwell the first female M. D. It held its first meeting on April 15, 1861 in Bridgeport Connecticut. The member’s, predominantly women, met in school houses, churches and front parlors at fellow member’s houses. Slowly though, the realization of the scope of need that the men going off to war need began to be apparent. Many were dying not from battle wounds but from disease and hunger.
So the women decided it was time to grow their small society into a government funded organization so that they could better reach those soldiers. With the help of Henry Bellows, George Templeton Strong and Fredrick Olmstead they were able to push the small aid society up to Lincoln to be approved and thus on June 9, 1861 the U. S. Sanitary Commission was born and they began the long and exhausting process of getting their once small group off the ground and able to function efficiently on a level equal to the government.
But how could an organization of its size afford to keep running and supplying the army with its needed materials, during the beginning of a civil war? The organization began by creating pamphlet’s and flyers, holding lectures across the northern and mid-western states to raise awareness and peoples interest. However, it became apparent somewhat they may need to do more, and as they grew they slowly moved from the school houses and churches of their small towns into actual buildings were they could better run their efforts and keep track of their records and supplies as they were shipped all across the warring states.
More often than not they would have people come in and donate a certain amount anonymously and then others would come and purposely give. They also had the help of many other aid societies that would join together to send supplies to them to be redistributed to the soldiers. However, they still needed more money and quickly. It was agreed that they needed to create something larger and more creative to attract more people and to encourage more giving. From this need the Sanitary Fairs were born. The first fair was held in Chicago in 1863.
These fairs varied slightly from others that may have been held during this time period. For one they were more expensive, instead of the usual 25 cents they could cost up to 2 dollars. The fairs showcased anything from art to the latest in kitchen devises and new machinery. Many of the art works were on loan from private collections or donated by artist to help draw in crowds. This was actually one of the first public display of art work in America. It would help artist in the future to put together their works to be showcased in galleries to the public.
The different exhibits usually followed the theme of patriotism, using colors, images and staged scenes with war trophies and other war mementos. It was supposed to make the people feel energized and invigorated so that they would feel the need to possibly give more. They also had small competitions with prizes that could be won. The “New England Kitchen” became a hit at many fairs, with colonial themed staff and decor it gave the fair goers a sense of the old days and the morals and rights America had been founded on to create a sense of nostalgia and reaffirm the Unions cause for the Civil War.
Since the fair towards the tail end of the war these scenes with patriotic undertones were extremely important not only for the fund raising for the Commission but also as a morale booster for war weary northerners. It helped the common people, especially women feel like they were doing something for the soldiers since they themselves couldn’t go out and fight. In an age where the battle field was closer to home, in telegrams, letters, and pictures, the fairs were a way for people to relax and know that they could be helping.
Many probably felt useless when reading the daily papers with the news of more and more soldiers dying. The majority of those left behind were women and it was those women who banded together in the beginning to create all the different societies that aided the soldiers. Since women could not go off to fight the Sanitary and Commission and other organizations like it were the only way for them to do anything for the war cause. They provided much of the back bone and supplies, like clothing and medical wraps, that were used in treating patients.
They were also nurses who traveled with the armies and cared for the wounded, no matter which side they were on. Many would underestimate the women’s roll in the war effort. Especially northern women who were seen as fickle and prone to spending money on themselves rather than on the war effort. The fairs allowed for them to show that they too could be just as active and attentive as their southern counterparts. The Sanitary Fairs were a crucial part of Sanitary Commission. They allowed for the commission to be able to continuously run throughout the war and provide the adequate care that was so needed by the soldiers.
Raising money wasn’t always the easiest thing. Many during the war were poor and barely scraping by for themselves. They were also daily reminded that they were in the midst of a war that was in their back yard and from what the newspapers were telling them, it wasn’t necessarily going good for them at times. However, the Sanitary Fairs were a way for people to come together and be reminded of the past and how America had triumphed and been born and that it was a country of strong persevering people.
The success generated by the fairs, the New York fair generated over $1 million dollars, was a huge help to the people in charge of distributing the supplies all across the union. They were able to provide aid to many soldiers who would have most likely died if they had not received the medical supplies, such as bandaging and medicine. The fairs made possible the continues function of the Union Army. While still many died from wounds and diseases the number was significantly less than if they hadn’t been there to aid them.
The women to were a key part that allowed for the smoothness of the fairs and flow of goods from the hands of the providers to those of the soldiers who needed them most. Many surgeons were supplied and better able to care for their wounded patients and more soldiers were able to fight in a healthier state, or as healthy as they could be. While the fairs were a relatively small and part of the whole commission effort it still played a key part in their smooth functioning and allowed for it to grow to the size that it was by the end of the war.