Open Book History

Women Show Agency Within the United States Sanitary Commission


One of the most interesting aspects of my research of Civil War medicine thus far is the methods women used to achieve their agendas during the Civil War. Being opposed to women as volunteers, both Surgeon General Lawson and Finley maintained that protestant women should not be exposed to the kinds of conditions produced by military camps and hospitals, least of all seeing a naked or dying man. President Lincoln shared this view and expressed his concern that the National Sanitary Commission would be a “fifth wheel to the coach”.

Starting out as the Women’s Central Association of Relief, many plans were drawn up in order to help with the war effort. It was Dr. Henry W. Bellows, pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York who would step in and advocate for the women’s group, eventually becoming president of the National Sanitary Commission. The lack of Army doctors and those to care for the sick and wounded offered no other option than civilian participation and the need for an organization to both provide and organize these volunteers was essential. Despite large opposition from both the current Army Medical Bureau and the President,  eventually, their efforts and the efforts of those like Bellows who supported their work would succeed in establishing the National Sanitary Commission. This meant that the commission was able to lobby for a new surgeon general who supported their agendas and would pass their sanitation policies. They achieved all of these goals by appointing Dr. William Hammond who would establish the nursing corps, the Army Medical Museum devoted to collecting samples, photos, reports, and morbid anatomy for scientific and education purposes, establishing a Federal general hospital system, and establishing a medical board and requiring qualification tests for current and joining Army medical doctors.

Through the support of their male counterpoints, these women were able to achieve a large list of wartime reforms which would forever change the structure of medical practices within the United States. Further, by advocating such policies and gaining support by well known and respected doctors, the Commission was successful in improving mortality rates of Civil War wounded within the hospitals and camps.

You can read the act which enacted the National Sanitary Commission on June 13, 1861, here.

It is interesting the connection between religion and the National Sanitation Committee. It is also interesting that the same religion was the one practiced by Dorothea Dix. Coincidence that she became involved in the commission? Maybe, maybe not.

Thompson, H. (2013). The Sanitary Commission and other relief agencies. In H. Thompson (ed.),  The photographic history of the Civil War. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=10161.

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