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Established during the American Civil War, the United States Sanitary Commission was an organization devoted to organize the efforts of women in the United States to support the Union Army in several different ways. Signed into life by President Abraham Lincoln on 18 June, 1861, the Sanitary Commission modeled their structure after the British Sanitary Commission, and oversaw drives and fundraisers that would benefit soldiers actively engaged in the fight. While the Sanitary Commission only operated for a few years, the impact of the organization on the war effort and the role of women in the country was significant.
The concept of the US Sanitary Commission began with a local effort that was conducted by the Women’s Central Association of Relief in New York City. While there was a great deal of opposition, the idea of a national organization that would mobilize women throughout the country gained ground, and was given official status in 1861. The first and only president of the organization was Henry Whitney Bellows, a clergyman from the state of Massachusetts. It should be noted that the first executive secretary of the organization was Frederick Law Olmsted, who was responsible for the design of Central Park in New York City.
Structured with a central organization and a number of local chapters, the Sanitary Association conducted a continual campaign to collect donations from citizens that could be turned into items that would contribute to the war effort. Under the auspices of the organization, women set up and ran kitchens in army camps, made uniforms from donated cloth, provided support medical care as nurses, and served on ships designated as floating hospitals conveying the wounded away from the field of battle. Because of the work of the Sanitary Commission, many soldiers had hot food, warm uniforms, coats, and mittens, and even blankets.
For a brief time after the end of the war, the Sanitary Commission remained a working entity. For roughly a year, the organization worked to help Union veterans collect back pay owed to them, as well as return to civilian life. By May of 1866, the general feeling was that the Sanitary Commission had fulfilled the reasons for the creation of the organization and the volunteers could move on to other endeavors within their own communities.
I believe they were also advocates for hygiene in the camps, trying to reduce the appalling losses to death and illness caused by proximity. Locating latrines apart from water supplies and insisting on their use was very important in an era that didn't yet subscribe to germ theory.