Western Sanitary Commission
In 1861, General John C. Frémont’s General Order No. 159 created the Western Sanitary Commission. The new invention minie balls were causing death on a scale never seen before.
William Greenleaf Eliot was made a commissioner of this newly formed organization. He appointed James Yeatman, a banker and founder of the Mercantile Library, Carlos S. Greeley, George Partridge, and John B. Johnson to lead the organization.
The Western Sanitary Commission served the western part of the country when the U.S. Sanitary Commission was more concerned with what was happening in the East. The members of the commission tended to be strong Unionists. As such they distrusted those who provided aid to rebels. This led them at points to exclude Catholic nuns who would provide care to everyone who needed it.
The purpose of the commission was to aid the Medical Department of the Army by providing doctors and nurses. It also built and supplied hospitals. The first was large enough to hold 500 soldiers, but many more were needed. By 1864 the commission had funded more than 70 hospitals around the southwest and ran 15 in Saint Louis. It provided aid throughout the war including at the major battles of Shiloh, Pea Ridge, and Vicksburg. Members did more than just provide medical aid though. By 1863 they had also begun providing homes for soldiers who had been discharged or were on leave and lacked money for hotels or lodging. They also provided aid to freedmen, white refugees from the South, and Union prisoners of war such as those at Andersonville.
Ladies’ Union Aid Society
Working with the Western Sanitary Commission this all-female organization provided funds, supplies, and volunteers toward the Union war effort. The Ladies’ Union Aid Society served a vital role in caring for sick and wounded soldiers as well as providing funds for hospitals and burial needs. These were things the army was simply not prepared for given the massive casualties. The membership came from mostly the northern, upper class of the city. Women such as Anna Lansing Wendell Clapp and Adeline Couzins served as leaders of this organization.
While bringing women into the public sphere and raising great amounts of money and supplies for the war effort, many of the ladies were criticized for not being willing to perform important tasks when working in military hospitals. Dr. Simon Pollak, a doctor following Grant’s forces to Fort Henry, described many of the women as “society imps” because of their refusal to do anything but fan and read to the injured soldiers. While some of the doctors’ criticisms were true, they didn’t apply to everyone, and the Ladies’ Union Aid Society remains an important symbol of the female contribution to the Civil War.
Western Sanitary Fair
Beginning in late January 1864, the Western Sanitary Commission began organizing a fair to be called the Grand Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair, which would raise money and enthusiasm for the war effort. While General William S. Rosecrans, the commander of the Department of the West, was named honorary president of a male executive committee, the real work was done by a separate executive committee of women.
The fair opened on May 17, 1864, and ran until June 18. After paying for admission, visitors would encounter rows of booths selling goods like pillows, blankets, baskets, and food. The money from these purchases went to help the Western Sanitary Commission. The fair also included raffles and activities. Cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia would hold similar fairs.
Fight with U.S. Sanitary Commission
The Western Sanitary Commission was created independently of the United States Sanitary Commission. This was partly because of the independent attitudes of John and Jessie Frémont, but also because many in the West felt overlooked by the U.S. Sanitary Commission.
Beginning in October of 1861 the U.S. Sanitary commission made requests for the two organizations to join into one. James Yeatman and the other leaders of the Western Sanitary Commission refused, not wanting to subordinate their activities to the demands of the larger organization. Before long the Western Sanitary Commission was petitioning for money in eastern cities like Boston. This put the U.S. Sanitary Commission in direct competition with the Western Sanitary Commission for funds.
The leader of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Frederick Law Olmsted, wrote James Yeatman in April of 1862 demanding that the competition stop and that the two organizations combine efforts. Yeatman refused, feeling he wasn’t doing any harm, and that the Western Sanitary Commission was not duplicating the efforts of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Eventually Olmsted dropped the issue as he became distracted with the management of the many state sanitary commissions.
Minie balls - conical bullets with a hollow base that expanded when fired, resulting in more accurate shooting. They were used in the 19th century.