Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Medicine in the Civil War: Part Three -- The U.S. Sanitary Commission

The United States Sanitary Commission was founded in 1861. It had doctors who would inspect Union camps and mess tents. The commission also produced eighteen pamphlets on proper sanitation in camp. This included everything from personal hygiene to where the best place to put a latrine was. Primitive conditions in camp were a problem. Sanitation did not exist, and camps were pitched on military strategy, not caring about good water or drainage. Camps had no garbage dumps, and had animal parts from slaughtering everywhere. Then flies came and spread disease. This changed with the Sanitary Commission being founded.

Shortly after the Sanitary Commission was founded, it ordered supplies for the troops from the Quartermaster’s Department. The Commission ordered three million yards of flannel, eight hundred thousand pairs of boots, eight hundred thousand pairs of wool socks, two hundred thousand felt hats, and two hundred thousand haversacks (which are bags with straps that soldiers can use to carry supplies). These supplies were given to soldiers who had lost their own supplies they had brought from home. Unfortunately, this did not stop a shortage from occurring altogether. Soldiers often had to wear the same clothes for weeks on end. In a letter to the Sandusky Register in 1862, Dr. McMeens stated he had worn the same pair of socks and shirt for three weeks.

Unsanitary conditions in camps led to the spread of disease. In a letter from Dr. McMeens in 1862, he discussed what happened to dead horses after a battle. They would lie on the ground for days. This would cause diseases to spread. Getting water was also a problem. Water sources often would have dead horses or cattle laying in them. This made the water undrinkable.

Women who could not leave home collected and made supplies. This included bandages, candles, and cooking. Relief associations were established to bring women together to make these items. The Sanitary Commission served as the head of these and helped orchestrate what supplies were needed and where they would go. In the April 27th, 1861, Sandusky Register, Captain H.G. Depuy of the Sandusky Guards wrote a letter thanking a Mrs. Wilkinson for a donation of 100 rolls of linen strip bandages. “Should we be called upon to meet the enemy in the field of battle many a youth will be saved to bless the donor.” Letters such as this appeared in the Sandusky Register throughout the war, as well as appeals for supplies such as fish or fruit, and appeals for donation drives.

There were also articles in the newspaper instructing women on how to make different medical supplies for the front. The most important one was cloth bandages for soldiers to carry with them to use when wounded and trying to get to a hospital. The instructions said that the cloth should be washed, boiled and ironed without starch; and that there should be no hem. There were three types of bandages that were used the most. The first was a “roller” that was two and a half inches in width, and made of cotton. It could be used for anything. This type of bandage had to be tightly rolled up for easy application. There was another cotton bandage that was larger and referred to as a “many tailed bandage”. It was typically 20 by 20 inches and was used for gunshot wounds. The last type of bandage was made of muslin, not cotton like the others. It was one square yard and could be used to bandage anything and make arm slings.

The Sanitary Commission also helped soldiers return to life after they were out of the war. It would hold sanitary fairs for the public to learn about keeping clean. It also would help outfit ships to become hospital ships.


The Sanitary Commission ended when the war did. The remaining funds were used to purchase bonds. The interest from them was given to disabled soldiers to help support their families. The Commission was a precursor to the American Red Cross. Many people who were with the Sanitary Commission such as Clara Barton helped found the Red Cross.

2 comments:

Rahul Patidar said...

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Duchess Martin said...

Please allow me to correct some comments in your post.

You say shortly after they started, the USSC just called up the Quartermaster's Dept and ordered hundreds of thousands of boots, socks, hats, and haversacks, and 3 million yards of flannel. Didn't work that way. The USSC's mission was to care for the VOLUNTEERS. The regular Army had enough supplies to care for the Regular Army troops. They just weren't prepared for the onslaught of all the volunteers. The USSC was trying to supplement Army supplies. The Army didn't HAVE all this extra to give the USSC. Donations had to be sought elsewhere. Women were sought to make hospital clothing for the wounded and to supply needs of the doctors. The foods they collected were likewise used for treating the injured soldiers, not to just regularly feed and clothe the troops.

The article gives the impression that bandages were issued to the troops for use if and when they were wounded. Bandages WERE needed in huge quantities at the hospitals, whether stationary or mobile field hospitals. They were used by the doctors to treat the wounded just as they would be today.

The purpose of the sanitary fairs wasn't for people to learn about keeping clean. The fairs were basically huge craft/art/agricultural fairs held to raise money to buy materials and medicines and to supply money to run the facilities the Commission had created.