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Western Sanitary Commission.


March and April 1864

From The Missouri Democrat, Wednesday, March 16, 1864.




[The following article has been prepared by the Secretary of the Western Sanitary Commission, to meet various inquiries:]

The Western Sanitary Commission was constituted September 5, 1861, and has ever since acted under the sanction and authority of the Government, depending for its resources on the voluntary contributions of the people of the loyal States, and acting with and aiding the medical authorities in fitting up of hospitals and hospital steamers; in furnishing hospital clothing and other needed articles, supplementary food for the sick, vegetables and other necessaries not supplied by the government to the regiments in the field; in providing for special emergencies after great battles, sending additional surgeons, nurses, went, bandages, and delicate food to the battle fields; in establishing soldiers’ homes for furloughed and discharged soldiers; in carrying out sanitary reforms, and in many other ways giving aid, comfort and strength to the brave men, who have answered the call of their country in the day of trial, leaving homes and kindred, to battle in its defence against the most unholy rebellion in the history of the world.


In this work the Western Sanitary Commission has expended up to the present date, (March 15, 1864,) an amount of sanitary stores, in value more than one and a half million of dollars, about three-fourths of which have been contributed in kind from the hands of the loyal men and women of the Eastern, Middle and Western States, and one-quarter in money, which has been used in making purchases of sanitary goods, and in defraying the expenses of distribution; the latter item being but little more than one and a half per cent of the whole, so great has been the economy used in the employment of agents to do this work, the members and officers of the Commission themselves giving their services without salaries, or any other reward than the satisfaction of performing a useful and Christian service to their country and its patriotic defenders.

The distribution of these stores has been made through trustworthy and responsible agents to the troops of every State in the Western armies, including those from Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas. Local agencies and depots of sanitary goods have also been sustained at all prominent points, from which the army could be conveniently reached, from St. Louis to Vicksburg, and from Little Rock to Huntsville, Alabama, and Chattanooga. Military hospitals have been supplied at St. Louis, Jefferson Barracks, Sedalia, Rolla, Springfield, Cassville, Fayetteville, Cape Girardeau, Pilot Knob, Bloomfield, Cairo, Mound City, Paducah, Columbus, Memphis, Helena, Little Rock, Vicksburg, Nashville, Murfreesboro, Chattanooga, and Huntsville Alabama; and hospital steamers both of the army and navy, and the gunboats of the naval flotilla have been generously supplied, some of the former having received their main outfit from the Western Sanitary Commission. Soldiers’ homes have been maintained at St. Louis, Columbus, Kentucky, Memphis, Helena and Vicksburg.


A distinct and separate work has also been done for freedman and Union refugees, by means of contributions and Government aid given for that purpose, amounting in stores, clothing, rations, &c. to the value of about sixty thousand dollars. Owing to the large numbers of emancipated slaves thrown upon our hands, the benevolent action of the people has been much aroused in their behalf, and most timely aid rendered, which must be continued till they can all be profitably employed, under some well devised system of free labor. The action of this commission, through its President, has already resulted in a great improvement in the system of leasing abandoned plantations along the Mississippi river, in the employment of the freed people at better wages, and in more adequate military protection to them, from which the best results are anticipated.

While this has been done, but few have considered the wants of the poor white refugees, stripped by guerrilla bands, of their property, their homes robbed and desolated, husbands, fathers, sons, murdered in their own doors, women and children driven helpless and homeless through an impoverished region of country, to seek protection and charity within the Union lines, all for their love of the old flag, under which their fathers had fought in the last war with Great Britain, and which was still to them the symbol of American Independence and Liberty.

Families of these destitute people are arriving every day at St. Louis, to whom shelter, food and some additions to their clothing must be given. Large numbers of them still remain at Rolla, Pilot Knob, Cairo, Memphis, Vicksburg, and Nashville, and others are at Fort Scott and Leavenworth, Kansas. Appeals come to us, from time to time, to send them aid, or to receive them and furnish transportation as they arrived here on their way to friends in Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, or to take care of them a few months till they can help themselves. In providing for the more helpless and destitute, it has been found necessary to establish a Refugee Home in the city, where an average of a hundred and twenty of this class, mostly women and children, are constantly cared for – the most pitiful class of sufferers the rebellion has thrown upon our hands.

The Western Sanitary Commission, in what it has done for freedmen and Union refugees, has only used such contributions of clothing and money as have been given distinctly for these objects, and will continue to keep a separate account of this work. It will, however, need further and more liberal contributions to meet the constantly increasing demand upon its charity.


But this labor for freedman and refugees is only an incidental work of the Commission – a work which it could not refuse for the sake of humanity – but its great labor is still, as it must be in the future, to look after the welfare of the brave troops that compose the grand Union army of the West, on which our hopes, under God, so much depend for those future victories that are to complete the work of the last three years; to give the finishing stroke to the rebellion, and re-establish the Government of the Union in every Southern State. For the purpose of continuing its labors in behalf of the army and the humanities of the war, five hundred thousand dollars are needed to carry it through another year. For this large sum it looks with confidence to the proceeds of the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair, to be opened in the city the 17th of next May, and to those individual contributions from Soldiers’ Aid Societies and loyal friends throughout the country, on which it has mainly depended in the past. To make the Fair a great success, it only needs that the magnitude of this work and the wants of the Commission should be understood and appreciated, and a commensurate effort will be made to enlist the sympathies, the interest and the co-operation of every town and village and city in the whole valley of the Upper Mississippi, as well as some of the great cities of the East, who will rejoice to lend a helping hand in so great and noble and undertaking.


The inquiry is often made, What becomes of the vast amount of sanitary stores sent to the army? Do they really reach and benefit the soldier? While these inquiries are partly answered by the foregoing statements it may be well to be more exact and specific.


Since the first Soldiers’ Home was established in St. Louis, March 12th, 1862, there have been not less than one hundred and fifty thousand soldier guests entertained at the several homes established by this Commission. These institutions they have received hospitality, kindness, friendly advice and religious service; good meals have been given them prepared in part from the army ration, with the addition of butter, vegetables, fruit, milk, canned tomatoes, and other delicacies supplied by this Commission; and they have slept in clean beds, furnished from the same source, the sheets and pillows, and comforters and blankets often coming as the contribution of kind hands from far-off homes in the free States to the Western Sanitary Commission. Had it not been for these homes thousands of our brave men, going home on a furlough, in feeble health, or returning to their regiments, would have been the victims of extortion and imposition; and thousands more, being without money, would have had no place of rest but in the street, the platform of some railroad depot, or other exposed situation. It is very certain than that at the Soldiers’ Home the soldiers do get some of the fruits and vegetables and other gifts of their friends, sent to them through the Sanitary Commission.


Besides the direct benefits conferred by these Soldiers’ Homes, the Western Sanitary Commission has numerous responsible and well tried agents with each grand division and army corps of the Western armies, personally distributing to general and post an regimental hospitals, filling the requisitions of surgeons, and seeing constantly to the sanitary needs of the soldiers. Some of these agents travel with the army; others are located at such points as Vicksburg, Helena, Little Rock, Huntsville, Ala., and elsewhere, in charge of depots of goods, from which supplies can be easily and promptly forwarded when emergencies require.


All of the agents of the Western Sanitary Commission keep a strict account of their distributions, and report regularly to the Commission. Whenever stores are sent to the agents they are forwarded by the United States Quartermasters on Government freight, and they receipt for them and are responsible for their delivery. When delivered to the agents of the Commission they receipt to the Quartermasters, and the receipted bills of lading are returned to the Chief Quartermaster at St. Louis, and acknowledgments are also made to the Commission. When sanitary stores are distributed to surgeons for the sick and wounded in hospitals it is done in answer to written requisitions, and, their receipts are taken and returned to the Commission at St. Louis. Piles of these documents are now on file at the Western Sanitary Commission rooms, and it can easily be shown what regiments and hospitals have received sanitary stores, and the use made of them by the surgeons and stewards inquired into.


The aggregate of these distributions up to the first of the present month is over a million and a half of such articles as hospital shirts, drawers, sheets, blankets, pillows, pairs of socks, slippers, handkerchiefs, towels, bandages, pads, rules of adhesive plaster, crutches, back-rests, sponges, packages of farina, cans of tomatoes, peaches, jellies, concentrated milk, condensed soup, pounds of chocolate, lemons, portable lemonade, dried apples and peaches, dozens of eggs, pounds of butter, crackers, ice, sour kraut, gallons of pickles, pounds of castile soap, bushels of potatoes, chickens, bottles of brandy, wine, blackberry cordial, whiskey and other stimulants, &c., &c., the estimated value of which is over one and a quarter million of dollars.


The importance of these things to the health and comfort of the troops, and the recovery of the sick, is inestimable. That thousands of valuable lives have been saved by these means there is no question; and the prevention of disease has been still greater than the saving of life, though perhaps less appreciable. The great benefits thus conferred upon the army have been acknowledged again and again by our commanding generals. Quite recently, Lieutenant General Grant telegraphed to the Chicago branch of the Sanitary Commission that the supply of vegetables and sanitary stores sent last winter saved his army, and that he looked to the same instrumentalities to save it now, in a region stripped of everything by the contending forces. The medical director of the 15th army corps – Surgeon McMillan – writes to the Western Sanitary Commission, during the present month, acknowledging the great benefits conferred by its labors, and advising that every effort be made to forward vegetables – such as potatoes, pickled cabbage, canned tomatoes, onions and dried fruits – to prevent scurvy and promote the health and vigor of the troops.

While the army of Major-General Steele was at Clarendon, Ark., on its way to the capture of Little Rock, the Western Sanitary Commission sent an agent with sanitary stores, which were greatly needed, and the following are some of the expressions of gratitude received from that command:


On September 30, 1863, the Medical Director, Surgeon James C. Whitehill, wrote the commission: “Permit me through Surgeon J. T. Hodgen to acknowledge the receipt of a fine supply of sanitary stores, and on behalf of our soldiers to thank you and the generous donors for so opportune a testimonial of their and your continued care and sympathy. We have had a great deal of sickness, and the country through which we have passed has been able to furnish but little adapted to the wants of the sick soldier. I have myself receipted to your agent, Mr. Wyeth, for the goods received, and placed them under the care of the most reliable and worthy man, who attends to their faithful distribution.”

In another letter, the same officer writes, “Your Commission is doing an inconceivable amount of good for our sick soldiery, and deserves the hearty co-operation and liberal support of Christians and philanthropists.”

Surgeon S. C. Harrington, of the 1st Kansas colored regiment, Fort Blunt, Cherokee Nation, writes, (same date) acknowledging the receipt of sanitary stores, and says: “The goods were exceedingly opportune, as there was a great destitution of such things here. Were it not for your Commission, the army must suffer greatly for want of those things it most needs.”

Mr. Plattenburg, our agent with the 15th army corps, Huntsville, Ala., writes March 2d, 1864: “The vegetables sent by the Commission were issued directly to the soldiers, and a more thankful and pleased set of men has not been seen since the war.”

He also forwards recent expressions of confidence and gratitude from Generals Grant and Sherman, and the Medical Director of the 15th Army Corps, and the Commission has received repeated testimonials from both these Generals, and from Generals Halleck, Curtis, Schofield, the Secretary of War, Assistant Surgeon General R. C. Wood, and the Medical Director of the Mississippi Naval Flotilla, which, from their length, are reserved for a more full report.


It is sometimes asked what need there is of Sanitary Commissions? Why don’t the Government do this work, and take proper care of the soldiers, without depending on voluntary contributions? The answer is plain. The Government can only act through a system of regulations by its authorized agents, must be governed by prescribed rules and limitations, and held to a strict responsibility, are there would be no end to the waste and loss and imposition to which it would be subjected. Hence the necessity of a fixed ration for the soldier, and a supply tables for the hospitals, by which so much can be drawn in no more, the amount of hospital supplies being regulated according to the average number of sick. Thus it will often happen that the wants of an army in a time of sickness, or in an unhealthy locality, or after a battle, will greatly exceed the supplies on hand; and there is no way of meeting these emergencies except through some such instrumentality as the Sanitary Commission.

In the army ration there is a deficiency of vegetable food. The amount of potatoes, for instance, to each ration, is not one-quarter of what would be sufficient supply for a well man at home. In the hospitals it will barely answer for the hash that is given for breakfast three times a week; and very often the proportion allowed to the well soldier is not given him, because the commissary has none. Sometimes for weeks and months in the field the regiments will receive no potatoes; and onions and other vegetables (still more rarely allowed) will be wanting. Such a want of vegetable diet soon engender scurvy and other diseases that incapacitate the men for duty and destroy life. To meet this want the Western Sanitary Commission has forwarded many thousands bushels of potatoes and onions, and thousands of cans of tomatoes, and kegs of pickles to the army. Besides these supplies the surgeons in charge of hospitals make constant requisition for articles not furnished by Government, or not in sufficient quantity to meet the necessities of these patients.

Thus it will appear that Sanitary Commissions are most useful and necessary institution, and a credit to American civilization, and the statistics of this war will show a smaller percentage of sickness and death in the armies of the United States than in any in those of any other nation. That this is due to a great measure to the labors of these Commissions, and to the interest which people manifest in meeting the unavoidable deficiencies of the Government to its citizen soldiery, may be claimed as one of the results of the experience of the last three years, an indication that in this contest the Christian sympathies of the nation are with its armies in maintaining the cause of national unity and universal liberty.


Prejudicial stories have been circulated by many dissatisfied and fault-finding persons about the waste and consumption of sanitary stores by officers, accompanied by assertions that what is sent never reaches the private soldier. Much harm has been done in this way by suspicious and evil-minded persons, discouraging contributions, and preventing supplies from being sent to the army. In the early part of the war, before this great sanitary work had been reduced to a system, instances of waste and theft, and misappropriation of sanitary goods did no doubt sometimes occur; but even then they were the exception and not the rule. This evil has, however, been constantly diminishing; persons detected in it have been disgraced and dismissed from the service; and a greater degree of responsibility has been secured with more ample means of exposure, so that now the misappropriation of sanitary goods can scarcely take place without bringing disgrace and punishment on the parties engaged in it.

Nevertheless, the impression still prevails with many that the private soldier never gets any of the sanitary stores sent to the army, and many soldiers themselves, who have received them in their hospital diet and at the soldiers’ homes, and slept in comfortable beds and rested upon soft pillows, and worn dressing-gowns and socks and slippers in sick wards, and eaten vegetables, fruits, butter and delicacies at their meals, (not being informed of the fact) have never known that these things came from the sanitary commissions.


An interesting illustration of this is mentioned by Rev. Glen Wood, general agent of the American Tract Society, who has spent much time in the army, in the distribution of reading matter. During a visit to a general hospital, which I think he said was at Murfreesboro, Tenn., he engaged in conversation with a convalescent soldier in one of the wards, who had just finished a letter to his wife. The soldier said to him:

“I received a letter from my wife, away in Wisconsin, and she writes that the Soldiers’ Aid Society are getting up some sanitary stores to send to me, and that she is helping to make up a nice lot of things. I have just written to her and told her not to do any such thing, that the soldiers never get what is sent to them, and that the surgeons and stewards and officers only feast on them while the common soldiers get none.”

Several of the other soldiers responded with a statement of their comrade, “That’s so. We never see any sanitary stores here.”

Rev. Mr. Wood said, “My dear Sir, I think you must be mistaken. I have been through the army a good deal, and have seen a great many things received by the soldiers that were sent from home through the Sanitary Commissions and otherwise.”

He continued, addressing the first speaker, “I see you have on come uncomfortable dressing-gown, and socks and slippers, and clean sheets, and a pillow in your bed; where did you get these things from?”

“Well,” said the soldier, “I reckon Uncle Sam fitted up this hospital, and these here articles came from the linen room.”

Mr. Wood remarked again, “I noticed at dinner that you had potatoes, and pickles and onions, and butter and dried fruit, and tomatoes; where did you get these things from?”

“O,” said the former speaker again, “I reckon Uncle Sam provided ‘em, or maybe they were bought with the hospital fund.”

“But,” says Mr. Wood, “such things can scarcely be bought here for love or money. I don’t see any in the market, and the sutlers asked a great price for them. Suppose we call in the steward, and see if he cannot throw some light on this question.”

The steward was then requested to come in, and Mr. Wood asked him if he would be kind enough to stay to these men where most of the articles of hospital clothing that had been mentioned, and the butter and fruit and vegetables, and other delicacies on the table, had come from.

“Why, boys,” said the steward, “didn’t you know we got these things from the Sanitary Commission?”

Instantly, the men dropped their heads in some confusion, and the first speaker replied, “No, sir, we didn’t know it. Why didn’t you tell us, and we shouldn’t said what we did to this gentleman. I hope you will excuse our mistake, as for me, I’m going to tear up my letter to my wife, (tearing it in pieces,) and write her another, and tell her to go ahead with them sanitary stores, and right glad we shall be to get them.”

The men seemed much pleased with this turn of affairs, and Mr. Wood left them, having made a most salutary impression, and given them all the reading matter they wished.

From these statements it will be seen, whether the sanitary stores sent to the army do not generally reach the private soldier, especially when he stops as a free and welcome guest at the Soldiers’ Homes, or is confined in hospital by sickness or wounds, or is transported by hospital steamers to some Northern hospital, or as visited in camp by some sanitary agent to add to his comforts there, and the improvement of his diet, by the supply of vegetables and other articles of food not provided in the army ration.


In the same way it may also be seen what the Western Sanitary Commission does with the funds entrusted to it for sanitary purposes and the other humanities growing out of the war, and whether, seeing that it cannot work without means, and that its resources are nearly exhausted, it ought not to be liberally and generously aided to go on with its noble work and mission for another year.

Let everyone then, who loves this country, and would help to sustain the Union and the republican institutions under which we live, and who would send encouragement and sympathy and important aid to our noble armies in the field, lend a helping hand, so that this divine mission of patriotism and philanthropy may go on until this great war for the maintenance of republican liberty on this continent has been brought to a successful close, and our brave defenders are permitted to return to their homes and kindred, the honored heroes, whose patriotism and courage, and self-sacrifice, have saved the republic.


The following letter of Lieutenant-General U. S. Grant, in response to an invitation to be present at the preliminary meeting for the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair, is appended as a fitting conclusion of the foregoing article:

ST. LOUIS MO., January 31, 1864.

To W.G. Eliot, George Partridge and Others, Western Sanitary Commission:

GENTLEMEN: Your letter of yesterday requesting my presence at a general meeting of the loyal citizens of St. Louis, on Monday evening, to make arrangements for a “Grand Mississippi Valley Fair,” for the benefit of the sick and wounded of the Western armies, is before me. I regret that my already protracted stay in the city will prevent any longer delay from my public duties. I regret this, as it would afford me the greatest pleasure to advance in any manner the interests of a Commission that has already done so much for the suffering soldiers of our Western armies.

The gratuitous offerings of our loyal citizens at home, through the agency of Sanitary Commissions, to our brave soldiers in the field, has been to them the most encouraging and gratifying evidence that whilst they are risking life and health for the suppression of this most wicked rebellion, friends who cannot assist with musket and sword are with them and sympathy and heart.

The Western Sanitary Commission have distributed many tons of stores to the armies under my command. Their voluntary offerings have made glad the hearts of many thousands of wounded and sick soldiers, who otherwise would have been subjected to severe privations. Knowing the benefits already conferred upon the army by the Western Sanitary Commission, I hope for them a full and enthusiastic meeting to-morrow night, and a Fair to follow which will bring together many old friends who have been kept apart for the last three years, and unite them again in one common cause – that of their country and peace.

I am, gentlemen, with great respect, your obedient servant,