The Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows was in the pulpit, preaching to his Unitarian congregation in Manhattan, when word arrived that rebel forces had attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The American Civil War had begun.
Four days later, on April 25, 1861, a group of women—most of them members of Bellows's Church of All Souls—gathered to organize an aid society for the volunteer soldiers gathering on Staten Island. They were concerned about the conditions in the soldiers' camps, where spoiled goods, open latrines, poor bedding, and vermin threatened health. The women set to work making bandages and writing letters.
On April 29 they organized what would become the United States Sanitary Commission, which grew into "the largest, most powerful, and most highly organized philanthropic activity that had ever been seen in America," according to historian George M. Frederickson, and provided the basis for the American Red Cross, founded 20 years later by a Universalist, Clara Barton. Now the Red Cross is hard at work in New York, and the Red Crescent—its affiliate in the Muslim world—is helping refugees from Afghanistan.
When the American Civil War began, the Union and Confederate armies were composed of volunteers and had limited medical and support services. No one could have anticipated the scale of carnage Americans would witness between 1861 and 1865. About 206,000 soldiers in battle—but 414,000 soldiers died from disease and other causes.
The U.S. Sanitary Commission, an unmistakably patriotic as well as humanitarian effort, coordinated the collection of supplies as well as teams of volunteer nurses. They provided "soldiers homes" for men on furlough, sick leave, or simply left behind. They also sent medical experts to examine conditions at army camps and to propose systematic improvements. Bellows led lobbying efforts in Washington. In June 1861, Abraham Lincoln appointed the Sanitary Commission to oversee the welfare of the volunteer army.
The government did not provide funding, however. So Bellows and the commission's other leaders raised funds, kept lobbying, recruited volunteer nurses, coordinated the collection and distribution of supplies, and maintained letter-writing and speaking campaigns throughout the war. In California, the Rev. Thomas Starr King, a Universalist minister serving the Unitarian church in San Francisco, raised about $700,000 of the $1 million donated to the Sanitary Commission.
One notable feature of the Sanitary Commission involves social class. The men who conducted its business, the donors who funded it, and the women who volunteered as nurses and gathered in each others' parlors to make bandages were overwhelmingly upper-class. Some of the volunteer nurses brought their servants along.
Not everyone cared for the carefully coordinated and somewhat authoritarian approach of the Sanitary Commission. Many volunteered—or simply showed up at the battlefield—independently of the Commission, including Walt Whitman and Clara Barton.
Barton formed her own provision supply organization in Washington, and began delivering supplies to the front lines in 1862. Her most notable achievements, however, came after the fighting stopped. She established the Bureau of Records to locate missing soldiers in 1865, and spent the next four years tracking down 20,000 missing men. When her health deteriorated in 1869, she left for Geneva, Switzerland, where she met officials of the new International Red Cross, founded in 1864. Barton spent several years in Europe, volunteering in military hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War.
The Sanitary Commission had lobbied hard for the United States to ratify the Geneva Convention recognizing the Red Cross. Bellows formed an organization solely to push the idea, but gave up in 1871. Ten years later, Barton incorporated the American Red Cross and became its first president. Bellows wrote her an encouraging letter but died before Barton's campaign to ratify the Geneva Convention finally succeeded in 1882. Barton served as the president of the American Red Cross until 1904.