The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) was signed into law in June 18, 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln with Rev. Henry W. Bellows, D.D as its president and Mr. Frederick Law Olmstead as the General Secretary. At first many though of the new agency as an outright joke, Lincoln even called it the "fifth wheel to the coach." It was, however, the culmination of the scores of relief societies that existed prior to the Civil War and would be an invaluable part of the Union cause.
The USSC was organized into several departments:
- Preventive Service: A corp of medical inspectors, they made regular inspections of army camps and sent out medical tracts and concise sanitary bulletins.
- General Relief: Supplied food, clothing, bandages, hospital furniture, cordials, delicacies, stimulantss, etc. for the wounded on the field and the sick and wounded in camp, field, post, regimental and general hospitals.
- Special Relief: Helped soldiers who could not recieve it from the government.
The USSC, although offically sanctioned by the government was effectively left to fend for its own. To compensate for the financial difficulties that resulted from this, the commission would host what were known as "Sanitary Fairs," the first one held in Lowell, Massachusetts on January 24, 1863. It was during these fairs that the volunteers sold quilts, baked goods, held contests, etc. to raise money to help their cause in the Civil War.
The USSC was at all of the major battles tending the wounded and giving aid as they worked as nurses, organized diet kitchens in camps and ran hospital ships.
The United States Sanitary Commission was dissolved shortly after the war's close. However, parts of its still continued to function without government approval in order to give places for soldiers who had no where to go a place (Retirement homes) and other things. The USSC made an indirect but extreme impact on the course of the Civil War, one of the biggest accomplishments was their hand in reducing the disease rate of the Union army by 1/2 during the course of the war. It is only in recent years that the USSC has begun to surface and begun to receive the respect it is due.