Monday, September 17, 2012

Southern Tier Sanitary Fair and the United States Sanitary Commission

By Kerry Lippincott, Education Coordinator

Over 1,000 men from Chemung County served in the Civil War but what about their families and friends left behind?  Our latest exhibit, Keeping the Home Fires Burning, chronicles life on the homefront.    Topics include the 1864 Presidential election, businesses, women’s contributions to the war effort, Elmira’s connection to the Lincoln assassination, and Southern Tier Sanitary Fair.  Since the Sanitary Fairs and their host organization, the United States Sanitary Commission,  may be little known aspects of the Civil War, I thought I would take a moment to explore their history.

In June 1861 a group approached officials in Washington with a plan to assist with war relief.   Through federal legislation the United States Sanitary Commission was created.  Though established by the federal government, the Sanitary Commission was a civil agency.  The Commission’s aim was to better regulate the quantity and quality of supplies by serving as the clearinghouse for Northern relief organizations.   In time over 7,000 local branches of the Sanitary Commission were established across the north, including several in Chemung County.  Twelve cities also became regional branches.  These cities included New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, New Albany, Detroit, and Columbus.   

This is how the commission worked.  Headquartered in Washington, DC, the Commission published broadsides and circulars to notify the public what supplies were needed and how to produce items like bandages and hospitals gowns.   Local branches made and collected hospital supplies, clothing and food.  Everything was then sent to the regional branches to be sorted, labeled and forwarded to Washington where commission agents distributed the supplies to hospitals and the commission’s supply stations on the front.

The Sanitary Commission’s guiding principle was to supplement not compete with the federal government.  When it became apparent that the government was ill-prepared to take care of the soldiers' general welfare, the commission quickly evolved from a clearinghouse to providing soldiers with proper food and medical attention.  The Commission sent inspectors to Union camps and hospitals; taught soldiers how to cook properly and prevent the spread of disease; published medical essays on topics like scurvy, dysentery and amputations  and distributed them among military hospital personnel; set up kitchens in army camps and hospital ships; hired and trained female nurses; established ambulance services to transport sick and wounded soldiers from battlefields to hospitals; created hospitals gardens to provide fresh vegetables to patients and soldiers;  created networks of soldiers' home, lodges and comfort stations for soldiers who were on  their way home, re-joining their regiments or headed to hospitals; and assisted soldiers and their families fill out  government paper work concerning discharges, back pay, sick pay, pensions, bounties, and other claims. 

Since the Sanitary Commission did not receive funding from the federal government, its activities were supported by donations.  Though money came from northern businesses and individuals (money also came from people in England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Turkey, China Japan, Cuba, Costa Rica, Peru and Chile), the commission was still heavily dependent on local branches for cash and supplies.  By 1863 local and regional branches began to hold fairs to raise money.  Called Sanitary Fairs, the fairs were not just fundraisers to raise money.  After two years of war, there seemed to be no end in sight so the fairs served as public morale boosters.  Fair organizers proclaimed that one final push was needed to achieve victory over the South and the public could do their part by attending Santiary Fairs.  Between the fall of 1863 and the end of the war, fairs were held in cities, towns, and villages from Maine to the Mid-West and in California.  The biggest Sanitary Fairs were held in New York City and Philadelphia.  Nearly $4.4 million was raised through Sanitary Fairs.
Fom March 14 to 18, 1864, Elmira hosted the Southern Tier Sanitary Fair at the newly constructed Lake Street Presbyterian Church.   Opened from 10 am to 11 pm, general admission to the fair was twenty-five cents.   Like other sanitary fairs, there were a variety of items for sale, art and natural history exhibits, refreshment stands, a restaurant and evening entertainments.   Highlights included a presentation by a former prisoner-of-war Col. A.D. Streight who had recently escaped from Libby Prison in Richmond, the wedding of William O. Brown and Josephine M. Burke with pieces of their wedding cake sold at twenty-five cents a slice and displays of war curiosities (pieces of Confederate clothing and fragments of shot and shell and fragments of tree shavings from battlefields).  Though over $12,000 was raised, the Southern Tier Sanitary Fair ended in tragedy.  On the evening of March 18, decorations caught fire.  The church burned down and two men died.

 In several respects the United States Sanitary Commission may be considered the forerunner of the American Red Cross.

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