Established in 1861 as a federal government agency, the Sanitary Commission was responsible for coordinating the efforts of thousands of volunteers during the Civil War. The group’s workers raised some $25 million in donations and medical supplies; sent inspectors to military camps to oversee the set up of clean water supplies, latrines, and cooking facilities; worked alongside doctors and nurses on the frontlines to help evacuate wounded troops; sewed uniforms and blankets and provided lodging and meals to injured soldiers returning home on furlough. Although administered by men, the organization was made up primarily of female volunteers and represented a major contribution by Yankee women to the war effort.
Some generals and Army doctors found Sanitary Commission volunteers annoying and meddlesome, especially when they criticized the military’s medical practices. One physician complained about what he saw as “sensation preachers, village doctors, and strong-minded women” interfering with his work and that of his colleagues. Among the group’s members was the no-nonsense Mary Ann Bickerdyke, who became the commission’s agent to the Army of the Tennessee before the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Bickerdyke was dedicated to caring for common soldiers and not afraid to challenge doctors and officers when she thought troop care was being compromised. At Chattanooga, Tennessee, Bickerdyke ordered timbers for breastworks burned to keep wounded soldiers warm. When military police asked her who had authorized the burning, she replied, “Under the authority of God Almighty. Have you got anything better than that?”
The Sanitary Commission’s work fit traditional roles for 19th-century American women as caretakers and nurturers of men. However, the group’s activities also enabled women to gain work experience outside the home, and in that way can be seen as a step forward for the women’s rights movement. At the closing of the March 1864 Sanitation Commission Fair, Lincoln stated: “If all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of women applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war.”