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IN JULY 1861 A SLIGHT, 39-YEAR-OLD MAN with a limp (the result of a recent buggy accident) watched Washington, D.C., descend into a new kind of chaos as the survivors of the First Bull Run battle thronged the muddy, miasmic city. “Many regiments are but a mob…a disintegrated herd of sick monomaniacs,” he wrote to his wife in New York. The soldiers, “pale, grimy, with bloodshot eyes, unshaven, unkempt, sullen, fierce, feverish, weak, and ravenous,” slept in the streets, while their officers, by and large oblivious to their regiment’s whereabouts and condition, drank at the Willard Hotel. But the writer himself—Frederick Law Olmsted—was determined to “overcome in some details the prevailing inefficiency and misery.”

After a restless early manhood that took him to Europe and China, Olmsted had established himself first as a writer and then as a designer and superintendent of New York’s pioneering new urban park. In the former capacity he had made a long sweep through the antebellum South about a decade earlier, with an eye to understanding how slavery impacted the region and its economy, a subject—and lifestyle—he believed most Northerners had no true comprehension of. His articles on the subject had appeared in several newspapers, and his book The Cotton Kingdom, would be out later in that first year of the Civil War. More recently, Olmsted had spent almost three years on upper Manhattan Island, turning a vast rock-ribbed wasteland “steeped in the overflow and mush of pig-sties, slaughterhouses, and bone­-boiling works” into a “rural park” meant to humanize a city that was becoming increasingly crowded and industrialized. Central Park—the creation of Olmsted and his partner, the older, well-established Calvert Vaux—was to be far more than a decorative respite: It would bolster the physical and mental health of the city’s inhabitants.

Frederick Law Olmsted om 1857, at age 34. The following year he and Calvert Vaux won the competition to design Central Park. (Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)The superintending of the park’s development had taught Olmsted how to handle recalcitrant work crews and push through projects, even over the objections of his superiors. As the war began, then, Olmsted was well suited to his newest role as secretary general of the Sanitary Commission. The brainchild of Northern liberals, the commission hoped to harness the energy and resources of ladies’ relief societies and other organizations committed to helping Union troops at the front. Olmsted and his Sanitary Commission brethren had had to lobby hard for some kind of official sanction, and the month before Bull Run, President Lincoln had approved an executive order for a “Commission of Inquiry and Advice in respect of the Sanitary Interests of the United States Forces.” Privately, the president worried that such a commission might prove a problematic “fifth wheel to the coach” rather than any real help.

If Lincoln had his doubts about this extragovernmental commission, Olmsted had his about the president. “Lincoln has no element of dignity; no tact, not a spark of genius,” he wrote to his father the first summer of the war, adding that the president was, however, “an amiable, honest, good fellow. His cabinet is not that.” Olmsted was even less impressed with the army’s Medical Bureau and the 64-year-old surgeon general, Clement Alexander Finley, who preferred old methods to the new medical knowledge hard won in conflicts like the Crimean War and flowing out of European research. Despite the inevitability of an American war, the bureau had done little to organize, provision, or otherwise prepare for it. Olmsted was determined to have the Sanitary Commission make up for the bureau’s inadequacies.

AFTER THE UNION DEFEAT at Bull Run, Olmsted was convinced there was “but one sanitary measure to be thought of…and that is discipline.” Within days of the battle, seven Sanitary Commission inspectors, armed with 75 questions on conditions before, during, and after the fighting, were dispatched to 30 of the regiments that had fought. Olmsted compiled the results of the questionnaires in an inflammatory report “on the demoralization of the volunteers in the army,” in which the military and civil government were indicted by their own troops for poorly distributed rations, weak military organization, and bad officers. While it made the commission no friends in government, the report began the long process of improving conditions for the fighting man.

Meanwhile, Olmsted began streamlining the commission’s own operations, publishing bulletins about disease, wound treatment, medicines, and other health-related topics and distributing them to the medical men in the field. He also launched a public campaign to encourage civilians who wanted to donate clothing and other necessities to the troops to send their parcels to the Sanitary Commission for better distribution, and he made new arrangements for storing such items and then moving them quickly to the front when they were needed. All the while, Olmsted and his cohorts were battling on their own front—fending off critics determined to put the Sanitary Commission out of business and at the same time fighting to have Congress reform the moribund Medical Bureau.

In the spring of 1862, after “seven weary months of hope deferred,” wrote Sanitary Commission treasurer and champion George Templeton Strong, a bill passed Congress “to increase the efficiency of that rheumatic, lethargic, paralytic, ossified, old institution.” Congress also appointed a new surgeon general, the vigorous, far-sighted 33-year-old William Hammond, an assistant surgeon in the bureau who had written reports critical of army hospitals.

That same spring, Olmsted headed to the Virginia Peninsula with McClellan’s army and his own small fleet of vessels, including a beat-up ocean liner turned troop transport that Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs had given the Sanitary Commission. As it steamed down the Potomac in late April, Olmsted, the four surgeons, six medical students, 20 or so male nurses, and four women volunteers onboard worked to turn the ship into a “floating hospital.” The commission’s smaller, shallow-draft vessels would collect the sick and wounded soldiers from land and carry them to the hospital ship. By early May, after the siege at Yorktown, that first floating hospital was on its way to New York with almost 200 patients on board and other ships had replaced it.

THROUGHOUT THE LONG MONTHS of the Peninsula Campaign, unnecessary turf battles complicated treatment of the ailing. Old-guard army doctors resented volunteer surgeons; officers resented giving up men or matériel to medical needs; the Medical Bureau resented the efforts of the Sanitary Commission; and a lot of people resented Olmsted, who never stopped pushing to improve medical care. The troops needed more quinine to prevent malaria in that swampy, mosquito-plagued coastal world, but lacking the necessary amounts, the army was losing about 6 percent of its force to illness every 10 days, according to one doctor’s estimate. Olmsted also urged that each army corps have no less than one medical “depot” close behind the line of fire. “Such an arrangement would have saved many lives after the battle of Fair Oaks,” Olmsted wrote to Surgeon General Hammond.

In one month that spring the Sanitary Commission spent $22,000 to supply the Medical Bureau and itself with cots, beds, medicine, food, and more. Its volunteers manned food stations, offering hot soup or “piles of fresh bread and pots of coffee” to troops, who sometimes hadn’t eaten for days. “As for sick-food, stimulants, drinks &c., such things scarcely exist in the medical mind of the army,” one commission worker reported, “and there was not even a pail or a cup to distribute food, had there been any.” Olmsted worried that the men fighting in Virginia had a choice of dying by quick bleeding or slow starvation. And with the war’s end nowhere in sight, the misery of that spring and early summer seemed to presage the same for years to come.

THROUGH THOSE YEARS, the Sanitary Commission had two great enemies—the war and the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Angered at the commission’s meddling in bureau affairs and in having the surgeon general replaced, Stanton never mentioned the commission’s name “without a curse.” The commission’s George Templeton Strong quipped that Stanton himself would do his country the “most service as Ambassador Extraordinary to the Court of Heaven.” With no sign of that on the horizon in 1862, Olmsted and the Sanitary Commission continued to fight the good fight. In the September aftermath of Antietam, the commission urged New York physicians to the front and dispatched to the field over 28,700 shirts, towels, pillows, bedding material, bandages; 10 pounds of chloroform; 3,100 pounds of farina; 2,600 pounds of condensed milk; 5,000 pounds of cured meats and beef stock; and many more pounds of other supplies, including tin cups.

Battle followed battle, and the Sanitary Commission kept up its drumbeat: The healthier the men were, the better they would fight. But that health required reasonable diets (with among other things vegetables and dried fruit high in Vitamin C to prevent scurvy), warm clothes (something one head of the Union armies, Major General Henry Halleck, characterized as “effeminating comforts”), medicines, field hospital facilities, and campsites where sanitary conditions (including properly placed and constructed latrines) were a priority. Olmsted and Hammond also worked on a proposal for an official ambulance corps to transport the wounded quickly, but Stanton predictably quashed the idea (later in the war it was implemented).

Despite the war secretary’s opposition, things slowly improved for Union troops, thanks to the ceaseless work of Hammond and Olmsted. “He works like a dog all day and sits up nearly all night,” one commission member said of Olmsted. His diligence was helped along by a large infusion of cash that began making its way from the California goldfields to the coffers of the Sanitary Commission in the fall of 1862. By war’s end the total received from California was close to $1.5 million.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1863, as Lee moved north and the Army of the Potomac followed after him, Olmsted anticipated carnage and moved food (some via refrigerated freight car) and medical supplies into the vicinity of Gettysburg, even before the battle. “Our regular wagon force was on the ground during the battle,” he wrote his wife, “and the wagons visited all the field hospitals as fast as they were established and hours before they received supplies from other quarters.”

Olmsted’s long work on the Sanitary Commission was at last reaping real rewards for the men at the front. His unrelenting push to improve battle­front conditions, however, had cost him the confidence of the commission’s own executive committee. Even Treasurer Strong called Olmsted “wary, shrewd, and never sanguine.” Certainly, Olmsted had become wary—of his own standing in the commission—and he was shrewd enough to recognize how precarious his position was. In August 1863 he learned that a huge gold-mining operation in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills, the Mariposa Estate, wanted him as superintendent of their 70 square miles of villages, mines, and wilderness. Leaving the war and his crushing and increasingly thankless duties with the Sanitary Commission behind, Olmsted moved West.

The commission soldiered on to the end of the war and beyond. The prime mover behind its founding, Henry Bellows, worked hard to have the commission’s achievements and lessons acknowledged and adopted internationally and was annoyed to find it being overshadowed by a new organization calling itself the Red Cross.

As for Olmsted’s personal achievements in the Civil War, his greatest accolades came from the wounded and ill, the hungry, thirsty, despondent men he helped in the field. After Antietam one soldier wrote, “I would rather have Mr. Olmsted’s fame than that of any general in this war since its beginning.”