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The women of the U.S. Sanitary Commission risked their own health to care for sick and wounded Union soldiers.

By William J. Miller

In June 1862, a mere half-morning’s ride from the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, Union Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the largest standing army in America, was content to dawdle. As the lazy summer days passed (36 of them, to be exact), McClellan kept his troops waiting amid the fetid swamps and muddy marshes of the Chickahominy River. His army was always busy, if far from mobile. His engineers, fatigue parties and quartermasters had scarcely a night’s rest. Yet no one in the Union army worked as quickly or effectively as the Chickahominy itself, whose mosquitoes spread malaria and whose malignant waters bore diseases to thousands of McClellan’s bogged-down men. The magnificent Army of the Potomac grew progressively weaker.

McClellan was typical of the military leaders of the period, who focused their energies on building and wielding large bodies of men while largely taking for granted the health and well-being of those same men. Few officers knew or cared anything about military medicine, and they met with derision any efforts by civilians to improve the health of the individual soldiers. One New York clergyman who traveled to Washington to offer the services of an organized and well-funded group of volunteers was summarily rebuffed. “The War Department,” wrote the Reverend Henry Whitney Bellows, “regarded us as weak enthusiasts representing well-meaning but silly women.”

In such an atmosphere of pervasive ignorance and contempt was born the U.S. Sanitary Commission, one of the great medical success stories in American history–and a sadly neglected band of Civil War heroes and heroines. The commission had its roots in the volunteer nursing operation run by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. In Europe, as in America, military medicine was a poor relative to military science, and soldiers died of disease and neglect by the tens of thousands. Nightingale, however, had enough success to encourage American emulators. One of the first was Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, who organized the Women’s Central Association of Relief in New York. The group attracted patriotic women from the highest levels of Northern society. Included on the roster were the Woolsey sisters, Georgeanna and Eliza–whose uncle was the president of Yale University–and Katherine Prescott Wormeley, daughter of an admiral in the British Navy, who had grown up in Rhode Island. Together with Unitarian minister Bellows, the women formed the core of the Women’s Central Association of Relief, which quickly grew into the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

The important and pioneering work of the Sanitary Commission is the subject of Nancy Scripture Garrison’s book With Courage and Delicacy: Civil War on the Peninsula: Women and the U.S. Sanitary Commission (Savas Publishing Co., Mason City, Iowa, 1999, $24.95). The commission served throughout the war, ministering to the needs of the various Federal armies. It raised millions of dollars in private donations and distributed the bounty to the troops in the form of bandages, medicine, fruits, vegetables, socks, blankets and scores of the other things necessary to promote or restore health. Volunteer nurses, male and female, worked tirelessly in hospitals a few miles from the front.

With Courage and Delicacy is not simply a narrative history of the Sanitary Commission’s work on the Virginia Peninsula, but a wide-ranging–and often confusing–attempt to describe the commission members’ experiences while also decoding those experiences, particularly as they related to the female members’ growing self-awareness and self-actualization. The women, writes Garrison, labored hard to “grasp the peculiar significance of their role as Sanitarians–along with the conflicting loyalties implicit in that role. Letters and journals, reflecting a series of external events–often deeply shocking–and long-ingrained internal perspectives, witness the shaping of their self-discoveries.” The meaning of such text is often hard to decipher, and in Garrison’s attempts to analyze the experiences of U.S. Sanitary commission workers, she fails to humanize her subjects. I never got to know the women in the book, and I never felt immersed in their hardships.

Readers interested in a thoughtful perspective on what the failed Peninsula campaign meant to the women of the Sanitary Commission will do well to read Garrison’s book. Those wishing to know what these women actually did on the peninsula would do better to go directly to the firsthand sources: the letters and the memoirs of these highly articulate heroines. The complete story of the U.S. Sanitary Commission still deserves and needs to be told fully and well from a modern perspective, but With Courage and Delicacy is at least a step in the right direction.