United States Sanitary Commission records

Collection History

This presentation offers the visual materials from a much larger holding donated to the Astor Library by the USSC in 1878. They include photographs that seem to have been made specifically to document the work and facilities of the USSC: homes for recuperating soldiers, the agency's headquarters, ambulance design and hospital treatment, figure studies of wounded soldiers and their recovery, and portraits of officials. In addition, there are views of battlefields by well-known Civil War photographers such as Alexander Gardner's "Incidents of the War" series. Many of the photographs bear postage stamps affixed as a tax on photographs to help raise funds for the war. There is also a small cache of medical photographs and illustrations in color of wounds.

With the close of the war in 1865, the USSC's field operations ceased, but its work continued. The USSC's Historical Bureau in New York collected and organized the Commission's records, while its claim agencies and Standing Committee tied up the loose ends of its affairs. In 1878, Henry W. Bellows, President of the Commission since its founding at the start of the war in 1861, donated the records to the Astor Library, where they had previously been stored.

The manuscript and other records of the USSC document the activities of its central administrative and branch offices, its agents in the field, and the many associated soldiers aid societies supporting its humanitarian efforts during the Civil War.


In 1861, the Government officially recognized and empowered the United States Sanitary Commission, a civilian organization, to conduct inquiries regarding the sanitary condition of the volunteer troops, and to advise on the means to promote their health, comfort and efficiency. The USSC's roots lay in the collaborative efforts of New York's civic leaders, medical community and the Woman's Central Association of Relief to effectively channel the public's outpouring of support for the war effort and its concern for the condition of the troops. The USSC leadership, comprised of such diverse individuals as Rev. Dr. Henry W. Bellows, George Templeton Strong, Frederick Law Olmsted, John S. Newberry and Louisa Lee Schuyler, interpreted the USSC's auxiliary role broadly, and it took many practical forms.

The USSC conducted camp and hospital inspections, and collected and distributed supplemental food, clothing and medicine to hospitals and troops in the field. It helped care for the wounded on battlefields, and worked with the military to improve the transport of sick and wounded soldiers by ambulance, railroad and ship. Increasingly concerned with the welfare of the soldier and his family, its Special Relief department provided food and lodging for the soldier in transit, found employment for disabled veterans, and worked with the USSC's claim agencies to help individual soldiers or their families obtain back pay, bounty or pension monies. The USSC's Hospital Directory determined the location and condition of sick, wounded and missing soldiers for the benefit of their families and friends. These tasks and many others, the men and women of the USSC staff carried out diligently on a paid or volunteer basis. With the help of community leaders, the value of funds and supplies donated to the USSC by men, women and children supporting the Union cause reached over four million dollars by war's end, making it possible for the USSC to carry out its work.

Related Resources

Giesberg, Judith Ann. Civil War Sisterhood: the U.S. Sanitary Commission and Women's Politics in Transition. (2000)

Maxwell, William Quentin. Lincoln's Fifth Wheel: the Political History of the United States Sanitary Commission. (1956)

The Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War. Originally published: The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 1861-65. (1870-1888; repr. 1990-92)

National Museum of Civil War Medicine. “National Museum of Civil War Medicine.” <http://www.civilwarmed.org/index.cfm>

NYPL. Manuscripts and Archives Division. “United States Sanitary Commission Records, 1861-1872.”

Olmsted, Frederick Law. Defending the Union: the Civil War and the U.S. Sanitary Commission, 1861-1863. Jane Turner Censer, ed. (c1986) The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted; v.4

Stillé, Charles J. History of the United States Sanitary Commission. (1866)

United States Sanitary Commission. Western Department. The U.S. Sanitary Commission in the Valley of the Mississippi, during the War of the Rebellion, 1861-1866; Final Report of Dr. J.S. Newberry. (1871)

Collection Data

The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), 1861-1879, was a civilian organization authorized by the United States government to provide medical and sanitary assistance to the Union volunteer forces during the United States Civil War (1861-1865). As the USSC broadened the scope of its work during the war, Regular troops, sailors and others also benefited from its services. The collection consists of correspondence, memoranda, minutes, reports, military service claim files, registers, diaries, financial records, scrapbooks, posters, illustrations, photographs, printed matter, maps, ephemera and artifacts concerning the Commission's sanitary, medical and relief work during the Civil War, as well as its post-war relief work and publication activities. The collection also includes the records of the American Association for the Relief of the Misery of Battle Fields, founded in 1866 by USSC officers and former associates.
United States Sanitary Commission (Creator)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1861 - 1879
Library locations
Manuscripts and Archives Division
Shelf locator: MssCol 3101
United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Health aspects
Public health -- United States
Type of Resource
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b11660964
MSS Unit ID: 3101
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 0256c380-c614-012f-0c65-58d385a7bc34
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