Almost as soon as the first shots of the Civil War were fired, women throughout the Northern states began to contribute to the Union cause. Aid Societies were first organized in local communities to help provide some of the comforts of home for soldiers from that community out in the field. They raised money, gathered supplies, rolled bandages, sewed or knitted clothing, and provided financial support for soldiers’ families.
It soon became clear that Northern women’s efforts needed to be more unified. In June 1861, the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) was created to help organize and oversee women’s volunteer work for the war. One of the major ways the USSC supported the war effort was to hold large fundraisers called Sanitary Fairs. Sanitary Fairs were public events that included exhibitions, plays, parades, and concerts. The first Sanitary Fair was held in Chicago, Illinois, from October 27-November 7, 1863, and it raised nearly $100,000.
Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton called for the creation of a state Sanitary Commission in February 1862. The first state Sanitary Fair was held in Indianapolis in the fall of 1863.
In addition to Sanitary Fairs, Sanitary Commission agents inspected army hospital conditions, organized physicians and nurses for hospitals and hospital ships, and created soldiers’ homes. After the war, the USSC helped Union Army veterans secure their back pay and apply for pensions. The USSC was finally disbanded in the spring of 1866.
Photo - Washington, D.C. group of sanitary workers gathered at the entrance of the Home Lodge. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.