Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Meets at The Seniors Centre, Francis St.
All meetings begin at 7:30 p.m.; Visitors are always welcome.

Next Meeting: 2 May 2024

Was the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, a Part of
the Conspiracy to Assassinate
President Abraham Lincoln?

presented by Gord Sly, CWRT/GK Member

Seniors Centre, in the AV room, beginning at 7:30 p.m.
COVID, et al are still around. Masks are optional and distancing practices should be respected.

PROGRAMS 2023 - 2024
Sep 7 Dr. Peter Vasilenko The Extraordinary Life of Henry Kyd Douglas
Oct 5 Rod Holloway From Reconciliation to Revenge, Part 2
Nov 2 Dave Dorward Raphael Semmes, Confederate Raider
Dec 7 Peter Clarabut Weather: The Other 'Fog of War'
Jan 11 Paul Van Nest Major General Cadmus Marcellus Wilcox CSA
An Ordinary Division Commander
Feb 1 Dr. Michelle
and Peter Clarabut
An Evening with Admiral Farragut
Mar 7 Cheryl Wells Juneteenth
Apr 4 Bill Cookman Christian Commission/U.S. Sanitary Commission
May 2 Gord Sly Was the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton,
a Part of the Conspiracy to Assassinate
President Abraham Lincoln?"
Jun 6 Murray Hogben Black troops: from The Crater to Newmarket Heights

Last Month's Program

US Sanitary Commission and
US Christian Commission

presented by Bill Cookman
April 4, 2024, CWRT/GK Member

The Civil War Round Table of Greater Kingston met on the evening of April 4, 2024 to hear a presentation by our Past-President, Bill Cookman, on a subject that doesn't often receive the attention it deserves in studies of the Civil War-the work of the U.S. Christian Commission and the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Bill gave two reasons for choosing this topic. First, there are the trips he's taken to Concord, Massachusetts, to visit the home of Louisa May Alcott. In addition to being a writer, Alcott served a time as a nurse in a military hospital near Washington, D.C., and later put her experiences into a book, "Hospital Sketches". Secondly, Bill had a personal interest in researching this subject, as his three times great uncle, the Reverend George Cookman, was Chaplain to the U.S. Senate from 1839-1841, and his son, the Reverend Alfred Cookman, was a member of the Christian Commission as well as Chaplain of the New York 6th Heavy Artillery Regiment, who counted among his friends Frederick Douglass and General George Gordon Meade. To assist me in preparing this summary of his remarks, Bill was kind enough to lend me his presentation notes.

With the coming of war in April 1861, thousands of patriotic young men from across the North rushed to join the colours and defend the Union. The spiritual welfare of these new recruits was not forgotten, and President Lincoln instructed the War Department to issue orders assigning a chaplain to each of the new volunteer regiments being raised. Then came the First Battle of Manassas in July 1861, whose bloody aftermath brought home the need for doctors and nurses to care for the wounded, as well as supplies and equipment to allow the medical staff to perform their duties.

As Bill explained, the U.S. Christian Commission was organized to bring spiritual care and comfort to the men of the Union army, while the U.S. Sanitary Commission was intended to look after their physical wants and needs. In practice, there was some overlap in the services these two organizations provided, but they generally avoided competing with one another.

There were many Northern women who, like Louisa May Alcott, were eager to serve their country by volunteering as nurses. They were met by resistance from the male medical establishment. Bill quoted the U.S. Surgeon General, Clement Finley, who baulked at the prospect of having to incorporate large numbers of what he disparaged as "well-meaning but weak, silly women" into his organization. But the need for nurses was so great that Finley had no choice but to accept these volunteers to serve in his military hospitals.

Bill reminded us that many more men were rendered unfit to fight through wounds and disease than actually died in battle. Even those sick and wounded who were lucky enough to be taken to hospitals often fell victim to poor food, lax sanitation, and inadequate medical care. Bill cited figures showing that disease accounted for anywhere from 160,000 to 200,000 deaths in the Union army during the war, while another 220,000 soldiers were discharged for medical reasons.

Bill then proceeded to outline the origins of the U.S. Christian Commission and the U.S. Sanitary Commission. The former organization began as an offshoot of the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.). In November of 1861, members of the Y.M.C.A. Executive Committee met in New York City to discuss how they could, in their words, "promote the spiritual and temporal welfare of the soldiers in the army and the sailors in the navy". They envisaged securing chaplains to minister to the Union forces on land and sea, to encourage temperance, promote physical fitness, and provide libraries as a means of recreation and self-improvement. The Christian Commission also gave itself the mission of encouraging the civilian population to express their patriotism by supporting their troops in the field through donations of money, goods, and medical supplies.

It must be said, however, that many of the medications used to treat Civil War soldiers were of dubious value, if not outright harmful. Bill listed a catalogue of popular pills and topical applications in use at the time, which included ingredients such as mercury, opium, strychnine, and creosote.

The Christian Commission operated out of a system of warehouses where goods were stockpiled for distribution by wagon train to various hospitals and military encampments. One of the innovations developed by the Christian Commission was the brainchild of Annie Whitenmyer of Iowa, who realized the importance of a healthy diet in maintaining the troops' physical and emotional well-being. She came up with the idea of establishing kitchens in all the major military hospitals, staffed by women chefs and assistants, to ensure that sick and wounded men were provided with food that would aid in their recovery.

The Christian Commission also contributed to lobbying efforts with the Lincoln administration to improve the standards of medical care in the Union army. Bill described one instance where the Christian Commission assisted in creating the Medical Reform Bill. Under its terms, the Army Surgeon General was no longer bound to promote officers in the medical corps by seniority but could rely on merit and professional expertise.

Another important idea arising from the Christian Commission was the distribution of identification tags to Union soldiers. These small tags worn around the neck recorded the individual soldier's name, unit, and home address and were helpful in identifying the wounded after a battle, as well as useful to families seeking to obtain the remains of loved ones for proper burial at home. Such recording was also useful in compiling accurate lists of the casualties after major battles.

Women came to play such an increasing role in the Christian Commission that in May of 1864 an auxiliary organization was formed called the Ladies Christian Commission. They were tasked with fundraising as well as caring for the wounded in hospital. Other duties included providing help to soldiers wanting to write letters home to their families. Besides Louisa May Alcott, another literary American who volunteered his time in the military hospitals around Washington, D.C. was the poet, Walt Whitman. He had a high opinion of the selfless dedication shown by the commissioners in the Christian Commission; those in the Sanitary Commission, however, he found to be "incompetent and disagreeable".

The Christian Commission continued its good work with hospitalized soldiers after Appomattox through until January 1, 1866. During its four years of operation, Bill said, it had about 5,000 agents working in the military hospitals and encampments in the field, distributing about 95,000 packages of supplies among the troops, including 2.5 million bibles and other literature, at a total cost of $6.2 million dollars in 1866 valuation.

Bill then moved on to discuss the work of the Sanitary Commission in supporting the Union army during the Civil War. At the time hostilities commenced, the U.S. army had only the most rudimentary organization for the medical care of its troops-only 30 surgeons and 84 assistant surgeons. By the end of the war, these paltry numbers had swollen to 547 surgeons and 12,000 doctors. The Sanitary Commission was organized in June of 1861 with the intent of bringing together under one administrative umbrella all the various women's aid associations which had sprung up across the North after the firing upon Fort Sumter. Among the women's groups so absorbed by the Sanitary Commission was the Women's Central Association for Relief, which had been organized in New York City by America's first female physician, Elizabeth Blackwell.

Unlike the Christian Commission, the Sanitary Commission was more secular in its mission. Its priority was saving lives rather than souls, and its staff were prepared to make use of the latest medical and scientific discoveries in order to preserve the health of Union troops. In this work, it had the benefit of learning from the experiences of the British Sanitary Commission, which had been formed to support the British army during the Crimean War.

Bill described how the operations of the Sanitary Commission were based in ten main offices in cities across the North, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago. There was also a scattering of about 7,000 smaller offices where donations of money, food, and other supplies were collected at the local level. These community offices were run almost entirely by women. With so many men away fighting in the ranks, it was inevitable that women would be given the opportunity to take on leadership and administrative roles in the Sanitary Commission that otherwise would have been denied them in peacetime. These responsibilities included inspecting hospitals and military camps to ensure that these facilities were maintained in clean condition and well supplied. Bill showed us a photograph of one of these "pavilion" hospitals, looking both spacious, clean, and well-appointed. Steamships and other vessels not needed in the naval war against the Confederacy were sometimes converted into hospital ships. The Sanitary Commission also improved the Union army's ambulance system to facilitate the evacuation of wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the safety of hospitals in the rear. Railway trains were sometimes used for the same purpose.

The Sanitary Commission also played an important role in supporting Union morale by helping to keep soldiers in the field connected with their families. Like the Christian Commission, the Sanitary Commission distributed writing paper and envelopes among the troops, and wrote letters on behalf of men who were unable to write letters on their own. Their staff also kept a directory of which patients were in which hospitals to assist families looking for information as to the whereabouts of their soldier boys. The Sanitary Commission also established thirty-nine soldiers' homes across the North. These could be used as way stations by soldiers on furlough with a long distance to travel, or as places for them to enjoy some R&R if home was too far away.

Inevitably, with so many donations of money, food, and medical supplies funneling into the Sanitary Commission, ugly rumours began to circulate that its staff were selling these goods to army sutlers, who in turn, would sell them to troops in the field. These stories were largely unfounded, said Bill, but nonetheless, Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, who had a reputation for professional rectitude, stepped in to quell the rumours. Meigs also broadcast the work of the Sanitary Commission by issuing regular bulletins publicizing its work.

As the war dragged on, the Sanitary Commission developed a new fundraising approach-the Sanitary Commission Fair. Bill described how these public events, staged in major Northern cities, such as Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Chicago, attracted thousands of people who came to see the exhibits on display, but also contribute money and other items to support the work of the Sanitary Commission.

In summing up the work of the U.S. Christian Commission and the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, Bill said that both organizations deserved credit for encouraging the civilian population in the North to support the Union war effort by providing money and other donations to furnish care and services to troops in the field. Most Union generals were prepared to admit that even the Christian Commission, with its focus on the spiritual, played an important role in maintaining soldiers' morale and commitment to the greater cause of the war. Nevertheless, the Sanitary Commission tended to be viewed more favourably. Its practical application to alleviating the physical suffering of sick and wounded soldiers was applauded, and the experiences and lessons learned by its nursing and medical staff would be put to good use in the postwar era; for example, in the founding of the American Red Cross by Civil War nurse Clara Barton in 1881.

Edited by Tom Brzezicki

Fundraising for our Annual Donation to the American Battlefield Trust (Civil War)

Manassas I and II are again under a grave threat: "datacenters". The Prince William County Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 3 to rezone to industrial 1,750 acres west and north of the 2nd Manassas battlefield, paving the way for massive buildings which will house datacenters. Over how many years and at what expense, we've saved 170 acres!

One such 100-acre site is to be built at the intersection of I-66 and #29 just west of Hood's position prior to his overwhelming attack on the Federal left flank, 2nd Manassas. That one is only 1 million square feet.

This is but one of a total of 37 planned, just west and north of the Brawner Farm. These are 8 story concrete monstrosities that would be in the background of some of our pictures (and viewpoint) - "four times the size of the Pentagon!"

This is a battle we might well lose but, considering the view from our preserved hallowed grounds, and worse the traffic and risk, we need to make the effort. The public in the county are on our side, but…

This "battle" will be our focus this spring. If you haven't already contributed, please bring your checks on Thursday. We mail our sum total in US Funds next week.

EXECUTIVE - 2023-24
President Gord Sly  613-766-9944
Vice-President Cheryl Wells  1-613-246-0733
Past President Bill Cookman  613-532-2444
Treasurer Lloyd Therien     613-546-0278
Sec - Archivist Paul Van Nest  613-532-1903
Program Bill Cookman  613-532-2444
Webmaster Paul Van Nest  613-532-1903