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Come see Plowshares into Swords – a special exhibit recognizing the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. Plowshares into Swords will be at the Michigan Historical Center in Lansing through February 5, 2012.
The U.S. Army Medical Department was woefully unprepared for the flood of volunteers and casualties that the Civil War would commit to their care. The Medical Department had a very small staff and was notoriously conservative and fearful of change. During the Civil War, new volunteer soldiers were at greater risk of dying of disease than of being killed in battle. Crowded conditions in camps, poor sanitation and lack of discipline all contributed to the problem of disease.
Some concerned citizens and physicians, knowing that the Army’s Medical Department would need a great deal of help caring for soldiers, organized the United States Sanitary Commission in June 1861. Over the protests of Army Medical officers, the Commission was empowered by the President and Congress to inspect hospitals and camps and make recommendations for improvements affecting the care and health of soldiers.
Soldiers Aid Societies
As soldiers marched off to war, Michigan women made them food and supplies. These concerned citizens inundated the Army with care packages for their boys. One enthusiastic woman sent her son a honeycomb wrapped in a new shirt!
By the fall of 1861, local aid societies were formed throughout Michigan. These included the Soldiers’ Aid Society of Detroit – called the Michigan Soldiers’ Aid Society after summer 1863. It was created on November 6, 1861. It worked in cooperation with the U.S. Sanitary Commission to ensure that supplies arrived undamaged into the hands of the soldiers most in need of them. As local communities provided donations, goods were sorted and forwarded by steamship and train to depots near the battlefront. There, supplies could be given directly to regiments most in need.
Three other state-wide relief groups worked alongside the Soldiers’ Aid Society: the Michigan Soldiers’ Relief Association, the Michigan Soldiers’ Relief Committee and the Michigan branch of the U.S. Christian Commission. These groups solicited cash and donations of food and supplies from Michigan citizens through word of mouth, leaflets and newspaper advertisements. Numerous local level aid societies sprang up in Michigan towns and cities. After the first year of the war, however, smaller groups funneled their donations through one of the larger aid organizations.
Michigan’s aid organizations were concerned with applying the latest principles of ‘sanitary science,’ broadly meaning any measures and supplies designed to preserve and promote good physical and mental health. A typical list of items considered necessary for preserving soldiers’ health included: hospital supplies like bandages, clean lint (used to pack wounds), pillow cases, slippers, arm slings, clean shirts and under drawers. Other items were intended to meet soldiers’ nutritional needs and keep them comfortable. These included night caps, quilts, mittens, books, paper, canned fruit, wine, butter, cheese, pickles, fresh vegetables and eggs. In the last years of the war, aid groups solicited more cash donations so that they could purchase the most appropriate supplies. The 1864 annual report of the Michigan Soldiers’ Relief Association in 1864 shows techniques used for fundraising: “[f]rom Proceeds of Masquerade Party, Lapeer, Mich.…..$79.00….Ladies of Centerville, proceeds ice cream parties…$190.00….Proceeds Strawberry Festival, Battle Creek…$209.00.”
In addition to handing out hundreds of pounds of supplies, Michigan’s aid societies also inspected Army camps, trained nurses and were instrumental in the establishment of a Soldiers’ Home to aid traveling and returning soldiers. The sanitary movement reached its peak in Michigan in 1864. That year, the Kalamazoo Soldiers’ Aid Society (in imitation of Chicago’s huge 1863 Northwestern Fair) sponsored a State Sanitary Fair to raise funds.
Mrs. E. Brainerd – in her 1864 report from army camps around Washington D.C. – sums up the contributions of all Michigan aid organizations in her description of handing out supplies to soldiers:
I have seen many turn away, after having their wants supplied, with tears of gratitude steaming down their war-browned cheeks. The friends at home little know what a luxury it is to be enabled, by their generosity, to relieve in a measure the sufferings of the brave defenders of our nation’s honor. Had it not been for the donations tendered by our people at home, we would not have had the means to accomplish the good we did.
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