Nina Brown Baker

Cyclone in Calico:
The Story of Mary ann Bickerdyke

Little Brown & Co.


The United States Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the American Red Cross, received its national charter in June 1861. "Sanitation" was a new word, and a new science. The American army administration had no place for it. A New York Unitarian clergyman, Dr. Henry Bellows, had been impressed by the work of the British Sanitary Commission in the Crimean War. Backed by three distinguished doctors, he went to the Army Medical Department to propose a similar agency for the Civil War. The Commission would advise on camp locations, water supply, and control of contagious diseases. It would send its own inspectors to see whether sanitary regulations were being obeyed. The make­up would be civilian, but full co-operation with military authorities would be pledged.

Dr. Bellows fought a courageous fight in Washington before his plan was grudgingly accepted, with the warning that the Commission was to act as an advisory body only, with no power to enforce its recommendations.

In spite of these discouraging restrictions, the Sanitary Commission achieved notable success, much of it in fields not even contemplated when Dr. Bellows drew up his original plan. A good deal of credit must go to the General Secretary, Frederick Law Olmsted. This frail little man, botanist landscape artist and later the father of New York City's Central Park, trained a force of inspectors who traveled to far­flung camps, stubbornly insisting that garbage must be burned and latrines provided. "Even in all these woods!" one disgusted officer wrote home.

The Sanitary Commission inspectors found hospital conditions appalling. In the words of a Wisconsin soldier writing home, "Our hospitals are so bad that the men fight against being sent to them. They will not go until they are compelled, and many brave it out and die in camp. I really believe they are more comfortable and better cared for in camp, with their comrades, than in hospital. The food is the same in both places, and the medical treatment the same when there is any. In the hospital the sick men lie on rotten straw ;in the camp we provide clean hemlock or pine boughs, with the stems cutout, or husks, when we can jerk them from a secesh cornfield. In the hospital the nurses are convalescent soldiers, so sick themselves that they ought to be in the wards, and from their very feebleness they are selfish and sometimes inhuman in their treatment of the patients. In the camp we stout hearty fellows take care of the sick-rough in our management, I doubt not, but we do not fail for lack of strength or interest.... We need beds and bedding, hospital clothing and sick­diet, proper medicines, surgical instruments, and good nurses-and then a decent building or a good hospital tent. I suppose we shall have them when the government can get round to it, and in the meantime we try to be patient."

This letter was written in November, when the war was eight months old. The plain fact was that the Army Medical Department was utterly unprepared to cope with full­scale war. Two years had to pass before the government was able to supply beds, medicines and dressings in anything like the quantity needed. It was never able to solve the transport problem, so that even existing supplies were often unavailable in the worst emergencies. In those two years, from its organization in June 186I until late in 1863, the Sanitary Commission was the main supplier of the army's hospital needs, furnishing everything from crutches to specially equipped trains and steamboats.
The money came from voluntary donations, in cash and in good. A large part of it came from the women's Soldier Aid societies that sprang up all over the North. The women rolled bandages and scraped lint, made shirts and drawers, sewed mattress cases, contributed home­dried fruits and vegetables. Local branches of the Commission were set up in ten cities, where supplies were collected, sorted, and sent wherever the field inspectors requested them.

The Chicago headquarters was putting on a campaign of its own, as venturesome in its way as anything Sherman ever planned. For those two months there was no time to go junketing down to the Southern front. Every Commission bigwig was thoroughly immersed in what one of them called "the flowering time of patriotism." Chicago was about to hold the first Sanitary Fair.

The idea was Mrs. Livermore's. It all began on a fairly modest scale.The Commission's need for cash was growing, while cash contributions slackened.Mrs. Livermore, who had been accustomed to raising church funds by means of bazaars and parish suppers, decided to apply the same time-tested methods to the present need She talked with her friends and Commission associates, Mrs. Hoge and Mrs. Henshaw of Chicago, Mrs. Colt of Milwaukee. Their response was favorable. The ladies decided to hire a hall, stock it with contributed articles, and hold a Sanitary bazaar. Well­to­do Chicagoans who hesitated to give must be persuaded to buy. With great audacity, the women set $25, 000 as a possible goal. They called a convention of representatives of the Soldiers' Aid societies and unfolded the plan.

The Aid Societies had grown out of church or lodge groups, whose members had practical experience with fund raising by means of bazaars. They heartily endorsed the scheme. Mrs. Livermore gave out twenty thousand circulars to be distributed in their home communities. The ladies were urged to enlist their local newspapers and prominent citizens. They went home fired with enthusiasm, and the project commenced to snowball.

Mrs. Livermore herself began a letter­writing campaign to win over"governors, congressmen, members of state legislatures, military men, postmasters, clergymen and teachers." In a single day she sent out seventeen bushels of mail matter relating to the Fair. As the responses began to come in, she expanded her plans. This would not be a local Fair, but a national one. She had hoped that the women of Chicago and its neighborhood would send in crocheted antimacassars and hooked rugs for sale. She was overwhelmed to receive offers of oil paintings, imported tapestries, and farm machinery. President Lincoln, to whom she addressed her first appeal, offered the original draft of his Emancipation Proclamation to be put up at auction.

Mary Livermore took it all in her stride. Boldly poaching on the territory of the Eastern Sanitary Commissions, she sent Mrs. Hoge to solicit in the great cities of the East. At Pittsburgh, where she had relatives, Mrs. Hoge obtained a donation of kerosene, appropriately packaged in "hundreds of beautiful casks with painted staves and gilded hoops, bearing mottoes of undying loyalty." Boston sent "specimens of Chinese handiwork, of Fayal laces, of Sea Island algae as delicate as vapor and arranged insets, curious fans, slippers, pictures, and tableware in the highest style of Japanese art."

The men of the Commission, a little skeptical at first, hastened to jump on the bandwagon. Potter Palmer, the Chicago hotel keeper, "took the city of New York in hand, obtaining contributions from her importers, jobbers, and manufacturers, amounting to nearly six thousand dollars." A temporary building had to be put up to house the threshing machines, wagons, pianos, organs and barrels of refined coal oil. One Kentuckian contributed five thoroughbred colts. A Wisconsin breeder sent his prize bull. There was so much livestock that a patriotic Chicagoan emptied his livery stable and turned it over, with the free services of his hostlers.

The Fair opened on October 27, 1863, with a procession three miles long.The mayor had proclaimed a holiday so that everyone who was not in the parade could watch it. There were bands, and floats, and citizens in carriages and citizens on horseback and citizens afoot. Chicago's city buses were in line, filled with school children waving flags and singing "John Brown's Body." The farmers of Lake County drew cheers with their section, hundreds of flag­decorated farm wagons loaded with vegetables. In bright October sunshine the procession wound its way to Bryan's Hall, where the Great Sanitary Fair officially opened. It ran for two weeks, with Bryan and the five subsidiary halls crowded day and night. Sales were good. Or as Mrs. Livermore so prettily puts it, "To judge from the liberality of the purchasers, one would have supposed that each possessed the inexhaustible purse which the fairy gave to Fortunatus."

Besides the sale of contributed articles, the Fair had a fine source of revenue in the dinners served in the Bryan building. This was clear profit, since all food was donated. Service was strictly high class. "Fourteen tables were set in the dining hall, with accommodations for three hundred at one time. Every table was reset four or five times a day. Six ladies were appointed to take charge of each table throughout the Fair. Two presided daily-one to pour coffee, the other to maintain general supervision. These ladies were the wives of congressmen, professional men, clergymen, editors, merchants, bankers, commissioners-none were above serving at the Soldiers' Fair dinners. Each presiding lady furnished the table linen and silver for her table, and added any other decorations and delicacies that her taste and means suggested, or that her friends and acquaintances contributed.The table waiters were the young ladies of the city, deft­handed, swift­footed, bright­eyed, pleasant­voiced maidens, who, accustomed to being served in their own homes, transformed themselves for the nonce into servants."

Prices for such elegance were high; higher even than the elegant Palmer House dared to charge. As a matter of fact, all Fair prices were unmercifully high. No one went home with any bargains in Sea Island algae or Japanese curios. Seats to the amateur evening concerts were more expensive than any local manager would have risked asking for professional talent. But it was all in a good cause.

"If the sales slackened, " Mrs. Livermore noted, "the fair traders had but to utter the talismanic words 'Buy for the sake of the soldiers!"'That did it. At the end of two weeks, with daily crowds swelled by cheap excursion tickets, the railways' contribution, the Fair closed in a blaze of glory. It had put $100, 000 into the treasury of the Northwestern Sanitary Commission. It had also set a pattern for Commission fund raising all over the country. Sanitary Fairs were held in most large cities of the Union, and on a smaller scale in many towns. The Brooklyn Fair, running two weeks from Washington's Birthday, 1864, was the financial triumph of the series, rolling up a breathtaking net return of $300, 000.