I am working on the short story, “The Great Central Fair,” which in part has to do with the 1864 Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia.
Sanitary fairs were fund-raisers held across the Union to benefit the United States Sanitary Commission.
But what was the Sanitary Commission?
According to the New York Public Library’s “Guide to the United States Sanitary Commission,” the organization was civilian-run and “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).” (“Guide to the United States Sanitary Commission,” i). Eventually the Commission’s work expanded to soldiers, sailors, and other people.
It began as a collaborative effort among various municipal leaders, physicians, and the Woman’s Central Association of Relief. The general population was concerned about and supportive of its fighting men. The collaboration wanted to find a way to coordinate that support.
In May 1861, the group sent a delegation to Washington, which resulted in a commission that investigated sanitary issues in the military. By June, the United States Sanitary Commission was created and approved by President Lincoln.
The Commission set about inspecting recruits, “the health and sanitary condition of the volunteer forces, their general comfort and efficiency, the provision of cooks, nurses and hospitals,” and related subjects. It carried out hospital and camp inspections regarding sanitary conditions and food preparation and quality, but it also kept statistics and issued reports about the same. (“Guide,” ii.)
After the Battle of Gettysburg, the town was awash in the bodies of dead men and animals, abandoned and destroyed wagons and equipment. Wounded soldiers were cared for in homes and public buildings. The battle had taken a toll of the town’s food supplies, as well since the soldiers relied upon the populace for their sustenance. All that prompted this comment by Eli Smith in Walk by Faith:
“The Sanitary Commission will have food, but it’s going to take some days to get here if they have to use wagons instead of rail. Also, they and the Christian Commission will help with nursing the wounded, but once again it will take a while for them to get here.”
Why it would take a while was because the Confederates had torn up the rail lines. Since the fastest way to get supplies to an affected area was by train, this presented a problem. But both the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission did arrive in Gettysburg with food and other forms of aid for citizens and soldiers alike.
Now we come to the Sanitary Fairs. According to the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair Catalogue & Guide, the first Sanitary Fair originated in Chicago late in 1863 and raised $80,000. It was followed by fairs in Boston, Cincinnati, Albany, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Cleveland, Metropolitan New York, Baltimore, Saint Louis, Washington (D.C.), and Pittsburgh. (More were scheduled to open after the Philadelphia fair.)
I added up the amount of money raised by the fairs mentioned in the Catalogue & Guide, and it came to $2,829,661. Think about it. That money came from donations, from average people in the Union during 1863-64. That’s a lot of money in that era. And that is how strongly people believed that the United States Sanitary Commission was doing good for their troops and for the nation itself.
When I first heard the term “Sanitary Fair,” I had no idea what it meant. As it turns out, it meant quite a bit.
And I’m happy to feature it in “The Great Central Fair.”
“Guide to the United States Sanitary Commission (1861-1879).” The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division.
Philadelphia Sanitary Fair Guide and Catalogue. Thomas Izod, editor. Philadelphia: Magee, Stationer, June 1864.