Mary A. Livermore of the U.S. Sanitary Commission Recalls a Visit to a Civil War Regimental Field Hospital
In June of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln signed an order creating the United States Sanitary Commission, a private organization dedicated to aiding wounded and sick Union soldiers and sailors. The USSC was modeled after a similar organization in Great Britain that had operated during the Crimean War in the 1850s, the British Sanitary Commission. The role of pathogenic organisms in disease was unknown at the time, but medical science was beginning to understand the correlation between proper sanitation practices and improved health versus filthy conditions, bad water, and other poor sanitation conditions that resulted in more sickness and fatalities in camps and hospitals.
Local Sanitary Commission chapters formed quickly across the north, with thousands volunteering to help. These volunteers raised money at events called Sanitary Fairs, and supplied medicine, bandages, food, clothing , and basically anything soldiers who were wounded or sick needed, as well as food and lodging for those in transit to or from the scene of the fighting. The Sanitary Commission’s activities were not limited to the home front; volunteers went into the field to bring supplies to the front and offer advice on proper sanitation.
Despite initial opposition from the military’s hidebound leadership, the Sanitary Commission gained favor with both soldiers and Washington politicians. The army medical establishment was pushed aside in favor of more reform minded physicians, and as the war went on medical science and practices moved forward and care of the sick and wounded improved.
Thousands of the Sanitary Commission volunteers were women. They did the day to day work of the Commission both behind the lines and in the field, and many became trained as nurses, in both paid and volunteer positions. One woman who played a leading role in the Commission was Mary A. Livermore.
Livermore was born in Boston in 1820, and moved to Chicago in the 1850s. She was a noted journalist and abolitionist who had campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, despite the fact that women did not have the right to vote (and wouldn’t get that right for another 60 years). Livermore became a prominent member of the Chicago branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, helping to raise thousands of dollars, shipping supplies and care packages to the front, and travelling to camps and hospitals to inspect the facilities and deliver medical supplies and food, and performing nursing duties. During her travels, she met many of the famous personalities of the war on the Union side of things, both military and civilian, including Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
One of her trips to the field took place in March of 1863. Livermore was accompanied by Henrietta Colt of the Wisconsin branch of the Sanitary Commission, as well as various government officials, state Surgeon Generals, nurses, and other civilians interested in helping out, plus thousands of boxes of food and other supplies. The group departed Cairo, Illinois, down the Mississippi River by riverboat bound for Union camps and hospitals at Milliken’s Bend and Young’s Point, Louisiana, near Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Grant’s campaign against that Confederate stronghold had been underway for some time. Livermore later recalled her impressions of Milliken’s Bend:
When we arrived at the Bend, where some thirty thousand men were encamped, we notified the Medical Director of our arrival with hospital stores. He immediately despatched an “orderly” to every hospital, sending to every surgeon in charge an order on the sanitary boat for whatever he lacked or needed, accompanying it with an order on the quartermaster for teams to removed the packages. I many instances we followed the loads to the hospitals, and witnessed the joy of the poor fellows at this tangible proof that they were not forgotten at home. Here, as in Memphis, most of the patients were sick with miasmatic diseases. There were comparatively few, among the thousands and thousands whom we saw, suffering from wounds. The dejection of sick soldiers we always found greater than that of those wounded…
From one of the hospitals at the Bend there came no surgeon and no requisition. I ordered the inevitable ambulance…and rode two and a half miles to visit its surgeon. A sadder sight I never witnessed during the war. It was a regimental hospital–always a comfortless place. It contained about two hundred men, all of them very sick, all lying in their uniforms on the bare floor, with their knapsacks for pillows, with no food but army rations, no nurses but convalescent soldiers, themselves too sick to move except on compulsion, the sick men covered with vermin, tormented by flies during the day, and devoured by mosquitoes at night,—and their surgeon dead-drunk in bed.
I went through the four large wards of the hospital, each one as horrible as the other. In all the wards, men were dying, and in all they seemed hopeless and despairing. There was no complaint, no lamentation–only now and then some delirious fever patient would clamor for “ice water, ” or “cold water right from the well.” I stooped down and took one man by the hand, who was regarding me with most beseeching looks. “My poor boy,” I said, “I am very sad to see you in this dreadful condition.” He pressed my hand on his eyes with both his own, and wept aloud.
Weeping is contagious, and in a few moments one half the men in the hospital were sobbing convulsively…I had taken along in the ambulance, tea, sugar, condensed milk, and crackers. After I had made tea and distributed it with the crackers, I went back to medical headquarters to report the disgraceful condition of the hospital. I was fortunate, for I ran across Surgeon General Wolcott, of Wisconsin, a very noble man. It was a Wisconsin regiment whose sick men were left uncared for, to die like dogs–and he rested not until the hospital was broken up, the surgeon sent home in disgrace, and the men removed to the receiving-boat Nashville.
This was a hospital boat, built on a barge, three stories high, fitted up with cooking apparatus, bathrooms, laundry, cots, and whatever else was necessary. It was towed from landing to landing, receiving the sick temporarily, until they could be taken off by the hospital steamers, and carried further North. Three weeks later, in passing through the wards of the Nashville, I was hailed from one of the beds in the following jolly fashion: “I say! We are going to live after all”…Here they were sure enough, getting well and already full of fun, and jolly over their discomforts.
Wisconsin Surgeon General Erastus B. Wolcott had accompanied the Sanitary Commission relief mission south, and took immediate action to improve conditions for the soldiers. The men Livermore saw suffering in the regimental hospital were likely from the 23rd
Wisconsin Infantry or possibly the 1st Battery of Wisconsin Light Artillery, who were at Milliken’s Bend at that time. As larger hospitals were set up, the sick and wounded in the Mississippi valley regimental field hospitals were transported to Memphis, St. Louis, and points north for better treatment. At those hospitals, Sanitary Commission agents would also assist and advise the army surgeons.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James McPherson
History of the United States Sanitary Commission by Charles J. Stille
The Military History of Wisconsin in the War of the Rebellion by E. B. Quiner
My Story of the War: A Woman’s Narrative of Four Years Personal Experience by Mary A. Livermore
Women in the Civil War by Mary Elizabeth Massey
Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism. Patriotism and Patience by L.P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughn