The Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. Only two weeks later, on April 26, at least 3000 women attended a meeting at Cooper Union in New York City, to hear how they could help care for sick and wounded Union soldiers. This marked the beginning of the Woman’s Central Association of Relief.
Established in June 1861, the United States Sanitary Commission became the national organization that oversaw aid to Union servicemen during the Civil War. As a private relief agency, it solicited both monetary and in-kind donations—such as homemade hospital gowns.
LCP 79817.O; LCP 15695.O.16; LCP 52182.O.6
The 1861 article in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper that accompanied the image of the women at the founding meeting of the Woman’s Central Association of Relief suggested that the women’s services might never be needed. By 1863, the initial expectation that the Civil War would end quickly was long gone, and many separate women’s groups labored to support the troops—and produced many reports on their own organizational activities.
Born in Philadelphia, Mrs. Jane Hoge became involved with volunteer work in Pittsburgh and later in Chicago.
In the late 1850s, she and Mary Livermore both served on the board of Chicago’s Home for the Friendless, a
charity for widows and children. But it was the Civil War that gave Hoge the opportunity to take on larger
projects such as the North Western Sanitary Fair, which raised over $70,000 for the Union cause in October
In this address, Mrs. Hoge summarizes the work that the women of the North Western Sanitary Commission had accomplished, in an effort to rally support for a second Chicago fair, to be held in May 1865—a fair which actually took place in June 1865 to aid veterans, after the Civil War officially ended in April.
In 1861, Mary Livermore (1820-1905) and her husband were living in Chicago, where they edited a monthly
magazine. Soon after the start of the Civil War, she put her various responsibilities on hold to work with the
United States Sanitary Commission in the support of the Union forces. Working in a paid capacity for the
Chicago branch of the Sanitary Commission, Livermore acquired administrative skills and political savvy. By
the second year of the war, the Chicago branch was supplying $1,000 worth of food and medicine a day.
Following the war, the Livermores returned to New England, and eventually Mary supported the family by lecturing, mainly on topics related to women’s rights. This 1883 volume entitled What Shall We Do with Our Daughters? includes a chapter on the need for job training for women.
In her account of her own service with the North Western Sanitary Commission, Mary Livermore gives credit to
other women who served as nurses or visitors in Union hospitals. About her colleague Jane Hoge (1811-1890),
she writes, “She was a practical woman, and her executive ability was very marked. Her power of patient,
persistent work was seemingly limitless. Her force of character was irresistible, and bore down all
opposition. Her energy was simply tremendous. She excelled in conducting a public meeting, and was a very
forceful and attractive public speaker. The inspiration of the war developed in her capabilities of whose
possession she was not aware....”
For Livermore, Hoge, and many other women, the war was a transformative experience. Their war work proved—to themselves as well as to others—that they were capable of more than they had ever realized.
In the wake of the success of the North Western Sanitary Fair, held in Chicago in October 1863, women in other cities planned similar fairs. Philadelphia’s Great Central Fair took place in June 1864, raising over a million dollars.
After the war, when Northerners sought to create the historical record, Frank Moore’s Women of the War went through five editions, beginning in 1866. Moore included biographical sketches of nearly forty white women. Historians have noted that some women specifically asked Moore not to mention their names in his book. For some women, wartime service was empowering and generated new ideas about women’s potential in public roles. But other women apparently shrank from attention for their “heroism and self-sacrifice,” in keeping with established ideas about appropriate behavior for middle-class white women.
Many historical accounts focus exclusively on white women’s contributions, making no mention of the many
black women who contributed to the war effort, including Harriet Tubman (1822-1913). A fearless conductor on
the Underground Railroad, Tubman had helped other African Americans to freedom in the decades before the Civil
War. During the Civil War, Tubman worked with the Union forces in South Carolina in numerous capacities—as a
nurse, a cook, a washerwoman, and a seamstress. She also passed on information about rebel locations and
movements which she obtained from the local black population. One of William Lloyd Garrison’s sons referred to
her as “General Tubman” for these efforts.
In the late 1860s, Harriet Tubman’s campaign for a Civil War pension was unsuccessful. To help raise money for Tubman’s support (and especially to help her finish paying for her home in Albany, New York), a white writer of sentimental fiction and children’s stories named Sarah Bradford was persuaded to write this biography based on conversations with Tubman.
Twenty years after her first biography of Harriet Tubman, Sarah Bradford produced this “second edition.” Gone is the portrait frontispiece of Tubman holding a rifle. This edition also softens descriptions of slavery’s inhumanity and brutality, and entirely eliminates the chapter on Southern white women’s violence toward enslaved blacks. Bradford edited out these details to appeal to a white audience that now sought reconciliation and reunion between the North and South. As a result, Harriet Tubman became best-remembered as the subject of juvenile biographies in which she is portrayed as a unique individual rather than a participant in a network of Americans intent on racial and gender equality before, during, and after the Civil War.
Brockett and Vaughan’s text, first published in 1867, went through four editions. Shown here is the beginning of the chapter on Mary Jane Safford (1834-1901), who worked in Civil War hospitals in Illinois and also on hospital ships. Safford graduated from the New York Medical College for Women in 1869, and then studied surgery for three years in Europe. In 1873, she became one of the first faculty members in Boston University’s newly formed School of Medicine, as a professor of women’s diseases.
In addition to her responsibilities as a Boston University professor, Mary Safford lectured and wrote for the lay public, especially on issues related to women’s health. Arguably, Safford’s work with the Sanitary Commission prepared her for her career and her long-term involvement with women’s issues. In the post-war years, Safford supported woman suffrage, dress reform, and efforts to promote the interests of working women.
Many Civil War nurses found inspiration in English philanthropist Florence Nightingale (1820-1910). Nightingale’s Notes on Nursing, first published in London in 1859, related her experiences caring for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, a few years previously. The book helped secure her iconic status as the woman who led the way to the professionalization of nursing. Shown here is the American edition of 1861.
The women in these photographs (which were created by Philadelphia photography studios) probably were born in the late 1860s to parents who were in their early adulthood during the Civil War.
LCP 106149.O; LCP 106223.O
Like Mary Livermore of Chicago, Louisa Schuyler of New York learned organizational skills from her experiences working with the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War and went on to a post-war career. In 1872 Miss Schuyler founded the State Charities Aid Association (SCAA) to coordinate visits to New York State hospitals and other institutions. By its second year, the SCAA had opened the Bellevue Training School for Nurses.
In Philadelphia, the first training program for nurses dates to March 1861, at the Woman’s Hospital of
Philadelphia. Its act of incorporation specifically states, “The object of ... [this] corporation shall be to
establish in the City of Philadelphia a Hospital for the treatment of diseases of women and children, and for
obstetrical cases; furnishing at the same time clinical instruction to women engaged in the study of medicine,
and for the practical training of nurses.”
Shown here is the outline of the course of training in the mid-1870s. As stipulated in the act of incorporation, the chief resident physician was a woman.
Incorporated in March 1863, the New England Hospital for Women and Children also offered an early training
program for nurses. One of three incorporators, Marie Zakzewska (1829-1902), became the hospital’s first
attending physician. Dr. Zakzewska received her earliest medical training from Elizabeth Blackwell
(1821-1910), herself the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States.
The donations listed at the end of this report range from $2 to $3,000.
After the conflict ended, some Civil War nurses used the skills they had developed in non-medical areas of
work. In 1878, Cornelia Hancock (1840-1927) became one of the founding members of the Philadelphia Society for
Organizing Charity (PSOC). The Society’s mission was to coordinate city-wide services for the poor. Hancock’s
report on the group’s work in the Sixth Ward, shown here, mentions substance abuse, homelessness, and care of
people with disabilities. In later years, the PSOC opened Wayfarers’ Lodges to provide temporary housing for
the homeless. Wayfarers’ Lodge No. 1 at 1720 Lombard Street opened in 1884. The PSOC, later known as Family
Service of Philadelphia, disbanded in 2000.
Later social reformers such as Jane Addams (1860-1935) also relied on comprehensive approaches and scientific methodologies.