Gender During Wartime

U.S. Sanitary Commission

Washington, D.C. Group of Sanitary Commission workers at the entrance of the Home Lodge. June 1863. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, DIGITAL ID cwp 4a40186

George Fredrickson in his classic The Inner Civil War is careful to note that much good work came out of the founding of the Commission. But he also notes that

commission's ultimate interest . . . was . . . a matter of teaching order and discipline, and in its operation the commission showed an almost obsessive concern for the preservation of discipline in all its forms.

. . .

In its effort to discourage 'good Samaritanism' in all its forms, the commission adopted the much criticized policy of using paid agents rather than volunteers for its relief work. . . . The idea that compassion could accomplish nothing was a profound challenge to prevailing beliefs. Walt Whitman, a volunteer who believed intensely in the power of love and pity, expressed a fairly common opinion when he railed at the Sanitary agents as 'hirelings.' 'As to the Sanitary Commissions & the like,' Whitman wrote to his mother in June 1863, 'I am sick of them all . . .-you ought to see the way the men as they lie helpless in bed turn away their faces from the sight of the Agents, Chaplains &c (hirelings as Elias Hicks would call them--they seem to me always a set of foxes & wolves)--they get well paid & are always incompetent & disagreeable' Whitman, as a thoroughgoing anti-institutionalist, believed that the spontaneous spirit of benevolence could not survive formal organization and the professionalization of service. (104;106-107)

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