A Short History of Ladies' Aid Society

Soldiers' Aid Society in Cleveland from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History


 Formation of the Sanitation Commission

While casualties are a product of war, it may be surprising to learn that for every man killed in battle, two died from disease during the Civil War. Many of these diseases — dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid and malaria —  caused by overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in the field.  Individuals began preaching the virtues of clean water, good food and fresh air.  Women began leading civilians in the collection of food, clothing and medical supplies for the soldiers.  Getting the collected items where they were needed became a new problem.

In 1861, ladies of New York held a conference for doctors, clergymen, lawyers and other interested parties who recognized a need for better coordination of relief efforts.   As a result of the conference the Articles of Organization to form what would become the Sanitary Commission were drawn up.  Members of the delegation lobbied the War Department, which sanctioned the creation of the U. S. Sanitary Commission on June 9, 1861. The first President of the Commission was Rev. Henry W. Bellows, D.D. of New York and the General Secretary of the Commission was the noted landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead.  The Sanitation Commission was funded, organized and run by civilians.

Preaching the virtues of clean water, good food and fresh air, the Sanitary Commission pressured the Army to ‘improve sanitation, build large well-ventilated hospitals and encourage women to join the newly created nursing corps.' Despite their efforts  some 560,000 soldiers died from disease during the war.” 

Civil War Treasures from the New-York Historical Society,
[Digital ID, e.g., nhnycw/ad ad045002]
a Civil War Sterograph

The work of the Sanitary Commission was divided into three distinct departments:

1.       The Preventive Service employed a corps of medical inspectors who visited camps, hospitals and transports of each army corps in the field. These inspectors were attentive to dangers from change of climate, exposure, malarious causes, hard marching or any failure of supplies or transportation.”

2.      The Department of General Relief was responsible for 75% of the work of the Sanitary Commission. Its duty was to supply food, clothing, bandages, hospital furniture [and medicines] for the wounded on the field and the sick and wounded in camp, field, post, regimental and general hospitals.” According to Dr. Herschel L. Stroud in a recent article on flags of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, “the manner of getting the wounded from the battlefield to an aid or dressing station, and thence to a field hospital, was made possible by the use of flags…” The cloth pennant was often made of cotton with black lettering. The pennant is 24 inches by 12 inches in size, and was sewn onto a tent indicating the Sanitary Commission station in the field.

http://www.shorpy.com/node/3425?size=_original to see this wonderful photo taken by James Gardner using a wet plate glass negative in May 1864.  As the site says this "full-size version of this photo is a kind of portal to the past"  showing the cooking tent of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  This site has many good photos of the era.

3.      The Soldiers' Homes came under the third department, the Department of Special Relief. These homes furnished shelter, food and medical care to men who, for one reason or another, could not get it directly from the government...that is men on furlough or sick leave, recruits, stragglers and men who were left behind by their regiments or were permanently discharged from hospitals.”

The U. S. Sanitary Commission, contributed significantly in reducing the suffering of soldiers.                                                                                            return to MENU

                  Soldiers' Aid Society of Northern Ohio
A group of women from various Cleveland churches first met as the Ladies Aid Society on  April 20,1861. and organized a "blanket raid" to collect quilts and blankets for troops being mustered at Camp Taylor, one of the 7 camps in Cleveland.  The official war was new and the ladies had no idea what was ahead of them.

Six months later the group joined with other benevolent groups to form the Soldiers' Aid Society of Northern Ohio.  Financed by private donations, the organization cared for the sick and wounded, provided ambulance and hospital service, solicited clothing and medical supplies, and sent food to soldiers in the field throughout the Civil War. The society established a distribution center at 95 Bank (W. 6th) St.

Life for the women working in the Soldiers' Aid Society was rough by any standards.  Take time to read these letters written by M. C. R. to her family in August 1863 and later preserved in the  Cleveland Plain Dealer.

                                                       Ohio women in the Civil War ---Part 10

From February 22- March 10, 1864, members of the Soldiers' Aid Society of Northern Ohio held the Northern Ohio Sanitation Fair.  It was organized to raise funds to assist soldiers during the Civil War. It was patterned after a similar event that had been staged in Chicago. The widely advertised Cleveland fair was housed in a specially constructed building on Public Square.   In the shape of a Greek cross, the building housed exhibits, including floral, artistic, and war-souvenir displays. Single admission tickets cost $.25. No free passes were issued; even visiting dignitaries were required to contribute. Local railroads cooperated with the Soldiers' Aid Society by selling tickets at their stations and promising free return rail fare to any visitor purchasing more than $1 worth of admission tickets. They also lifted freight charges for goods consigned to the fair. The fair, opened formally by Major General James A. Garfield, was more popular than expected and extended longer than planned. All unsold goods were auctioned off, and the lumber and other building materials were also sold, bringing more than $10,000 in profit. Total proceeds were over $78,000.

These funds allowed the society to establish a depot hospital in Cleveland. Following the end of hostilities, the society conducted an Employment & Free Claims agency for returning veterans before it ceased operations.

Information about the Cleveland Soldiers' Aid Society was taken from History of the Northern Ohio Soldiers' Aid Society according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History posted by Case Western Reserve  
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                        Letters, Letters, Letters
In order for the civilians to know what was needed by the soldiers, individual women would carry on constant correspondence with men at the front to not only learn what was needed but how to get it to the right place.  Some women like Mary Bickerdyke split their time between working with the civilians to raise supplies and serving as a nurse to the wounded
  • Mary Ann Bickerdyke, born in Mt. Vernon, Ohio became a nurse and health care provider during the Civil War

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In 1863 the  Ladies Aid Society of Pleasant Township in Knox County reported they had collected the following for the war effort: 
  • shirts, 91;
  • drawers, 65 pairs;
  • pocket handkerchiefs, 138;
  • pillow slips, 42;
  • pillows, 10;
  • sheets, 6;
  • towels, 35;
  • socks, 9 pairs;
  • mittens, 2 pairs;
  • compresses, 32 rolls;
  • bandages, 59 rolls;
  • 5 bundles of papers and magazines,
  • 1 pound of hops,
  • 53 pads,
  • 13 fans,
  • 2 neckties,
  • 3 boxes 2 rolls and 1 sack of lint,
  • 32 pounds of crackers,
  • 6 pounds of dry toast,
  • 10 dozen pickles,
  • 4 quarts of vinegar,
  • 18 jugs of canned fruit and pickles,
  • 42 bushels of apples,
  • 7 quarts of dried peaches,
  • 23 quarts of elderberries,
  • 14 quarts of dried cherries,
  • 5 quarts of sweet corn,
  • 3 quarts canned fruit,
  • 13 bushels of potatoes,
  • 2$ bushels of onions,
  • 1 bushel of beets, and
  • one bushel of cabbage.

TOTAL Estimated Value $225.31                                                                 return to MENU

              Getting Supplies to the Right Destination
However collecting the supplies was only part of the job.  Getting the supplies to the right destination was a big hurdle.  The women convinced the railroads to haul the supplies to the army but they soon learned that the supplies left on the dock were stolen.  To protect their time and investment, the Ladies' Aid Societies would hire an armed courier to escort the cargo to the right destination.  They began marking the items they made or collected so if they saw the wrong person with the merchandise they knew it was stolen.   

In Amazing Women of the Civil War, Webb Garrison tells of a documented incident which happened to Mary Bicherdyke.  Mary had just arrived in Cairo, Illinois, when she visited an army hospital and ordered an fledgling lieutenant to "Bend over."  She yanked the neckband of this shirt to reveal NWSC (North Western Sanitation Commission of Chicago).   When he refused to give her the shirt, she wrestled him to the ground and sat on him while she removed the shirt.

By the time she had finished a crowd of onlookers were surrounding them as she examined the waistband of his underpants, shook her head and turned to his feet.  After yanking off his crocheted slippers, she climbed off her target.  She extended her hand to help him up and said, "These things are not for the likes of you;  they're for men too sick to get off the flat of their backs."  Needless to say, she had the attention of military and civilians.

  • Mary Ann Bickerdyke, born in Mt. Vernon, Ohio became a nurse and health care provider during the Civil War

So even if the supplies got to a hospital or a doctor, there was no way to be sure they were used for the intended purpose unless there was a Mary watching.
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Delaware County, Ohio

I don't know what happened in eastern Delaware County, Ohio, but I know the kind and generous hearts of our women would have done all in their power to help the cause.  I did find this note:
  The Ladies Aid Society of Delaware County learned the soldiers from Delaware were sent to the mountains of western Virginia so the Ladies sent 30 pairs of knitted mittens to Capt. Van Deman of Company K for distribution to the men of his unit which had been recruited in large part from Delaware County.  While at Camp Chase, Van Deman wrote to the society’s president that while his men “are off among the mountains of western VA, the cold &  bleak winds whistling around their benumbed bodies, yet they have one bright and warm spot in their remembrance for their Lady friends of Delaware.”  If the ladies could have “seen their grateful countenances & heard their hearty cheer as those mittens were distributed to those who had been grasping cold gun barrels with naked hands, their hearts might have been (like mine) too full for utterance.

Capt. Joseph H. Van Deman was in company K of 66th Ohio Infantry which was made up entirely of Delaware county men.  David T. Thackery wrote about the 66th in his book, A Light and Uncertain Hold.
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After the War

Soldiers came home still needing care so many Ladies' Aid Societies continued to support hospitals or homes for the veterans.

Women who were considered second class citizens had become the backbone of the army in a very real way.  Through their volunteer activities they learned skills to equal any man in business.  So when the war was over they were once again housewives and mothers but they were still denied the right to vote.

Many continued in nursing.  Clara Barton, a young nurse, later founded the American Red Cross in 1881. 

Many women went on to hold positions of leadership in the Women's Suffragette Movement

When the war was over many of the Ladies' Aid Societies continued to provide for the needy through their churches.  Many of us will remember the ladies' teas where a social event was planned to support a burned out family, find clothes for children who had lost their father, or perhaps redecorate the church sanctuary.  Slowly the names changed to Ladies' Circles, Women's Clubs or some other name but they are often still the backbone of the individual churches.


by Polly Horn for the Ladies' Aid Society attached to   the Rosecrans Headquarters Unit