by Carole Adrienne /
The United States Sanitary Commission was a model of reform for the medical services, inspiring the Federal War Department to reorganize its medical policies. When the Civil War began, supplies presented a major problem. No quality controls existed. Uniforms were poorly made. There was extensive profiteering in food and horses. Surgeons and the wounded sometimes waited for days after a battle before supplies arrived, if they arrived at all.
The Sanitary Commission inspected the conditions at camps and hospitals and published reports, pamphlets, and circulars written by Commission Agents and physicians. They published a hospital directory with the names of over 600,000 hospitalized men, including the black soldiers, who were sometimes treated in segregated hospitals. The Commission advocated the adoption of sanitary principles by the United States Army.
By late 1863, the work of the Sanitary Commission had made remarkable improvements in the evacuation and treatment of the wounded, demonstrated at the Battle of Chattanooga.
The United States Sanitary Commission laid a foundation for discoveries that would be revealed after the war. They knew that cleanliness mattered, although they weren’t sure why. They knew that sanitary conditions led to fewer infections and slowed the spread of disease.
Louis Pasteur would later point out that living organisms did not arise spontaneously, but only from previous organisms. Joseph Lister provided the link to infection, and the Commission’s work paved the way for the acceptance of these discoveries.