In 1861, almost no one predicted the shear bloodshed that would be caused by the ground fighting during the Civil War. Fortunately for thousands of soldiers, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a volunteer group of civilian medical professionals and other well meaning citizens, did and attempted to fill critical gaps in the Army's medical system. One of the gaps was there was no infrastructure set up to move wounded soldiers from the battlefield to hospitals in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York to receive long-term care.
The Commission's executive secretary Frederick Law Olmsted (most famous for his work on New York City's Central Park) noticed that the Army's Quartermaster Corps had several surplus steamers and asked if the Commission could use them as hospital ships. At first, the Quartermaster Corps said no, when it did say yes, often pull the ships away from the Commission at the last second. By late April 1862, however, Olmsted's persistence paid off and the Commission received the steamer Daniel Webster. By mid-May, the Commission's Hospital Transport Service had seven ships working out of White House, Virginia on the York River and Harrison's Landing on the James River.
Each ship carried upwards of several hundred soldiers, many of them suffering from various diseases. Tending to the sick and wounded on board were female nurses, many of whom had followed their husbands who were working as doctors. Towards the end of the campaign in July, one ship, J.H. Spaulding rescued several hundred wounded soliders trapped behind the lines.
Against the advice of officers on Galena and Monitor, Spaulding flew a flag of truce and steamed past Confederate shore batteries. Some of the nurses joked with Lieutenant Jeffers that they would be sure to put mattress in the wheelhouse for protection. Jeffers later thought that was a good idea and took some of the mattress of Spaulding...for the Monitor!
The Service ended with the end of the Peninsula Campaign in July 1862. Several thousand men were saved because of the ships. Two of the Commission's nurses penned an excellent first person account of the Hospital Transport Service in their memoir Woman's Work in the Civil War.