Date of Award

Spring 5-8-2020

Level of Access Assigned by Author

Open-Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Nathan Godfried

Second Committee Member

Liam Riordan

Third Committee Member

Richard W. Judd


This thesis explores an aspect of the American Civil War, the federally authorized civilian effort to assist the Medical Department of the U. S. Army, known as the United States Sanitary Commission. This work covers its active years, 1861-1865, and the Commission leaders based in Washington, D.C., and New York City. It also pays attention to women throughout the North who populated some 7000 Ladies Aid Societies established to help support the Commission. The leaders and the women shared the same goal, to improve the health care for wounded and ill Union soldiers. The Ladies Aid Societies also created a high profile public activity, a set of hugely successful fundraising events, called Sanitary Fairs, that significantly boosted the sagging public morale. The central issue warranting attention is the linkage between the Commission, Ladies Aid Societies, and the Sanitary Fairs. This thesis argues that there was a causal connection between these three and that they jointly created a crucial social engagement framework for noncombatants with two significant outcomes. First, it resulted in an unprecedentedly high level of charitable gifts that remained unsurpassed until after the First World War. Secondly, it demonstrated to nineteenth century women new opportunities for voluntary activity in social advocacy. Also, the outcomes reveal some unexpected discoveries. Among them is that the Sanitary Commission was the first non-sectarian national fundraising effort in the United States. Primary research included contemporary newspapers, diaries, broadsides, Ladies Aid Societies correspondence, Commission minutes and ledgers, and memoirs of some of the volunteers and leaders involved. The secondary research examined aspects of the history of American philanthropy, women’s associations, medical treatment, nineteenth century communications, and social movements; all areas that intersected with the Sanitary Commission, Societies, and Fairs. As a means of better understanding the interconnectedness of the Commission, Societies, and Fairs, this thesis employs a tripartite view of philanthropy, made up of volunteering, volunteer leadership, and charitable giving. Given this perspective, three key players receive attention: Henry Bellows, President of the Board of the Commission; Mary Livermore, Commission volunteer and designer of the Sanitary Fairs; and Frederick Law Olmsted, Secretary-General of the Commission. Each of these three represented one of the three parts of philanthropy in action. Collectively they are a set of archetypes and, as such, are the progenitor of philanthropic activities of modern American nonprofits. This thesis offers insights for scholars interested in the eleemosynary sector, specifically those who focus on the history of philanthropic support. It also contributes to scholarship on social movements,