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United States Sanitary Commission Processing Project: Harvests for Health
The United States Sanitary Commission records might not be the first port of call for anyone interested in studying 19th-century American agriculture or the culinary arts, but the visit could well repay the effort.
From the first days of its existence, the USSC concerned itself with identifying suitable ingredients for a soldier's diet. A healthy diet kept men in fighting strength and in good spirits, prevented disease, and helped them recuperate more quickly from wounds and sickness. The Commission and its branches developed highly refined systems to collect and ship supplies, including food grown, processed or purchased across the North, to supplement Army stocks where needed.
Scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C, was feared for its ability to ravage the strength of armies and navies. A measure of wartime knowledge of the disease is found in the Report […] on the Subject of Scurvy, document “N” in Military Medical and Surgical Essays prepared for the United States Sanitary Commission (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1864), edited by William A. Hammond, M.D. Luckily, the inclusion of fresh vegetables in the diet was known to be one of the most effective cures at hand. But how to get fresh vegetables to Union troops in the war-torn South? Some vegetables and fruit, like potatoes, onions and apples, had long shelf lives, but early frosts and transportation problems made supplies uncertain. Preserved foods could only help so much.
The solution was the “hospital garden.” As Charles J. Stillé, the Commission's historian, emphatically stated, "where vegetables could not be bought, they must be raised.” In 1863, thanks to help from the U.S. Army and its medical staff, the USSC obtained land near Union military hospitals in Tennessee to set up vegetable gardens serving hospital patients and troops. Seeds, gardening tools and plants were purchased and shipped. Animal manure? Generally not a problem. Convalescent soldiers, laborers and prisoners of war planted, sowed and reaped under the supervision of a head gardener.
The idea took hold quickly. As the USSC’s Dr. J.W. Page noted in a letter from New Bern, NC, published in the Sanitary Commission's Bulletin of April 1, 1864, “gardens and garden-plots are springing up in every part of the service.” Also published is a grateful note to Page from J.B. Bellangir, Surgeon in charge of Mansfield General Hospital at Morehead City, NC. He writes that he is looking forward to receiving the promised Champion of England pea seeds, and asks, "when do you plant Okra, and what are its habits about coming up?"
The records of the Commission’s Department of North Carolina, documenting the work of its relief stations supporting Union forces there from 1862-1865, contain several interesting journals and documents concerning their garden at New Bern. These include lists of produce with yields by date and an elegantly written “Stated Recipients of Vegetables from the San. Com. Garden during 1864 (10 Acres).” The plantings and harvests were abundant and mouth-watering, including peas, squash, melons, beans, potatoes, radishes, onions, cucumbers, corn, okra, carrots, cabbages, and more. Harvesting drew to a close in late Fall, and planting for 1865 began in January. The list of recipients is a quick introduction to the world of need met by the U.S. Sanitary Commission, including two general hospitals, numerous regiments and U.S. Navy steamers, several outlying posts, attached services such as the Signal Corps and Ambulance Corps, and the Brigade Band. The needs of civilians, particularly African-American refugees, were also met: The Hospital for Refugees, the Orphan Asylum, and school teachers can be found on the list. No doubt more materials will be found concerning the USSC's farming efforts in Union-occupied territory as processing proceeds.
Tracking the communications of an USSC relief agent or relief station can yield results as well. Thanks to earlier funded work on the collection, we have at hand a letter of December 3, 1862 from Dr. J.W. Page to Dr. J. Foster Jenkins at the Central Office in Washington, DC (Washington DC Archives, Document 4819). Dr. Page encloses an actual cotton boll which he identifies as “H.R.H.K.C.” (His Royal Highness King Cotton). It was planted in his garden a month after the battle of New Bern. You never know what you’ll find!
The Commission’s Bulletin, Sanitary Reporter, History and other publications mention the success of its vegetable gardens in the fight against scurvy. The Library’s Digital Gallery contains illustrations from Vincent Colyer’s Brief report of the services rendered by the freed people to the United States Army in North Carolina: in the spring of 1862 after the battle of Newberne. (New York: V. Colyer, 1864).