United States Sanitary Commission Processing Project: Accounts and Vouchers
Project archivist Elizabeth Delmage has tackled the job of making sense of the U.S. Sanitary Commission’s financial records, beginning with boxes of bundled documents and volumes. The richness of information in these materials provides a window into 19th-century commerce, the history of technology in America and, of course, the world of military supplies and humanitarian relief.
Elizabeth shares her work and discoveries in the record group known as Accounts and Vouchers to date:
When I first started surveying these records, it was quite a sight to see bundles of documents, with little clue as to their actual nature, since many had lost their ties and become disordered. Even though these items were described in USSC catalogs as accounts, vouchers, cash statements, bills, invoices, and cancelled checks, it was not always apparent what the Commission meant by some of these terms. Words like bills and invoices were used interchangeably. But what exactly did they mean by vouchers?
Today we usually think of a voucher as a document exchanged for a good or service, like getting a free drink with your ticket at a movie. But in accounting terms, a voucher can refer to any document that serves as evidence or proof of a business transaction, and this is exactly what the Commission meant by vouchers. USSC vouchers are comprised of receipts, paid notes, checks, bills, and invoices. Together, these materials provide a record, sometimes in great detail, of the services and goods purchased by the Commission to aid Union soldiers and sailors.
With my growing knowledge, I was able to discern the financial practices instituted at the Commission's offices. USSC staff copied information from vouchers to monthly cash accounts, which included detailed descriptions of all the receipts and disbursements accrued each month. From monthly cash accounts, clerks generated classified statements of expenditure. These were not top secret documents, but rather financial statements, with similar types of accounts categorized and added up to show how much was spent in one month for a particular account, like rent, postage, salaries, or stabling horses.
Every month, USSC offices were required to submit their monthly cash account with corresponding vouchers, a classified statement of expenditure, and a monthly employee roster to either the Central Office in Washington, DC or the Central Treasury in New York. These items were audited to ensure the Commission’s integrity and credibility. Always under public scrutiny, the USSC needed to prove that the funds they received from the American people went toward the welfare of Union soldiers and were not wasted or deposited in their own pockets.
These financial documents offer a wealth of valuable information beyond just numbers on a page. They illustrate the broad reach of the USSC’s efforts to purchase and ship fresh food and vegetables for the benefit of thousands of soldiers, particularly in the days surrounding major battles. For example, accounts from Washington, DC and Philadelphia provide insight into the types and amounts of supplies sent to Gettysburg in July 1863 and later months.
Perishable supplies such as fish and poultry were sent in refrigerated cars, often by the Arctic Express Company, under the condition that the company was not “responsible for leakage of Liquids, or breakage of Ware.” Leakages were probably unavoidable since a refrigerated car was no more than a freight car lined with ice harvested from ponds and lakes with all of the perishable items packed tightly within to prevent items from shifting.
So, if you were to bypass the financial records in this collection, not only would you be missing out on rich content (and context), but also some unexpected discoveries. For example, while browsing through an account book from the Rhode Island Agency, a USSC branch located in Providence, I was surprised to find a description of the work they accomplished during the war. This was something I definitely didn’t expect to find in a typical account book, and surely there are similar examples waiting to be explored. Based on the materials encountered so far, I highly recommend that you add Accounts and Vouchers to your research checklist when the collection re-opens to the public in 2013.
In the meantime…the Huffington Post has recently highlighted the use one scholar has made of similar 19th-century business records held in the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division. Family papers such as those of the Duyckinck family are one example of the Division’s holdings supporting research in political, economic, social, and cultural history, particularly for the New York region and the United States, from the 18th through the 20th centuries.
And for more business resources, visit the website of The New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library (SIBL), providing open access to information in support of education, research and entrepreneurial activities.