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United States Sanitary Commission Processing Project: Army of the Potomac

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The Army of the Potomac Archives, part of the United States Sanitary Commission Records, is an important resource for anyone interested in studying the USSC’s work alongside the Union armies on campaign in eastern Virginia from 1862-1865, especially during the long and bloody struggle from the battle of the Wilderness in 1864 to the fall of Petersburg and Richmond in 1865. Archivist Elizabeth Delmage shares materials explored during processing, which shed light on how the USSC geared up its systems to meet ever-growing military and humanitarian needs.

Journals in the field, documenting the USSC's daily operations at Belle Plain, White House, and City Point, Virginia.Journals in the field, documenting the USSC's daily operations at Belle Plain, White House, and City Point, Virginia.From June 1864 to May 1865, City Point, Virginia served as General Ulysses S. Grant’s headquarters for the Army of the Potomac, one of the major Union armies in the Civil War. It also served as the site of the USSC’s supporting center of operations. It was here at City Point where the Commission’s systematic approach to providing additional supplies and relief services for soldiers really flourished, thanks to the efforts of their Field Relief Corps and Auxiliary Relief Corps. 

Field relief corps of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Supply wagon and tent of a corps relief agent. Lewis H. Steiner, Chief inspector. ,Incidents of the war., Digital ID 1150093, New York Public LibraryField relief agents used supply wagons to follow the Army and distribute USSC supplies.

The Field Relief Corps, organized in July 1863 under the charge of Dr. Lewis H. Steiner, grew out of the USSC’s inspection, field relief, and battlefield relief practices dating from the beginning of the war. USSC workers known as relief agents, under the direction of inspectors, followed the troops while they were on campaign. They were expected to familiarize themselves with the wants and needs of the soldiers and medical officers, so that the USSC could provide the right supplementary goods and services.

The Auxiliary Relief Corps was created in May of 1864. Instead of supporting the Army on the march, its mission was to provide personal service to the large number of sick and wounded in hospitals, and to the wounded and dying left on the field. Now, during battles, agents from both Relief Corps were present and had specific roles to play. After assisting at battles in May and early June, the Auxiliary Relief Corps set up work at City Point, with agents stationed at Army corps field hospitals. Memorandum book of W. H. Holstein, relief agent, in charge of soldier's burials in White House and City Point, Virginia. His wife, Anna Holstein, also served with the USSC.Memorandum book of W. H. Holstein, relief agent, in charge of soldier's burials in White House and City Point, Virginia. His wife, Anna Holstein, also served with the USSC.Not only did relief agents distribute food and clothing supplies equally to men who needed it, they also arranged feeding stations for soldiers in transit, assisted the wounded with letter writing, provided reading materials, and comforted the dying and recorded their burials. Frank B. Fay, superintendent of the Auxiliary Relief Corps, wanted his agents to treat the soldiers as if they were their own brothers, asking in one of his reports, “if one of these wounded men were our brother and were in our home, how many hours or how many members of our family of the neighborhood would be devoted to his comfort?”

It was essential to the USSC that the soldiers be fully outfitted with all the proper supplies and food stores to remain healthy and prepared for battle. Supplies that they regularly issued to hospitals, medical staff, and their own relief agents at City Point included cotton and woolen clothing, blankets, towels, handkerchiefs, bedding, stationary, fresh and dried produce and proteins, jellies, sugar and spices, milk, tea, coffee, chocolate, and liquors.
A large inventory form showing the variety of stock, including clothing, hospital food and furniture, bedding, and medical supplies, kept on hand at the City Point supply depot.A large inventory form showing the variety of stock, including clothing, hospital food and furniture, bedding, and medical supplies, kept on hand at the City Point supply depot.
Soldiers convalescing at field hospitals were likely to receive reading materials and even spelling books to help pass the time during their stay and perhaps further their educations. Relief agents also helped soldiers send packages (usually their personal belongings) and money back home to their families, especially when a battle was imminent.
The first soldier in the image above learned to write in the Army, and borrowed books supplied by the USSC at Petersburg in 1865.The first soldier in the image above learned to write in the Army, and borrowed books supplied by the USSC at Petersburg in 1865.
Pontoon bridge, across the James, June 1864.,Pontoon bridge across the James [Men sitting and standing in foreground, ships at anchor in river]., Digital ID 1150142, New York Public LibraryJames River, 1864. Ships such as these often anchored near the center of operations to bring supplies to the field and hospitals. Never was this need for the comforts of home more necessary than around the holidays. USSC employees brought holiday cheer to their base of operations in City Point, Virginia, on December 25, 1864, by adorning their ships with evergreens and festive buntings. The day was “celebrated by the army and fleet as a gala-day,” even though the turkey dinner that was planned for the soldiers around City Point was postponed a day due to the late shipment of the turkey. Soldiers with the 9th Corps of the Army of the Potomac were treated with a special dinner of roasted turkey and vegetables on Christmas day, and relief agent C. B. Wycoff observed that “the men were grateful for the good care they have received, and the dinner was fully appreciated.”
Passage from the Journal in the field for December 25, 1864 at City Point.Passage from the Journal in the field for December 25, 1864 at City Point.

For additional reading:

Hospital life in the Army of the Potomac by William Howell Reed, 1866.

Three years in field hospitals of the Army of the Potomac by Mrs. W. H. (Anna Morris Ellis) Holstein, 1867.

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