The United States Sanitary Commission Records Processing Project

By Susan Waide, Manuscripts and Archives Division
April 26, 2010
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

The Manuscripts and Archives Division has embarked on a three-year project to comprehensively arrange, describe, and physically preserve the United States Sanitary Commission Records, made possible by a generous donation enabling The New York Public Library to expand access to its archival collections. This blog will introduce you to the organization, its records, and the processing project, with further explorations and updates to follow!

Head quarters of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, at the General Hospital, near Gettysburg, Pa., Digital ID 1150193, New York Public Library

USSC headquarters at Gettysburg, 1863

The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), 1861-1879, was a civilian organization authorized by the Federal government to provide sanitary and medical assistance to the Union volunteer forces during the United States Civil War, 1861-1865. As the USSC broadened the scope of its mission during the war, other servicemen also benefited from its efforts.

The Library holds the United States Sanitary Commission's official records, gathered by the USSC from its offices and aid societies to serve as a permanent historical record of its work. The USSC arranged the materials in this collection several times for various purposes before they donated the collection to the Astor Library in 1879, where it was earlier stored. Complex arrangements and partial access to fragile materials have impeded the ability of researchers to make connections and follow leads across the collection.

Over three years, project staff will analyze, arrange, describe, and re-house the entire body of records and coordinate necessary conservation treatment. This will provide optimal intellectual and physical access, the strongest foundation for digital initiatives to enhance further exploration of this exceptional historical resource.

This collection has been recognized as one of America’s historic and cultural treasures that help define our national heritage. The records, spanning the years 1861-1878 and measuring almost 1,000 linear feet, document the activities of the USSC’s administrative and branch offices, its inspectors and relief agents in the field, and the many women’s auxiliary societies supporting its goals and the Union cause during the Civil War. Almost a third of the collection consists of back pay, bounty and pension claims filed by the USSC on behalf of thousands of servicemen and their families during and after the war. The USSC’s post-war activities and the work of the American Association for the Relief of the Misery of Battle Fields, 1866-1870, founded by members of the USSC, are also documented.The United States Sanitary Commission Records are an unparalleled multi-faceted resource for Civil War studies, illuminating the development of wartime humanitarian aid and medical treatments, the history of the Army and other services, work by women in the war, and countless other topics. The stories of thousands of individual soldiers and their families, and the impact of the war on individuals and communities across the land are also encountered.

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 Library

USSC field relief supplies on their way

This processing project will make these records fully functional and accessible, allowing the broadest exploration of the United States Sanitary Commission's organizational life and legacy, and deeply enriching our knowledge of the Civil War as it was lived and understood at the time by individuals from a broad spectrum of society, North and South.

As of April 2010, the United States Sanitary Commission Records are closed for processing and conservation. The Manuscripts and Archives Division will provide only limited access to the collection, as described in its catalog record. We apologize for this inconvenience. The collection will re-open completely for research sometime in the Spring of 2013. We’ll keep you updated on the project here!