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United States Sanitary Commission Processing Project: A Sense of History


The various “relief” activities of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, whether “general relief,” “field relief,” or “special relief,” are reflected throughout its own records, now held in the NYPL's Manuscripts and Archives Division. The group of material known as the “Special Relief Archives,” however, is not quite what you would expect to find from its name. Project archivist Melissa Haley discusses her work with this record group in the collection, which contains documents created at different times in the Commission’s existence and for different purposes. As a result, the contexts of their creation (during and after the Civil War) will be restored and made clear.

Over to Melissa:  Richmond., Digital ID 1150140, New York Public LibraryLibby Prison, Richmond, Va., 1865

A Union officer and prisoner of war writes to the U.S. Sanitary Commission from inside Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, detailing conditions there and at the nearby prison at Belle Isle, including a tally of recent deaths. A former POW describes the sufferings he endured at the hands of a Confederate major in Andersonville Prison, Georgia.

And a Wisconsin newlywed searches for information about her imprisoned husband, hoping in vain that the Sanitary Commission could provide the “much wished for intelligence.” Bella Sleeper of Berlin, WI to M.M. Marsh, U.S. Sanitary Commission, Jan 12, 1865."If it be sad news, I pray you not keep it from me, I can bear it, and I'll try to bear it as an American woman should."Bella Sleeper of Berlin, WI to M.M. Marsh, U.S. Sanitary Commission, Jan 12, 1865.
"If it be sad news, I pray you not keep it from me, I can bear it, and I'll try to bear it as an American woman should."

Bundles before analysisBundles before analysisAll of these fascinating documents have been tucked away (folded and bundled up with string) in the Special Relief Archives, a group of material that actually pertains to the USSC’s post-war historical writings. Ever conscious of their prominent role in home front relief efforts, the U.S. Sanitary Commission began work soon after the war’s end on two separate histories that would detail their varied and extensive relief activities. Although neither volume was ever completed, the record group contains several boxes of chapter drafts and notes, as well as those bundled original documents used for research by the authors, borrowed (but never returned) from the records of various USSC offices.

Detail from original catalogDetail from original catalogOne challenge in working with this group of records was to figure out exactly what was in the boxes. I had a catalog created by the USSC to work from, though it soon became clear that many items did not appear on the original inventory, and the bundles had become disordered over time. The documents, notes, and drafts had been grouped into topical categories, which I reconstructed using the original catalog to see what was present, missing, and not recorded.

Now that we have a more accurate picture of box contents, the material will be far more accessible for research when the collection reopens in 2013. Bundled documents that had been “checked out” of other USSC office record groups will be flattened and restored to their proper locations within the collection. Drafts of chapters and notes will be more accurately listed and described, and the material will ultimately be easier to use.

 Department of the Gulf, AntietamUnpublished drafts: Department of the Gulf, Antietam

For example, an unpublished account of the Commission’s relief efforts following the battle of Antietam and the several chapters detailing work by the USSC in Union-occupied New Orleans, none of which appeared on the original inventory, will be readily located by researchers. 

These Commission “relief” historians at work in the 1860s and '70s may have never completed their assigned tasks, but their writings are now being organized, described, and preserved, all to make them accessible for future explorations. Their endeavors were not in vain.
A lone grave on battle-field of Antietam., Digital ID G92F147_022F, New York Public Library"A lone grave on battle-field of Antietam"To find resources on particular places and battles, catalog subject headings provide an excellent pathway to the variety of Civil War materials held by The New York Public Library. For starters: New Orleans (La.) -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865. and Antietam, Battle of, Md., 1862.


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Commission history

I am familiar, but not to the point of having yet read it, with the book "Our Branch and Its Tributaries, Being a History of the Work of the Northwestern Sanitary Commission and Its Auxiliaries During the War of the Rebellion." The author, Sarah Edwards Henshaw, married into the Henshaw clan (I believe Edward was the name of her husband). Her husband fought in the war, and so did his brother, John C. Henshaw. The latter also participated in the Mexican War, and his memoirs are the subject of a recently published book. Another brother, George Holt Henshaw, was a civil engineer who practiced mostly in Canada, but toward the end of his life moved to Brooklyn. His son, George Herbert Henshaw, went on to become the publisher of Brooklyn Life magazine. Another of George Holt Henshaw's children, Esther Holt Henshaw, married Frederic Kingsland Middlebrook, and their daughter, Anne (Nancy) Henshaw Middlebrook, married Ira Glackens, son of famed New York artist William Glackens. Nancy was an employee of the New York Public Library for about eight years, if I am not mistaken (1932-1940?). The Glackenses left a large collection of Glackens's paintings to the Museum of Art, Ft. Lauderdale, and the museum built a wing to house them. It's great to hear you are revisiting the Sanitary Commission, and that you are highlighting the extensive archives in your collection regarding it. I'll be following your blog closely.

Thank you for your comment

Thanks so much for the detailed information on the Henshaw family, with its interesting link back to the New York Public Library. And thanks for following our USSC blog!

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