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.
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.”
All 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.
One 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.
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.
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.