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United States Sanitary Commission Processing Project: What’s My Line?


Picture an archival version of those 1950s quiz shows — “I’ve Got a Secret” or “What’s My Line” — where panelists try to guess the identity, occupation or special talent of the contestant. This is an episode in the ongoing United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) series, where project staff members do their best to analyze and accurately describe the volumes and documents at hand, asking the usual questions: who, what, where, when? What activities do these materials reflect?

Some background: During the USSC’s arrangements of its own records in the post-Civil War period, decisions had to be made about the best way to store materials. Question: How can we fit as many volumes as possible into a box? Answer: Remove their bindings and spine labels, leaving only the text block. Perhaps there are groups of folded documents needing bundling and identification. Question: How can we identify both kinds of materials? Answer: Wrap the volume or bundle in brown kraft paper around the middle, glue the edges together to form a sleeve, and write a title on them, as best as can be determined from the binding, earlier notations, or on-the-fly inspection.

And of course, in the intervening years, some of these sleeves have been opened to inspect their contents... Here are their (and our) stories:


Elizabeth Delmage:

While surveying the records of the USSC’s relief staff supporting the Army of the Potomac on campaign, 1863-1865, I came across a volume identified as a “Hospital Directory” in the USSC’s last catalog (1878) as well as on the item’s wrapper. However, once I looked within the volume itself, I realized that I had been led astray. Hospital directories generally include lists of patients in Army hospitals, but what I found instead was an indexed listing of USSC employees working in the vicinity of City Point, Virginia. Entries within this volume typically include the names of relief agents and laborers, their hometown, their station and position, and in some cases their salary. This volume sheds light on one of the largest USSC operations during the last year of the war, with over 100 staff members supporting the Union armies at the front before Petersburg and Richmond. Future researchers may be particularly interested with the names of the laborers since the majority includes the notation, “(col’d),” indicating that freedmen were working with the USSC. This information would have been completely overlooked if we had accepted the original description without further analysis.

Melissa Haley:

Many volumes in the USSC records contain glued paper tabs with mysterious roman numerals on them. The numbers did not match any found in the known indexes and catalogs of the collection; whatever scheme the Commission had created was thought to be lost to history. One day while going through the records of the USSC’s Historical Bureau, I came across a document simply listed as “Memoranda relating [to] the Archives; for Historical purposes.” Further inspection of this vaguely-titled item revealed an original index of what appears to be the bulk of the  volumes in Commission’s records, with those mysterious roman numerals included and contents listed. It has already been of assistance to project archivists, who have used the index to discover how volumes were originally described by the Commission, until the delayed receipt of additional records required the USSC’s final arrangement of the collection in 1878.

Joseph Lapinski:

The  USSC’s Statistical Bureau compiled statistical data throughout the Civil War in order to determine and analyze the make up, well being, and effectiveness of the United States’ troops. Reports on the cleanliness and efficiency of Army hospitals and camps were also thoroughly examined. After the war, the gathering and tabulation of statistics continued for publication purposes. A box of Statistical Bureau records was originally described in the 1878 catalog as containing weekly and monthly hospital reports. Upon inspection, the weekly hospital reports turned out to be office reports outlining the Bureau’s weekly work from 1864 to 1868. They not only provide invaluable information regarding its weekly progress and goals, but also describe the day-to-day tasks of each Statistical Bureau employee (in some cases, with surprisingly candid detail). Employees are listed on these reports by last name, usually with first and middle initials. As the reports were sorted, phrases such as “her work included…” and “she has completed…” brought to light the fact that there were several women among the clerks performing statistical computations. To explore this finding, we consulted staff rosters for the Statistical Bureau found within the collection. As we had hoped, these rosters displayed employee’s names in full along with their official title and monthly salary. “C.L Sawyer” and “S.M. Lane” from the weekly office reports were, in fact, “Caroline L. Sawyer” and “Susan M. Lane.” These women, and others, were listed as “clerks,” the same title given to their male co-workers.








Jane Rothstein:

Among the initial challenges presented by the collection were more than 60 large volumes shelved apart from their related groups of records because of their size. Over the decades, many of their leather labels had succumbed to “red rot” and heavy use. These volumes were only briefly described in the USSC’s inventories of the collection, and more than one had completely missed these listings. Opening each was like unwrapping a surprise gift. One of the most exciting finds was a series of scrapbooks put together by the Sanitary Commission’s Historical Bureau after the war to collect and preserve the Commission’s various publications. Here we find a wealth of interesting items: pristine copies of circulars and forms used by various USSC agencies and offices, a list of office rules for Washington staff, a splashy broadside with expected standards of behavior for the residents of the New Orleans soldiers’ lodge, multiple versions of USSC envelopes and letterhead, an invitation to a meeting of the Women’s Pennsylvania Branch, a three-color version of one of the USSC’s emblems, a knitting pattern for woolen socks, and more. The most surprising find was a series of labels printed with the Commission’s name that were used to identify bottles and boxes shipped from Philadelphia for distribution in the field and in hospitals. Featured supplies included brandy, wine, and other liquor, in addition to more sober items. For medicinal purposes, of course.

In spite of the interesting challenges presented above, we appreciate our 19th-century colleagues’ efforts to preserve and organize these records. And in the last dog days of August, we remind ourselves that they did not have air conditioning. 


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