On the 13th of April, 1861, Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor was fired upon by the soldiers of the South.
This was the beginning of the great struggle known in history as the Civil War in America.
Two days before this, Abraham Lincoln called for seventy-five thousand men to defend the government and maintain its laws in the South.
The call was answered at once and with great enthusiasm. Not only did seventy-five thousand men offer themselves, but thousands more who could not be accepted. Business was at a stand-still. The plow was left in the furrow. The factory doors were closed. The thoughts of all men were upon the crisis which the country was facing. In every village of the North the tap of the drum and the shrill music of the fife were heard.
On the very day that Lincoln issued his call, some women of Bridgeport, Connecticut, met together to consider what they could do.
"We cannot go to war," they said, "but our husbands and sons can go—yes, they will go. Shall we who remain at home be idle?"
"There will be bloodshed," said some.
"And there will be much suffering in camp and on the march," said others. "Men will be wounded in battle, they will be sick from exposure, they will need better attention than the army surgeons alone can give them. Can we not do something to help?"
And so these earnest, sympathetic women of Bridgeport organized themselves into what they called a Soldiers' Aid Society, and resolved to do all that they could for the relief and comfort of the men who were at that moment hurrying forward to answer the President's call.
"We cannot fight," they said, "but we can help the fighters."
Miss Almena Bates, a young lady of Charlestown, Massachusetts, did not know what the ladies of Bridgeport were doing, but she started out that same day to do something herself. She went with pencil and paper to her friends and acquaintances, and asked each one to volunteer as a helper.
"The boys are answering the President's call," she said. "To-morrow they will be on their way to the front. There will be war. Nurses will be needed on the battlefields and in the hospitals, Medicines, food, little comforts for the sick and wounded—all these ought to be ready at the first need. What will you do?"
In a few days women in every part of the North were forming aid societies. But as yet it was hard for them to accomplish very much. So long as each little society was working alone, there was no certainty that the intended help would ever reach the right place.
At length, two months after the fall of Fort Sumter, a great organization was formed that would extend all over the North and would include the aid societies. The president of this organization was Rev. Henry W. Bellows of New York, and many well-known men and women were among its members.
Some people shook their heads and hung back.
"The government will provide for the relief and comfort of the soldiers in the field," they said. "What is the use of these aid societies and this great organization?"
Even President Lincoln at first said that he thought the association would prove to be like a fifth wheel to a coach—very much in the way.
But the war had now begun in terrible earnest. In the camps and on the battlefield, the soldiers were learning what was meant by privation and suffering. The plans for the work of the association were carefully made out by Dr. Bellows and his assistants, and were submitted to the government. The president approved them. And thus the United States Sanitary Commission, as it was called, was given the authority to go forward with its great work of caring for the health and comfort of the soldiers.
From the aid societies and from the people at large, help was freely sent. Fairs were held all over the country for the purpose of raising money. Men, women, and children joined in working. Each town and city tried to do more than its neighbor had done. At one fair in Chicago more than seventy-five thousand dollars was raised. The people of the state of New York gave nearly a million dollars for the cause.
President Lincoln wrote: "Amongst the extraordinary manifestations of this war, none has been more remarkable than these fairs. And their chief agents are the women of America, I am not accustomed to the use of the language of eulogy; but I must say, that if all that has been said by orators and poets since the creation of the world in praise of women were applied to the women of America, it would not do them justice for their conduct during this war. God bless the women of America!"
Not only did these women form societies, hold fairs, and give of their means for this cause, but many of them were active in the work itself. Women of culture and education, accustomed to all the comforts that wealth can give, went to the front as nurses and as directors of relief in the hospitals and on the battlefield. First among these was Dorothea Dix, who, within two weeks after the president's call for volunteers, received the public thanks of the surgeon general and was placed in charge of all the women nurses at the front.
Among those who likewise gave their time and energies to this noble work were Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, Mrs. Mary A. Livermore, Clara Barton, Dr. Mary Walker, and many others scarcely less distinguished. Of the golden deeds done by these self-sacrificing women, there is no adequate record save in the book of that angel who writes the names of those who love mankind.
There were hundreds, also, of humble workers who were no less earnest in their efforts to do good. These were the nurses in the hospitals and in the field, besides numberless others who labored at home for the support of the Commission.
The direct caring for the sick and wounded was only a small portion of the duties performed under the direction of the commission. To prevent disease was one of the first objects, for disease alone might cause the defeat, if not the destruction, of our armies.
Hence, the managers were on the watch for whatever was likely to guard or improve the health of the soldiers at the front. They saw that the food was wholesome and that it was properly cooked.
They started truck gardens for supplying vegetables to the men. They had charge of the ice and other luxuries for the sick. They looked after the wounded who were sent to the rear. They collected bedding, clothing, and all sorts of delicacies for the use of the sick. They wrote letters for the disabled, and gave them stationery, stamps, and envelopes. They gathered up books and newspapers for the men to read while sick or off duty. They furnished lodging for the mothers and wives who had come to the hospital or the camp on errands of mercy to their wounded sons or husbands. Lastly, they helped the men who for any reason had been discharged and lacked the means or the ability to reach their homes.
The war continued four years.
During that time more than fifteen million dollars in supplies of various kinds, besides nearly five million dollars in money, was freely given for the cause by the generous-hearted people of the North. Of those who were engaged in doing the work of the Commission, many served without pay and without desire of reward. Others, however, performed their duties from more selfish motives—some for the wages which they received, some for the profits which they hoped to derive through less honorable channels. These last deserve no commendation, although they may have done some valuable service. Their deeds were not golden.
But think of the truly golden deeds that were done in connection with this cause. Think of the men whose lives were saved. Think of the mothers and wives who were made happy by the care bestowed upon their loved ones, enabling them finally to return to their homes. Think of the thousands of benefits that were performed through this one agency. Who is there so lacking in noble impulses as to deny that it is more heroic to save life than to destroy it?