The Iowa History Project



The Iowa Journal




History and Politics


January 1918


Volume 16 Number 2





The Iowa Sanitary Commission


             Many of the most active supporters of the relief work, realizing the difficulties which had arisen and fearing that a complete break-down might result of he existing situation should continue, decided after much consultation to issue a circular, calling a convention with a view to securing great harmony and efficiency. The call issued early in November, was addressed to “the “Soldiers’ Aid Societies under the Auspices of the ‘Iowa Sanitary Commission,’ ‘Loyal Leagues,’ and ‘Soldiers’ Christian Commission,’ and all other Aid Societies in the State of Iowa”, and was signed by sixty five women of the State, were appended as approving the proposed convention and hoping for its success.164


Call for Convention


             The following statement from the appeal concerning the status of relief work is interesting and presents a very good summary of the existing conditions:

             The undersigned, rejoicing in the success that has attended the efforts of the friends of the soldiers, in sending supplies to the sick, wounded, and destitute in field and hospital, have, nevertheless, observed that their efficiency might be very greatly increased, if perfect harmony, and a better understanding could be secured between the different organizations ad leading citizens. One of our State agents advises that all contributions sent from the Sate should be consigned to some house in St. Louis, where we learn, they are delivered to the common stock, and are sent to the army and hospitals wherever in the judgment of its agents supplies are most needed, without reference to their origin. The officers of the Iowa Sanitary Commission advise that all contributions from Iowa should be forwarded to the Chicago Branch of the ‘National Sanitary Commission’ and through their officers and agents to the army and hospitals. When sent through this channel, we learn that our goods are, as in the other case merged into the common stock at Chicago,--and are never after wards known as Iowa goods. Others, ignoring these arrangements, have been carrying supplies directly to the field and hospitals under permits from the Secretary of War.

             And others, of high social position and commanding influence, of undoubted benevolence and large means, have stood aloof from all organizations and individual efforts, believing that selfish motives and personal interests have promoted too many of those who have been most active in these enterprises. On these accounts many of those, the most efficient at the beginning of the war, have become luke warm, and many societies, have suspended operations. 165

             The purposes of the convention were stated under twelve separate heads: (1) to devise means to secure harmony among the relief agencies within the State; (2) to consider the question of whether supplies should be forwarded to the Western Sanitary Commission, or to the United States Sanitary Commission, or directly to the armies in the field; (3) to consider the advisability of establishing a central depot within the state; (4) to consider the increased efficiency which might be secured by the appointment of an agent to travel within the State, thus permitting the regular State agents to spend their whole time in the field; (5) to decide whether it would be advisable to ask for greater aid from the legislature or to sever, as far as practicable, all connections with the State government and rely solely upon the generosity of the people; (6) to discuss whether women or men made the more efficient agents for carrying goods “near the enemy’s lines, and other exposed positions”; (7) to consider the possible advantages of employing women nurses in the hospitals; (8) to devise means to secure “a regular, as well as constant supply of hospital goods”; (9) to devise an adequate system of accounting for goods and “securing care and fidelity on the part of the agents entrusted’ with supplies and money; (10) to discuss the necessity of paying salaries to the agents; (11) to undertake plans to provide for the comfort and welfare of the families of the soldiers, especially the widows and orphans; (12) “to consider such other pertinent business” as might be presented at the convention. Each local society was requested to send, if possible, from two to five delegates, and it was suggested that men as well as women be admitted to honorary seats on the floor of the convention.166


Proceedings of Convention


             Mrs. James Harlan and Mrs. Samuel McFarland traveled over the interior of the State in an effort to arouse interest in the convention; 167 and in response to the call more than two hundred delegates, representing all parts of the State, met at Des Moines on November 18, 1863. A newspaper account of the convention reads as follows:

             The Women’s Sanitary Convention convened to-day…It is largely attended by delegates from every part of the State. The morning session was somewhat spicy, rival parties throwing out scouts and sustaining picket lines to find the position of the enemy and guard against attack.

             There are two parties in the convention, one of which is headed by Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer, the present State Sanitary Agent, and the other by Rev. Kynett, of Davenport claiming to represent a separate State Sanitary Agency. A test vote this morning, as well as the report of permanent officers this evening, would seem to indicate that Mrs. Wittenmyer and her friends are in the minority.

             Colonel William M. Stone, Governor-elect, addressed the meeting and his remarks, according to one report, “were like oil poured upon the troubled waters, and caused harmonious action when the convention seemed to be upon the point of hopeless disagreement.”168

             After a full discussion of sanitary affairs the convention decided to organize a Commission to take charge of all the relief work in the State. A constitution was adopted which proposed that the new association should be known as the Iowa Sanitary Commission and should be composed of one member from each local sanitary organization in the State. Furthermore, it provided that the Iowa Sanitary Commission should cooperate as far as practicable with both the United States Sanitary Commission and the Western Sanitary Commission. An attempt was made to pass a  motion to operate exclusively through the United States Sanitary Commission, but it was defeated by a vote of one hundred and fifteen to fifty-five—a result which was considered a triumph for the friends of Mrs. Wittenmyer. The officers designated in the constitution were a president, six vice presidents, one from each Congressional District, a recording secretary, a treasurer, and a board of control to be composed of six members, one from each Congressional District. These officers were to be chosen by the convention and were to serve until the next annual meeting. The treasurer was required to give bond, and moneys could be disbursed by him only under the direction of the board of control on orders issued by the president and countersigned by  the recording secretary. Annual meetings were to be held, but special meetings could be called by the board of control or by the written request of the presidents of thirty local societies. The board of control was to meet every three months, at which times the executive officers were to submit full reports of their operations, and these reports were to be published in the newspapers of the State. Two or more agents were to be appointed to take charge of sanitary matters in the field and visit the camps and hospitals.

             The officers elected were Justice John F. Dillon of Davenport, president; Mrs. S. R. Curtis of Keokuk, Mrs. D. T. Newcomb of Davenport, Mrs. P. H. Conger of Dubuque, Mrs. William M. Stone of Knoxville, Mrs. W. W. Maynard of Council Bluffs, and Mrs. J. B. Taylor of Marshalltown, vice presidents; Rev. C. G. Truesdell of Davenport, secretary; Ezekiel Clark of Iowa City, treasurer; Rev. E. Skinner of De Witt, corresponding secretary; and MR. G. W. Edwards of Mt. Pleasant, Mrs. J. F. Ely of Cedar Rapids, F. E. Bissell, of Dubuque, N. H. Brainerd of Iowa City, James Wright of Des Moines, and Mrs. W. H. Plumb of Fort Dodge, members of the board of control.169

             Mr. Kynett of the Army Sanitary Commission announced that he would turn over to the officers of the new body all the “effects and business of the Commission lately represented by him.” A resolution was adopted to petition the legislature to enact a law creating a State fund to be distributed in the several counties in proportion to the number of soldiers enlisted from each county, to be used for the relief of destitute families of soldiers. Miss Lawrence of Keokuk, Mrs. D. T. Newcomb of Davenport, and Miss L. Knowles of Keokuk were named to draft an address to the people of Iowa “as to the nature and claims” of the new enterprise. The reports given at the convention by Mrs. Wittenmyer and Mr. Kynett showed that the organizations which they represented had distributed goods to the value of $150,000.170

             In commenting upon the convention, the Burlington Weekly Argus stated that its purpose was to secure harmony and efficiency among all the organizations engaged in ministering to the needs of the soldiers. “It was proposed to organize a system that would secure the responsibility of agents,” said the editor, “as by the present system, or rather the want of system, it is impossible for agents to account fully for what went through their hands. The blame was not due to the agents, but to the defective system.” Because of the strife and discord evidenced at the meeting, and the “private animosity and personal ambition to be gratified” the Burlington newspaper declared that “it is questionable, on the whole, whether it has not resulted in doing more harm than good. The truth is, that the management of the sanitary matters of the State has grown into an importance, in a pecuniary point of view, sufficient to attract the cupidity of the speculative, and hence much of the strife in the convention.”171

             Mrs. Harlan, on the other hand, considered the outcome of the convention to be very satisfactory and one which met with “the approval of nearly all who were present, and which it is believed will secure the harmony, efficiency, and accountability of agents appointed by the State, the aim being only “to improve the system; to classify the labor—to provide for a division of work—to require security and safety, and to put more laborers in the field.”172


Organization of the Work of the Commission


             In his second biennial message on January 12, 1864, Governor Kirkwood characterized the sanitary work as being well arranged and systematized and consequently much more effective than before. The Governor was convinced that the work could be done much better by the Aid Societies than by the State should, he advised, make a liberal appropriation for a contingent fund, to be at the disposal of the Governor for use in emergencies to aid the societies in caring for the sick and wounded and to send agents of the State whenever necessary for the comfort and well-being of the soldiers.173

             The first meeting of the board of control of the Iowa Sanitary Commission was held early in December, 1863. At this time Mr. Kynett formally delivered to the new society all books and papers of the Army Sanitary Commission and the balance of their funds—about $800. Mrs. Wittenmyer also, in a letter to the president of the new Commission, relinquished all claims to the organization which she had represented and turned over all her facilities for shipping and conducting relief work. She likewise expressed her desire to cooperate with the Iowa Sanitary Commission in the endeavor to unite all the relief agencies of the State.174

             Provision was made for the establishment of depots, one at Chicago in connection with the United Sates Sanitary Commission, and one at St. Louis in connection with the Western Sanitary Commission, where the stores from Iowa could be received, repacked, and prepared for the field, and marked with the Iowa mark in order that, as far as possible, they could be turned over to Iowa regiments. The people sending donations were requested to put their names, marks, or mottoes upon the goods so that those receiving them would have the satisfaction of knowing that they were using goods from their own State and often from their own friends. Each local aid society was to decide for itself to which of these two depots its contributions should be sent.175

             Articles of incorporation were drawn up and adopted at this first meeting of the board of control, and the headquarters were located at Davenport. The objects of the new organization were stated as follows.

             The general business of the association shall be to furnish aid, assistance, and comfort to sick, wounded and suffering soldiers, and this both within and beyond the State. The particular objects and business of this Association shall be to stimulate and encourage, by the organization of voluntary societies and otherwise, the people of the State of Iowa to contribute money and sanitary supplies for the use and purpose aforesaid; to gather these together and distribute them in such mode as the Board of Control…shall, from time to time direct and authorize, but until these articles are altered this Commission or Association shall co-cooperate, as far as practicable, with the United States and Western Sanitary Commissions.176

             The State was divided into districts and Rev. E. S. Norris, Mrs. M. J. Hager, and Mrs. C. W. Simmons were named as agents to canvass the State in behalf of the new organization. Mr. Norris and Mrs. Hager served without expense to the Commission being paid from the funds of the United States Sanitary Commission. The army was also divided into four departments and the board of control or the general agent, acting with the Governor, were authorized to appoint agents for each department. Memorials were presented to the General Assembly asking for an appropriation to cover the expenses of the Commission, including the expenses of the agents, and also for a fund to be placed at the disposal of the Governor to be drawn upon in cases of emergency.177

             In order to acquaint the public with the new arrangement N. H. Brainerd and James Wright were appointed at this meeting to issue an explanatory statement to the various local societies. When issued, this statement pointed out that the operation of the organization rested in the hands of the executive committee. Rev. E. Skinner, the corresponding secretary, was the general agent. All agents of the Sate were made agents of the Commission and were to work with it, Mrs. Wittenmyer, however, being the only State agent in the field at the time. The desire of the Commission to serve the people is shown by the sentiment expressed in this address, that if “the officers of the Commission do not manage to your liking, you will soon have a chance to fill their places with others. The whole matter is in your hands and you can control it.” Accompanying the address was an endorsement from Governor Kirkwood, in which he spoke of the good work which had been done. “I know”, he wrote, “the supplies furnished are, in the main, faithfully applied. I know hundreds and thousands of precious lives have thus been saved, and a vast amount of suffering relieved.”178




164 Report of the Iowa Sanitary Commission, 1866, pp. 23-26, Muscatine Weekly Journal, November 6, 1863; Dubuque Semi-Weekly Times, November 6, 1863.

165 Muscatine Weekly Journal, November 6, 1863.

166 Report of the Iowa Sanitary Commission, 1866, pp. 24-26; Dubuque Semi-Weekly Times, November 6, 1863; Muscatine Weekly Journal, November 6, 1863.

167 Muscatine Weekly Journal, November 6, 1863.

168 Muscatine Weekly Journal, November 17, 1863.

169 Report of the Iowa Sanitary Commission, 1866, pp. 26, 27, 28; Muscatine Weekly Journal, November 27, 1863; Gue’s History of Iowa, Vol. II, p. 421; Newberry’s The U. S. Sanitary Commission in the Valley of the Mississippi, pp. 239, 240.

170 Report of the Iowa Sanitary Commission, 1866, p. 28; Muscatine Weekly Journal, November 27, 1863.

171 Burlington Weekly Argus, November 26, 1863.

172 Dubuque Semi-Weekly Times, December 4, 1863.

173 Shambaugh’s Messages and Proclamations of the Governors of Iowa, Vol. II, p. 349.

174 Report of the Iowa Sanitary Commission, 1866, pp. 28, 31; Muscatine Weekly Journal, December 11, 1863.

175 Report of the Iowa Sanitary Commission, 1866, p. 28; the State Press (Iowa City), December 23, 1863; Muscatine Weekly Journal, December 11, 1863.

176 Report of the Iowa Sanitary Commission, 1866, pp. 29, 30.

177 Report of the Iowa Sanitary Commission, 1866, pp. 32, 33; Dubuque Semi-Weekly Times, December 11, 1863; Newberry’s The U.S. Sanitary Commission in the Valley of the Mississippi, p. 240.

178 Muscatine Weekly Journal, January 1, 1864: The State Press (Iowa City), December 23, 1863.




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