History is Present

Not Alone in History: Are You Doing Something?

Three Civil War-Era Women doing civil tasks

Have you made masks yet? I haven’t, though it’s all the rage right now and one can find instructions all over the internet. Some are even having fun with it.

What I have done is to volunteer packing lunches for Richmond Public Schools. I’m fairly secure—even if temporarily out of work—and in crisis moments like this and in the spirit of community togetherness, I should do something to help those in need.

Many more are doing much more.

Where the American Civil War Museum lives, Richmond Mutual Aid is mobilizing volunteers to deliver food and medicine to homebound people. The GOOD WORK Society is raising money to acquire face shields for healthcare workers. Underground Kitchen, a dinner series, is partnering with local Episcopal churches to create and deliver meals to people in isolation and working in hospitals. The Community Foundation of Central Virginia has activated a fund to support local organizations providing relief. 

3D printed and packaged medical-grade N95 masks
3D Printed N95 Masks, Courtesy of Neal Cronkite

Around the nation, institutions and associations are shifting focus and mission in order to help. Museums like Old Salem Museum and Gardens are donating their garden produce and bakery goods to local food banks. The exhibit design firm SolidLight has shifted from making displays to making medical equipment. Production designers and makers in New York have turned their skills to manufacturing Personal Protective Equipment for hospitals. So, too, have Etsy crafters in Portland, Oregon. One volunteer there reports that “this makes me feel less helpless.”

In times of crisis and transformation, many seek to act, to do something.

Right now, doing something is an urgent imperative for many. So, too, for our ancestors during the Civil War. Volunteering for the common good, and for a cause, satisfied the need to do something, and even helped transform society.

At the beginning of the Civil War, thousands of men joined the United States Army and completely overwhelmed its capacity to provide basic hygienic care. In response, private citizens organized The United States Sanitary Commission. The USSC aimed to collect and distribute soap, clean clothes, good food, medicine, and medical equipment. Its members also deployed as nurses and doctors, sometimes in hospitals that the USSC fully funded and staffed.

Wealthy white men directed the Sanitary Commission, but white women carried out the bulk of its work in local branches. (It was a segregated organization, and Black people had to organize their own fundraising drives.) Among the female leaders were Mary Livermore, who directed the formidable Chicago branch of the USSC, and commissioner Dorothea Dix, who convinced the U.S. Army of the value of employing female nurses.

Historic Etching of a Mary A. Livermore
From L.P. Brockett, and Mary C. Vaughan, Woman’s Work in the Civil War (1867)

Women at all levels directed sewing circles that made clothes and bandages; they operated waystations that provided coffee, food, and lounge areas to soldiers passing through cities on railroads; and they accompanied material goods to the front where many staffed field hospitals as nurses.

The highest-profile Sanitary Commission events were the great Sanitary Fairs of 1863 and 1864. Chicago hosted the first large one—the Northern Soldiers Fair in late 1863. It raised nearly $100,000. New York City’s Metropolitan Fair raised over $1,00,000. Similar ones in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair in St. Louis (sponsored by the Western Sanitary Commission) raised hundreds of thousands more.

Historic stereoscope Photograph shows a large hall with flags hanging from the high ceiling, and people looking at the exhibits at the fair sponsored by the United States Sanitary Commission.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The Fairs collected donations from businesses, craftsmen, and artists to be sold or auctioned. They displayed examples of the United States’ industrial and agricultural might. Fairs hosted parades, exhibited captured Confederate goods, and showcased America’s diverse population and vibrant democracy.

A etching of 19th century women working behind a desk at the Post Office of the Brooklyn Fair in Aid of the Sanitary Commission
Courtesy of the MET Museum, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund

Sometimes the patriotic seriousness combined with common 19th century fundraising tactics. At a fair in San Francisco, California, organizers produced a 4,000 pound cheese and auctioned it off to send money East. It brought in $1,890.

Participation in the USSC did more than give women an outlet to help in the national crisis—it transformed expectations for women’s national political action. Through the USSC, a network of women like Mary Livermore for the first time gained experience in exercising direct political influence at the centers of male, political, and military power (previously they had done so locally, and indirectly). As historian Judith Ann Geisberg notes, the wartime activity of Mary Livermore and her peers served as a foundation for “a blossoming commitment to feminism [and] also an evolving vision of a state that would incorporate traditionally feminine concerns such as the health and well-being of women and families and the economic security and cooperation of all classes.” These issues became the ongoing political agenda of the following generations of Americans in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Doing something in a national crisis laid the foundation for transformation in the future.

Certainly, our pandemic crisis raises the profile of inequality in our society, especially in racial health disparities and food insecurity. Will your need to do something right now serve as the foundation for transformation in the future? Our world after this may not be the same as our world before, and that may not be all bad.

Tell us what you are doing for the cause?

Chris Graham
Curator of Exhibitions

Not Alone in History is a limited blog series that seeks to find insights in the ways that Americans faced another national crisis as we confront the present pandemic.