The American Civil War was a conflict that affected most American citizens. More than 620,000 soldiers lost their lives to wounds and disease. Unfortunately, civilians were not exempt from dying either. It was a defining moment in American history and Michigan played a significant role as 90,000 Michigan men served in the Union forces. That was about 23 percent of the male population in the state at that time.
In addition, Michigan farms helped feed the troops, Michigan forests provided lumber for war materials and Michigan mines produced copper and iron, all essential materials that were critical for the survival of the Union. Our state also supplied more horses to the Union Cavalry than any other state, and Lincoln himself once said “Thank God for Michigan” in reference to the Wolverine State’s contributions.
However, it wasn’t only Michigan men who helped restore the Union. The women of the state also did much for the cause. Like other women from around the country, from all walks of life, they were forced to adjust their lives in various ways. Many took over family businesses, some disguised themselves as soldiers and enlisted, and most did everything they could to help in the war effort. During the war, many Soldiers’ Aid Societies were formed to care for the sick and wounded men and our proud women from Michigan were the very first to start one of these societies.
The United States Army Medical Department was totally unprepared for the flood of wounded and ill volunteer men and soldiers. The small staff had a difficult time dealing with this influx. Once civilians realized the burden, efforts to send medical supplies, food, blankets and other comforts to the front were made all over the north. At first, there was very little unity in these efforts to help as individual families, wives and mothers scrounged up whatever supplies they could and sent them to the front.
Because of the lack of unity, many of these efforts failed. It was soon realized that if the women banded together, more could be done for the men away fighting. The United States Sanitary Commission started on June 18, 1861, in Washington DC even before the first official battle of the war. This was a private relief agency modeled on the British Sanitary Commission, set up during the Crimean War years earlier. Its main goal was to support the sick and wounded soldiers of the United States Army however they could. The USSC spread across the North, and raised money, medical supplies and other contributions to support the cause. The commission enlisted thousands of volunteers.
Smaller societies began to spring up around the entire country, started by civilians. The first of these societies, the Soldiers’ Aid Society of Detroit was organized in Detroit on November 6, 1861. Its main goal was to support and comfort the soldiers at hospitals, in the camps, and on the battlefields. Women and children prepared food and supplies to give to the soldiers as they marched off to war. It worked closely with the US Sanitary Commission to ensure other items sent arrived undamaged and made it to the soldiers that needed them the most. Local communities provided donations, goods were sorted and sent by steamship and train depots to the battlefields. In later years, they sent packages of food, clothing and other goods. One mother even sent her son a honeycomb wrapped in a new shirt.
Many citizens opened local-level aid societies, but after the first year, smaller groups funneled all of their donations through the larger organizations. Three other state-wide relief groups worked with the Soldier’s Aid Society: the Michigan Soldiers Relief Association, the Michigan Soldier’s Relief Committee, and a Michigan branch of the US Christian Commission. All of these groups solicited cash and donated food and supplies from Michigan citizens. They used word of mouth, leaflets and newspaper advertisements to ask people for help.
Michigan’s organizations were concerned with using new measures to preserve and promote good mental and physical health. In later years, groups solicited for cash over supplies so they could purchase the most necessary supplies at that particular time. Civilians held many fundraisers, including masquerade parties, ice cream parties, a State Sanitary Fair in Kalamazoo, and even a strawberry festival.
Societies also inspected Army camps, trained nurses and were instrumental in establishing a Soldiers’ Home to help traveling and returning soldiers. Michigan was instrumental in all these areas. In fact, in her 1864 report from army camps around Washington D.C., Mrs. E. Brainerd sums up the contributions of all Michigan aid organizations in her description of handing out supplies to soldiers:
“I have seen many turn away, after having their wants supplied, with tears of gratitude streaming down their war-browned cheeks. The friends at home little know what a luxury it is to be enabled, by their generosity, to relieve in a measure the sufferings of the brave defenders of our nation’s honor. Had it not been for the donations tendered by our people at home, we would not have had the means to accomplish the good we did.”
In the disease-ridden camps and hospitals, even something as simple as a new blanket or a kind word could save a life. I, for one, am proud of the Michiganders who gave so much of their time and money to help bring whatever comfort and joy they could to the ailing men of our torn nation and additionally I am thankful for all the materials we supplied to keep our nation united!