From Central Park to the Front Lines: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Sanitary Commission

By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

We are fortunate at the Academy to look out over Central Park—one of the jewels of the city of New York. The park got its start in the 1850s, and took shape due to the visionary efforts of two men, landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903). In the 1860s Olmsted—whose birthday we celebrate today—was instrumental in one of the great medical and public health efforts of the 19th century: the organization of relief to Union soldiers in the Civil War. As executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, he coordinated voluntary efforts to support the Army’s medical department in the war effort.1

Olmsted was a restless person, continually trying on new roles. He first made his mark in journalism, publishing his observations of life in the South after three tours through the region in 1850s.2 He offered a scathing depiction of slavery, the resistance of southern society to change, and the degrading effects of the institution on society as a whole. Olmsted became an abolitionist when that was still a minority position, and a reformer throughout his life.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Olmsted’s superintendence of the Central Park project was limited due to disputes with the city, and he contacted Henry W. Bellows, a New York Unitarian minister, for help in securing a position. Bellows drafted him to head up, as executive secretary, a newly chartered private institution, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, of which Bellows was a founding Commissioner. Broadly modeled on the British example in the Crimean War, the Sanitary Commission addressed two persistent needs in the delivery of medical services in wartime. The first was that the standing army of the United States was relatively minuscule, and its medical department equally so. At the outbreak of the war, the army had some 16,000 men at arms, a portion of whom defected to the Southern cause. Through volunteers and conscription, the number of men serving eventually reached 2.5 million over the four years of the war, with perhaps half a million in uniform at the height of the conflict. As the volunteer army geared up so did the medical corps, but by any measure the medical service of the army was largely inadequate for the task.

And the medicine of the army seemed inadequate as well. The Sanitary Commission as he organized it had a paid professional staff and a corps of medical inspectors to review military camp conditions and advise military physicians. The inspectors also relayed requests for supplies back to the Commission’s offices in Washington, where central office staff would work to fill requests from donations.

Olmsted also lobbied to induce Congress and Cabinet officials for assistance through reformed laws and sympathetic appointments. He put his work into the overall context of reform for the good of the nation: “service on the Commission was part of his patriotic duty. It would strengthen the fighting power of the nation by assuring the health of the soldiers and by making the best use of goods and money contributed by the public.”3

“The Sanitary Commission used the side-wheel steamboat Wilson Small as its headquarters for much of the Peninsula campaign.” Olmsted Papers, 4:331, n1. This drawing, from the collections of the Library of Congress, portrays the ship at harbor in Aquia Creek, Virginia, March 12, 1863.

“The Sanitary Commission used the side-wheel steamboat Wilson Small as its headquarters for much of the Peninsula campaign.” Olmsted Papers, 4:331, n1. This drawing, from the collections of the Library of Congress, portrays the ship at harbor in Aquia Creek, Virginia, March 12, 1863.

Though Olmsted thought his service—and the war for that matter—would last a matter of weeks, it did not. Several times he was called to the field. During the series of battles that constituted the Peninsula Campaign—Union General George B. McClellan facing Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston in the spring and summer of 1862—Olmsted found himself organizing the evacuation of wounded Union troops to ships, amid a chaos of competing orders and information. During this period, he wrote a series of letters back to the Commission, and over the next year he took his letters and those of another unnamed Commission member and edited them into Hospital Transports: A Memoir of the Embarkation of the Sick and Wounded from the Peninsula of Virginia in the Summer of 1862. Designed to lay out the work of the Commission and solicit donations, the book also provided a gripping account of life just behind the front lines. The Academy’s copy was donated from the English branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission—set up in London to coordinate donations from Americans abroad and sympathetic Britons—and is inscribed by Edmund Crisp Fisher, the Secretary of the branch.4

Title page of Olmsted's Hospital Transports. Our copy is inscribed by Edmund Crisp Fisher, the Secretary of the English branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, whose cancelled stamp is also on the page.

Title page of Olmsted’s Hospital Transports, 1863. Our copy is inscribed by Edmund Crisp Fisher, secretary of the English branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, whose cancelled stamp is also on the page.

Olmsted’s work with the Commission ended in the fall of 1863. He was not able to maneuver among the competing factions, especially between eastern and western branches of the Commission, nor readily subject himself to the control of the Commission’s executive committee. He went to California to manage a ranch caught up in the confusion of competing gold rush claims; when he returned to the East two years later, he devoted himself to landscape architecture. But as he left, he knew that he had tried, and at times succeeded, in providing a trained professional cadre of medical doctors and reformers to coordinate care to wounded soldiers and to better their conditions under arms. His work prefigured broader efforts leading into World War I—in such organizations as the Red Cross—in the scope of their ambition and in the vision of their success.5

References

1. I acknowledge the excellent introduction to The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted, Volume 4: Defending the Union: The Civil War and the U.S. Sanitary Commission, 1861–1863, ed. Jane Turner Censer, with Charles Capon McLaughlin, editor in chief, and Charles E. Beveridge, series editor (The John Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 1–69, which is a major source for this account.

2. Olmsted published his accounts as A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, with Remarks on Their Economy (1856), A Journey Through Texas (1857) and A Journey in the Back Country (1860) and then reissued them as a two-volume work titled The Cotton Kingdom: A Traveller’s Observations on Cotton and Slavery in the American Slaves States (1861).

3. Olmsted Papers, 4:7.

4. A copy is available online, and the book has been recently edited by Laura L. Behling and re-released.

5. There are many excellent books on Frederick Law Olmsted: for further reading, consider Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century (1999), and Justin Martin, Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted (2012).

2 thoughts on “From Central Park to the Front Lines: Frederick Law Olmsted and the Sanitary Commission

    • Not as far as I know: though Barton apparently worked for the Sanitary Commission, she was most often in the field and not in Washington. At this point we’d have to say, “not proven.”

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