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Book Reviews97 Lincoln's Fifth Wheel: The Political History of the U. S. Sanitary Commission . By William Quentin Maxwell. (New York: Longmans, Green. 1956. Pp. xii, 372. $5.00.) in a letter t? his mother written from Washington on June 22, 1863, Walt Whitman observed, "As to the Sanitary commissions and the like, I am sick of them all, and would not accept any of their berths. You ought to see the way themen, as they lay helpless in bed, turn away their faces from the sight of those agents, chaplains, etc. (hirelings, as Elias Hicks would call them—they seem to me always a set of foxes and wolves). They get well paid, and are always incompetent and disagreeable. . ." In his carefully researched study of the U.S. Sanitary Commission William Quentin Maxwell proceeds to disprove Walt Whitman's blanket condemnation of die Commission and its labors. While he does not attempt to deny tiiat where many individuals are concerned, in so extensive an operation as aiding the soldiers of the Civil War proved to be, limitations and failures would exist. In spite of these poor examples and die "gold bricking" the high purposes of the Commission , as shaped and continued by such dedicated leaders as Henry Bellows, Elisha Harris, Frederick Olmsted, George Templeton Strong, and many others rightiy earned it praise. While the Sanitary Commission was originally planned only to "look into the health and sanitary conditions of die Union Army and make recommendations to the government," it eventually went much farther. During the bitter battles of die Civil War it took the lead in serving troops in camps and just behind die front lines of coundess engagements. Struggling to better the miserable lot of the wounded soldier the Commission fought official lethargy and red tape. When governmental opposition threatened to block its services its able leaders turned to die people for support and aid. Somehow, in spite of criticism and opposition from without and petty jealousies and bickering within, the Commission managed to help alleviate a situation that certainly represents the darkest side of the whole Civil War story. In the 1860's the lot ofthe wounded soldier was a grim one. If his recuperative powers were great and he was in die full vigor of health before receiving his wound he might recover on his own. If the soldier suffered die misfortune of being crowded into a boxcar or riverboat with other victims of battle, jolted over rough road beds or lurched in suffocating holds to some city possessing a hospital , rained on or sunfried in neglect along a siding or waterfront, and finally operated on, his chances were slim. What possible reserve of physical energy and resistance he might have had was dissipated on this nightmare of a trip. If he had suffered a leg or arm wound the only remedy was amputation before or after gangrene set in. If his wound was comparatively minor, exposure and neglect conditioned him for any disease he might pick up from some critically ill companion. After all this it is surprising that the casualties from disease were not much greater during the Civil War. Into this dismal picture stepped the dedicated men and women of the U. S. Sanitary Commission. Daring to defy the mossbacks in the U.S. Medical Bureau these courageous individuals campaigned for methods and systems tiiat would 98CIVIL WAR history ease if not altogether eliminate the ordeal to which a sick or wounded soldier was subjected. They collected vast sums of money which were expended on medical supplies, clotiiing, blankets, and special foods which would vary the dreary diet of the convalescent. The Commission attracted a great many noble spirited men and women who risked health and even life to aid and comfort the battle wounded. While service in the Commission would naturally appeal to the kind of "foxes and wolves" which so stirred Whitman's ire it is to the everlasting credit of this organization that the majority rendered a badly needed service for little, if any, compensation. Once a soldier became ill or was wounded the official attitude during the Civil War seemed to have been that he was useless and no...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 97-98
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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