Museum of the City of New York Collection on the United States Civil War, 1861-1864

Extent: 1 box
This collection consists of ephemera from the American Civil War (1861-1865), the bulk of which relates to the United States Sanitary Commission. The primary mission of the United States Sanitary Commission was to aid and support sick and wounded soldiers. The collection includes memorandum, circulars, correspondence, general regulations, reports, admission tickets, newsletters, financial records, and committee minutes.

Historical note
The American Civil War was fought between 1861 and 1865 to determine both the survival of the United States as an indivisible nation with a sovereign national government, and to reconcile the practice of slavery in a nation established on the premise that all men were created free and equal.  Thirteen southern states seceded from the Union by the end of 1861, forming the Confederate States of America.  Earlier in the year, on April 12, 1861, the fledgling Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina, and demanded the lowering of the United States flag in surrender.  The remaining twenty-three Union states remained loyal (though North Carolina and West Virginia splintered off in order to side with the Union), but this event triggered the Civil War, as Lincoln responded by calling out the militia to suppress the insurrection.  The majority of people living within the Confederate States did not own slaves, but the institution of slavery was so tied to the Southern economy, abolishing slavery not only affected their way of life, it threatened the entire infrastructure of the South.  Heavy fighting persisted between 1862 and 1865, but ultimately Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, and the rest of the Confederate Army followed soon after.  Abraham Lincoln, President throughout the Civil War and often credited with abolishing slavery, was assassinated days after Lee’s surrender on April 15th, 1865, less than a month before the final battle of the Civil War was fought at Palmito Ranch, Texas, on May 13th.

The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) was a civilian organization formed in 1861 as a way to channel public support for Union troops, and out of concern that the U.S. Medical Bureau could not meet the medical demands of war. President Lincoln signed an executive order on June 13, 1861 to approve the organization’s effort to organize and distribute sanitary information and material relief to Union soldiers. Reverend Henry W. Bellows served as president of the Commission, Alexander Dallas Bache as vice-president, George Templeton Strong as treasurer, and Frederick Law Olmstead served as general secretary. The Commission’s Central Office was located in Washington D.C., but members of its executive committee met in New York City consistently throughout the war. The USSC was not a federal agency and did not receive federal funding. Civilian volunteers kept the organization going, and its work was supported by in-kind and cash contributions, and by Sanitary Fairs organized throughout the country. Women were a crucial part of the war relief effort. They made uniforms, worked as nurses, provided meals, and organized travel, lodging, and rest for soldiers. Official war relief efforts ended in October 1865, and the USSC formed a Historic Bureau to gather, catalog, and preserve records and histories of the Commission’s war work. These records were formally transferred to the Astor Library (now New York Public Library) in January 1879, which ended the official activities of the United States Sanitary Commission.

Scope and Content
The Collection on the United States Civil War consists of two-dimensional ephemera dating from 1861 to 1864. The main formats of material in the collection are correspondence, admission tickets, and publications including circulars, newsletters, instructional manuals, exhibition catalogs, and concert programs. The bulk of the materials relate to the United States Sanitary Commission Metropolitan Fair, which was held in New York City in 1864 to raise money to support the Sanitary Commission’s war relief efforts.

Series I:  United States Sanitary Commission
Series II:  Civil War – General

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The Museum is grateful for the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities; this collection was reprocessed as part of the NEH project Illuminating New York City History through Material Culture: A Proposal to Process, Catalog, Digitize, and Rehouse the Ephemera Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this finding aid do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.