‘Coming Generations Will Call You Blessed’

An army surgeon writes of his gratitude to the civilian volunteers of the Sanitary Commission, seeing them as a sign that mankind has entered a new era.

Sanitary Commission

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This is the last installment of our six-part series on the Civil War, marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. To recap: In part one, “The News from Gettysburg: A Hazardous Move,” we described how the Post reported the initial news of the invasion. In part two, “Scrambling for Soldiers,” we looked at the renewed attention to the draft. In part three, “Americans United to Support the Civil War Troops,” we covered the Sanitary Commission, an organization of Union women volunteers whose fight against disease helped save thousands of soldiers’ lives. In part four, “Where the Civil War was Won,” we looked at the Post’s war coverage from the battlefield. And in part five, “Little Women Among the Causalities,” we shared a harrowing description of Louisa May Alcott’s work as a Civil War nurse.

Sanitary Commission
Confederate Army field hospital: The soldiers wearing straw hats are Union prisoners from the 16th New York Infantry who had been captured at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill, June 27, 1862. Image taken from a hand-tinted stereoscopic card,
courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One week after the Battle of Gettysburg, the Post’s “Sanitary Commission Department,” a column that reported on the group’s extraordinary work, printed Dr. W. H. Bowman’s moving testimonial to the commission.

The letter is especially impressive because Bowman, a surgeon in the 27th Illinois Infantry, started out with a prejudice common among military doctors against civilian volunteers in their hospitals. But after seeing how much his patients benefitted from the commission’s services, his resentment changed to gratitude.

Bowman saw the Sanitary Commission as a sign of a civilization’s progress and a reflection of a unified spirit that could not be defeated.

Bowman’s idea that mankind had entered a new epoch because of this new effort by volunteers may seem extreme. Yet he had a valid point. Americans were no longer content to let their soldiers struggle and suffer alone on the battlefield. Thousands of volunteers committed themselves to “mitigate the horrors of war” by supporting their fighting men directly. It was the beginning of a 150-year-old tradition, continued by countless organizations today.

Camp Shaeffer, on Stone River
April 30, 1863

Dr. A.L. Casleman—

Dear Sir;
Having had some practical acquaintance with the working of the Western Branch of the Sanitary Commission for nearly twenty months, I deem it my duty as a surgeon in the army to express the high appreciation I feel of the efficient and benevolence of your organization.

I was, I confess, considerably prejudiced against the operation of the Commission at the start.

In the autumn of 1861, the approach of cold weather, coupled with the fact that my supply of bed clothing was entirely insufficient to keep my sick comfortable, led me to look around anxiously for the means to meet the emergency. Government supplies were not available. At this time your Commission, co-operating with the good ladies of our state, stepped in and supplied the want, which Government, with the immense demand on its energies and resources, had not been able to meet.

Our shivering sick were made comfortable, and I was relieved of a heavy care. I have never ceased to be grateful.

This spring when scurvy appeared in our commands, your Commission furnished us the first and most efficient means for combating it, viz: fresh vegetables. Government is doing its best now but red tape tangles the feet of benevolence.

The many home comforts which, through you, have so promptly reached the sick and wounded in the field, and which could not have been otherwise supplied, have made us feel that patriotic benevolence is a power in the land, and the Sanitary Commission its legitimate mode of expression in the army. You have encountered immense obstacles in your progress, and nobly surmounted them.

Much benevolent, self-denying contributions, doubtless have been wasted in the commencement, owing to want of knowledge of what was most needed and the best way to apply the means. Sometimes it may have been unfaithfully used by unprincipled surgeons. But I think the instances are much more rare than has been imagined.

Our profession has been much slandered in the army. Mean, unprincipled men do sometimes get into our hospitals as patients. When their appetites are held in restraint by the judicious surgeon he is often doubtless maliciously charged with using for himself what he prevents them from unwisely or selfishly consuming.

In the providence of God, good and evil seem to go side by side, that mankind may see and learn the beauty of the one and the hideousness of the other. Your Commission, noble and pure as are its objects and labors, seems to be no exception to this general law.

History will note the advent of your organization as an epoch marking the advance of mankind to a higher civilization and coming generations will call you blessed.

It is the first systematic organized national effort, by voluntary agencies and contributions, to mitigate the horrors of war that the world has ever witnessed. A nation with such an interior life cannot be destroyed. The world cannot do it. God, the Infinitely Just and Loving, will protect such a people.

Go on then in your good work. The time will come when those who have refused to assist, will be ashamed to have it know that they stood aloof. The self-denying contributions to the relief of the brave defenders of the nation’s life will enjoy abundant recompense in the appropriation of the good, and conscious of having acted in harmony with the noblest impulse of humanity

W.H. Bowman

Surg, 27th Ill
and Brigade Surgeon
3rd Div 20th Army Corps

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