The Western Sanitary Commission Helps to Supply Grant’s Army at Vicksburg

This scene from Belle Plain, Virginia taken in 1862, depicts the arrival of supplies and munitions for the Federal army. This was a common sight in the Western armies, as well, even though photographs were much less common. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the late summer of 1861, Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont authorized the establishment of the Western Sanitary Commission, the western counterpart to the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC), based in St. Louis, Missouri via the General Order No. 159. Fremont and many other pro-Union Missouri leaders argued that the USSC was too concerned with the East and its main Federal army, the Army of the Potomac. Between the instability, bloodshed, mass mobilization of armies across the Union-occupied river towns, and the extensive riverine transportation networks, the West needed a sanitary commission that could provide medical services and help to care for the Federal troops mobilized in the region. Fremont, along with St. Louis leaders like banker and philanthropist James Yeatman, educator and civic leader William Eliot, entrepreneur Carlos S. Greeley, philanthropist George Partridge, and businessman John B. Johnson formed the leadership of the Western Sanitary Commission, an organization that rivaled the USSC and saved the lives of thousands of Federal troops in the Western and Trans-Mississippi Theaters.

Eliot Portrait 1.jpg
William Greenleaf Elliot, one of the founders and leaders of the Western Sanitary Commission. Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis.

Though they were nearly identical in their work and impact as the USSC, because it was not a government organization, the Western Sanitary Commission was not federally funded and was required to raise all funds privately. They raised between one-fifth and one-fourth of the entire amount received in funding for the USSC, according to estimations.[1] Because each of the leaders of the commission were founders of Washington University in St. Louis, they certainly knew how to fundraise. Nonetheless, the Western Sanitary Commission was able to make a difference for Federal soldiers and armies by establishing hospitals, soldiers’ homes, caring for the sick and wounded, aiding freed slaves, and even sending a plethora of supplies to sustain the army, specifically at Vicksburg.

By April 30, 1863, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee successfully crossed the Mississippi River at Bruinsburg, Mississippi, as he launched his campaign to take the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg. From Grand Gulf to Raymond ran Grant’s main supply route, which allowed the army to be fueled and supplied throughout the campaign. With the Mississippi River opened from St. Louis to just north of Vicksburg, Memphis became the Western Sanitary Commission’s extended operating base to provide supplies and medical care to the army.

Through donations and merchants from St. Louis, the Western Sanitary Commission was able to provide over 114,000 articles of goods to Grant’s Army of the Tennessee in June 1863. Not only did the shipment contain necessary items – like hospital shirts, blankets, pillows, slippers, tourniquets, and crutches – they also sent items to keep their spirits alive during the siege: 1,600 gallons of Lager Beer, 45 gallons of Ale, 60 lbs. of carbonated soda, 2,400 bottles of wine, and much more. Beyond just tasty drinks, they also sent chocolate, lemons, jelly, fresh fruit, blackberry syrup, and clams and oysters. Check out the official report from the Missouri Historical Society’s collections below.


When we discuss the history of the war in the west, we typically overlook the important role of volunteers and the war effort for supplying armies and keeping their morale up. Just like it is important for Americans today to send care packages and cards to deployed troops in the Middle East, it was important to Civil War soldiers during the war to know that the folks at home remembered their sacrifices. Winston Churchill, author of The Crisis, about Missouri in the Civil War, called the commission, a “glorious army of drilled men and women who gave up all to relieve the suffering which the war was causing.”[2] From the The Western Sanitary Commission: A Sketch, which was published for the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair of 1864, read the following quote about the volunteers who helped the troops of Grant’s army at Vicksburg:

“Fortunate was it for these brave men that so much preparation and provision had been made for their comfort, and that loving hearts and kind hands had labored for them at home, sending contributions and agents, and volunteer surgeons and nurses, after them, wherever the fortunes of war had led them, to assist in binding up their wounds, in nursing them when sick, and in making them whole. On the fall of Vicksburg, on the following 4th of July, none rejoiced more than these untitled heroes, in the celebration of that day, by so great a victory, and none were more worthy to claim their share of its honors, and to partake in the glory of this, the greatest achievement of the war.” [3]

1.  The North American Review 98, no. 203 (1864): 519-30.
2. Winston Churchill, The Crisis (Project Gutenburg), ebook.
3. J.G. Forman, The Western Sanitary Commission; A Sketch (St. Louis, MO: R.P. Studley, 1864), 79.

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