June 9, 1861, the US War Department sanctioned a “Commission of Inquiry and Advice in Respect of the Sanitary Interests of the United States Forces.” Abraham Lincoln signed the US Sanitary Commission into law a few days later.
The new agency coordinated the volunteer efforts of women who wanted to contribute to the Unions war effort. Members worked as nurses, ran Army camp kitchens, operated soldiers’ homes and lodges, made uniforms, organized fundraising sanitary fairs (including art exhibitions or teas) and more.
The group had more than 4,000 local branches, according to Life in Civil War America.
The Sanitary Commission was disbanded in May 1866, and is often considered the forerunner to the American Red Cross.
Looking for records? The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds a collection of records from the Sanitary Commission Philadelphia Branch, a major hub of commission activity, mostly correspondence, receipts and financial papers.