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United States Christian Commission

The United States Christian Commission, a project of the Young Men's Christian Association, sent almost five thousand volunteers to the battlefields and military hospitals of the Civil War. Their purpose was to care for the spiritual and physical needs of Union soldiers, which included rescue and transportation of the wounded, nursing, and pastoral duties. Nashville, where as many as fifty volunteers worked under the supervision of agent Edward P. Smith and his wife Hannah during the campaigns of the Army of the Cumberland, became a major center for Christian Commission activities. Volunteers provided first aid and loaded the injured on boxcars following the battle of Franklin and searched for wounded men after the battle of Nashville. At Chickamauga, one agent was captured and sent to Libby Prison in Richmond. Commission volunteers also helped with the wounded at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Cleveland, and Chattanooga. One of these workers, Dwight L. Moody, became a prominent evangelist.

In Nashville the volunteers served as nurses and chaplains in military hospitals, but also made two unique contributions: the Special Diet Kitchen Service and the Lending Library System. In the kitchen service, army cooks prepared more palatable hospital diets under the watchful supervision of commission women. This was particularly important since Nashville had twenty-five military hospitals with thousands of sick and wounded men who could not tolerate the poorly prepared fare offered by military chefs. The library program developed an extensive plan to bring secular and religious reading materials to army camps in the field and to the hospitals and reading rooms of the city. These two programs, the diet service under Mrs. Annie Wittenmyer and the library system under Chaplain Joseph C. Thomas, proved so successful that they were later applied throughout all Federal army and navy commands during the Civil War.

The work of the Christian Commission has been little known or appreciated by Civil War historians, who have generally ascribed almost all civilian relief work to the United States Sanitary Commission. The Sanitary Commission was a larger and more secular organization that relied on many paid agents, rather than a mostly volunteer system. Although the two agencies battled at the national level, they cooperated well in Tennessee. The Christian Commission carried out its most successful work in Middle and East Tennessee, ministering to Union troops, wounded Confederates, and civilian refugees alike.

Suggested Reading

William A. Armstrong, A Friend to God's Poor: Edward Parmelee Smith (1993); Ralph C. Gordon, "Nashville and the U.S. Christian Commission in the Civil War," Tennessee Historical Quarterly 50 (1996): 98-111.

Published » December 25, 2009 | Last Updated » January 01, 2010