The United States Christian Commission was an important agency of the Union during the American Civil War. It was designed to offer religious support, but also provided numerous social services and recreation to the soldiers of the U.S. Army. It provided Protestant chaplains and social workers, and collaborated with the U.S. Sanitary Commission in providing medical services.
The Christian Commission was created in response to the suffering from the disastrous First Battle of Bull Run. On November 14, 1861, the National Committee of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) called a convention which met in New York City. Leaders outlined work needed to support the soldiers, the outline for the United States Christian Commission, whose organization was completed next day. Two of the founding members were Vincent Colyer, who was appalled by the aftermath of the battle of Bull Run, and George Stuart, a well-to-do business man.
The YMCA and Protestant ministers formed the USCC. Volunteers were called delegates; some were seminary students but many were just concerned Christians. As civilians on the battlefield, they did not have weapons but were sustained by sharing the love of Christ with soldiers and sailors. Five thousand volunteer delegates served during the war. They distributed more than $6 million worth of goods and supplies in hospitals, camps, prisons and battlefields. The original plan of the USCC was to help the priests of the armed services in their daily work, as the chaplaincy program was in its infancy, with only some thirty members. They were quickly overwhelmed by the scale of battles and casualties, and especially by the rapidly increasing number of deaths due to wounds and moreso to disease.
One famous USCC delegate was John Calhoun Chamberlain, a seminary student who served on Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield. His brothers, Tom and Col. Joshua Chamberlain were fighting there with the 20th Maine Infantry.
Women also participated. A national movement started in May, 1864 with a view to organize a Ladies Christian Commission in each evangelical congregation of the North; these were auxiliary to the USCC. Increasing the network of collection, fundraising and support was the way the organization responded to meet a growing demand to serve the soldiers.
The USCC had continued to grow. More than three-quarters of the value of what it collected was distributed during 1864 and the four months of 1865. It represented both citizens' recognition of need, and a more efficient organization. The Ladies Christian Commission (LCC) played a critical role to this success. Louisa May Alcott was among many women who worked with the Commission. Others included Georgia McClellan, the sister of Jenny Wade, the only civilian killed at Gettysburg during the battle, and Sarah Emma Edmonds, who worked as a nurse (female, this time) after serving with the Union Army as a soldier, spy, and male nurse named "Franklin Thompson."
- M. Hamlin Cannon, "The United States Christian Commission", The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 38, No. 1. (Jun., 1951), pp. 61-80. in JSTOR
- Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, New York:Vintage Civil War Library, 2008
- David M. Hovde, “The U. S. Christian Commission’s Library and Literacy Programs for the Union Military Forces in the Civil War”, Libraries & Culture, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Summer, 1989). pp. 295-316.
- David M. Hovde, “The Library is a Valuable Hygienic Appliance” in Reading for Moral Progress, University of Illinois Occasional Papers, No. 207, (1997), pp. 19-42.
- Edward P. Smith, Incidents among Shot and Shell, New York: Union Publishing House, 1868
- Edward P. Smith, Incidents of the United States Christian Commission, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1869