Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Soon after the outbreak of the American Civil War it became apparent that sanitary conditions in camps and on the battlefields were less than ideal. A group of women in New York first organized efforts to improve conditions and provide comfort to soldiers. Similar groups throughout the North also began to form and it became clear that efforts would be more efficient if overseen by the federal government. In June 1861 the U. S. Sanitary Commission was established, based on the British Sanitary Commission of the Crimean War. Secretary of War Simon Cameron appointed several individuals, including distinguished landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, to the commission.

Inspections began at camps by appointed physicians. They discovered unsanitary conditions were commonplace because of poor drainage, inadequate ventilation, and inferior food quality and preparation. Inspectors recorded their findings and distributed reports with recommendations for improvements to commanding officers and the commission. These reports did much to educate officers, field doctors, cooks and, by extension, the troops themselves. New practices lowered the death rate from disease, leading to improved morale among the troops.

The commission next focused attention on local and regional branches of primarily female volunteers who were collecting donations of blankets, food, and other necessities, but lacked an efficient way of transporting supplies to troops in need. In response, standards were set to ensure timely collection and distribution.

Hospital ships and convalescent homes were established for wounded soldiers. Temporary shelters and hospital directories were provided for individuals searching for wounded family members. After the war ended the commission assisted veterans in securing back pay and obtaining pensions until it was disbanded in May 1866.

One of the most financially successful ventures of the commission was the organization of several Sanitary Fairs to raise money for the Union cause. The first fair was held in Chicago in 1863. In June 1864 the Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware chapters of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, along with the Union League, launched the Great Central Fair in Philadelphia’s Logan Square. It raised more than one million dollars, second only to New York City’s fair.

A 200,000-square foot complex covering two city blocks was erected and included a restaurant, art gallery, horticultural exhibit, historical displays, arms and trophies, technology exhibitions, and nearly one hundred displays and vending booths. The highlight of the event was the appearance of President Abraham Lincoln on June 16. His donation of forty-eight signed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, along with numerous other documents, was sold for substantial profit. (A signed copy of a Proclamation will be on exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania from January 11 through February 3 [2013].) Lincoln addressed the crowd of thousands by praising the efforts of the commission saying, “the Sanitary Commission with all its benevolent labors … and institutions, have contributed to the comfort and relief of the soldiers.”

During its five-year existence, the U.S. Sanitary Commission received and distributed nearly five million dollars and the equivalent of fifteen million dollars in supplies. Due to its efforts countless lives were saved, and conditions became more tolerable for Union soldiers.

On June 16, 2012, on the one hundred and fortieth anniversary of Lincoln’s address at the Great Central Fair, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) unveiled a state historical marker recognizing the U.S. Sanitary Commission’s Great Central Fair in Philadelphia.


Karen Galle is coordinator of the State Historical Marker Program with PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation.