Our Branch and Its Tributaries; Being a History of the Work of the N. W. Sanitary Commission

By MRS. SARAH EDWARDS HENSHAW. Chicago: Alfred L. Sewell. 1868.
THE time is still far distant when it will be possible to write a complete and philosophical history of the people’s war of 1861 - 1865.
When the hour arrives, the coming historian will find the largest and most important theme ever offered, in so brief a period of time, to the student of human progress.
Civilization in America has, of late years, thrown aside so much of the cumbrous and superstitious trappings by which its march is dignified and impeded in older countries, that it begins to look autochthonous. At any rate, it is more rapidly developing a new type than seemed possible a quarter of a century ago.
We have at last had an American President and an American generalissimo. There could not be imagined a more exact personification of the American Demos in all its patience, integrity, wise good-nature, untiring energy, simplicity, and perfect faith in its own manifest destiny, than Abraham Lincoln; and General Grant, an American to the core, is no more like General Washington than he is like the Duke of Wellington, while certainly inferior to neither in military capacity.
Whenever an American Aristophanes arrives, we may be sure; that his satire will not be directed against the People, as represented by its first citizen during the war with our Sparta ; and that he will find the leather-dresser who succeeded him as head of our commonwealth, after having gained immortal victories in the field, as tempting a theme for his panegyric as the tanner Cleon was for the wrathful sarcasm of the Athenian,
The People lias been made odious and ludicrous long enough, both by poets and historians; but in this country the lion is beginning at last to paint his own picture. The true hero of the civil war, whence we are slowly emerging, is the American People; and by the side of that People will stand, in future history and poetry, those two heroic shapes, — as they will seem through the mist of years, — the great martyr-magistrate and the great soldier, who were so distinctly stamped with the popular impress. Meantime, although it is too soon to sing the great epic or reproduce the great drama, collections are rapidly making of materials for the work which will one day be written.
The artist is indeed likely to be embarrassed with the riches rapidly accumulating. But that will be his affair. Meantime we do not regret this almost daily contribution of local histories, biographies, reports, and every kind of official and unofficial documents. The people, having done in the field so thoroughly the work which it was so loftily defied to do, having proved the enormous strength of a nationality the very existence of which was denounced as a delusion, and, having destroyed a vile institution which had been so long preying upon its vitals, does wisely to preserve every possible memorial of the late struggle for life.
And no more important lessons in American civilization have been given by the war than those which relate to the origin, organization, and working of the United States Sanitary Commission. Even this, as a whole, has not yet been presented. The admirable general History of the Commission, however, by Charles J. Stille, is already a noble contribution to that great end, and is in itself an attractive, philosophical, and important work. The more this institution is studied, the more legitimate will seem the admiration and the sympathy with which we have all of us instinctively regarded it from the beginning.
Out of a few feeble societies of ladies to make Havelocks and jellies, — such as sprang up spontaneously all over the country during the first few months of the war, but which, through want of organization, manifested only how great was the national sympathy with the cause and the men who were fighting for it, and how little sympathy and energy could do unless with order and combination, — out of these slight beginnings soon sprang forth one of the noblest and most intelligent charities ever known to mankind. We are accused in this country of a tendency to glorify our own deeds. Perhaps the charge may be just. Self-assertion is the natural, although not very lovely, characteristic of all vigorous and progressive peoples; but we are not sure that those nations from whom we receive the sharpest criticism on our failing in this regard are absolutely overburdened with bashfulness, when alluding to their own achievements.
Nevertheless, we are convinced that there are many things which we do not over-praise. When the history of the war is written, after the mists of passion, prejudice, and party, which now obscure the clearest eyesight, shall have passed •away, the world will find out that there was a good deal more than superfluous and unmeaning carnage in our “ wicked, causeless, miserable, and hopeless war,” as it used to be called by the fine folk of Europe, who played the part of statesmen and critics of our proceedings during those four prodigious years. Perhaps a war, in which a people cheerfully spent four thousand million dollars and half a million lives, in order to preserve its national existence, and to destroy the most abominable institution that, since the Holy Office, has existed among, men, and triumphantly accomplished both purposes, will seem to later generations not so wicked, causeless, and hopeless after all. It will probably be thought as intelligible, praiseworthy, and successful an enterprise as the Crimean war will seem to posterity, after the Russians are comfortably established in Constantinople.
It was something to prove beyond all peradventure that, in 1789, a confederacy made by corporations was exchanged for a nation founded by a people ; that it was Washington and Franklin and Hamilton who made a nation at the dose of the last century, not Jefferson Davis in the middle of this, according to the enthusiastic Mr. Gladstone.
And without further allusion to the picturesque and terrible campaigns, dreadful marches, brilliant assaults, fearful reverses, disappointments, and sufferings through which the American People accomplished its destiny, displaying, we believe, as much courage and endurance as often has been exhibited in history, let us throw a glance upon the vast Samaritanism which that people organized on a scale never imagined before. For the Sanitary Commission, which grew out of such trifling beginnings to be a symmetrical institution, stretching over quarter of a continent, disbursing more than thirty millions of money, and moving, as it were, steadily on a parallel course to the government, never interfering with it, but constantly rendering it invaluable aid, — such an institution originated, supplied, and kept in constant working by voluntary charity alone, would be impossible except in a democracy. Voluntary organization to aid vast armies and to follow constantly on their path could scarcely be permitted by any government except where the army was the people and the people was king.
And the immense generosity which we firmly believe to be a prominent American characteristic was aided in this great enterprise by the practical, straightforward energy which is another gift of this nation.
There was plenty of dismal experience to warn us at the outset of the war. The death in nine months of three quarters of all the British troops sent out in the first expedition to the Crimea — although a fleet laden with luxuries For them was lying before their eyes, but kept from them by an impassable barrier of tape — was enough in itself to prove that Red Tape was not infallible.
We have no disposition to join without qualification in the shallow sneers against official routine. But where popular volunteer organization comes to the side of an overburdened popular government, even although administered with the vision and energy of a Stanton, it cannot but add much to the general efficiency,
We yield to none in admiration for the heroine whose name is a household word wherever intelligent benevolence and energetic female sympathy are revered ; but we firmly believe that there have been hundreds of Florence Nightingales in the late war, whose names will never be heard beyond the precincts of their own townships.
Sometimes one is almost in doubt whether the men or the women did the most in carrying this war to its fortunate conclusion. In the words of Mrs. E. P. Teale, secretary of the Aid Society at Allen’s Grove, Wisconsin, “every loyal soldier was regarded as a brother.” And if proof is wanted of the universality of this sentiment, we need look no further than to the excellent work, the title of which is prefixed to this article.
We learn from Mrs. Henshaw’s History of the Northwest Branch of the Commission that thirty-five thousand women were regularly employed in working for this Commission ; that the “ Home ” at Cairo, which was nothing more nor less than a monster hotel, kept free of all charge, for soldiers going to the front or returning on furlough or invalided from the seat of war, entertained some two hundred thousand of them from first to last; and that it was impossible for the armies to advance so far into the enemy’s country, whether in the famous march of Sherman, or among the precipitous and perilous mountain passes which led to the beleaguered Chattanooga, but that the women were not there too, in charge of the locomotive hospitals, the supplies, medicines, and innumern .e wants of soldiers suffering in march, battle, or siege. When it is recollected that all this work and all these expens. were vountary, and that the Sanitary at iast did so much that it was supposed to be doing nothing at all, and that thousands of men, stamped all over with the Sanitary, with its mark on their shirts, sheets, mattresses, food, medicine, often denied having received anything whatever from the Commission, simply because its benefits came to be considered like the blessings of light and air, — unrecognized because unpaid for,—we are enabled to form some notion of the vast field of operation covered by the Commission, and the intellectual energy which directed and accomplished so much.
It is a ghastly but heroic indication of the practical sagacity of the “Sanitary,” when we find, for example, the enormous preparation made beforehand in the dark and bloody spring days of 1862 to relieve the men who were to be wounded in the coming battle of Corinth. The battle came even sooner than foreseen, for Sidney Johnston, as we all know, moved out of Corinth before Grant should be joined at Shiloh by the deliberate Buel. We have all shuddered at the carnage by which the victory at the end of those two days’ desperate fighting was purchased ; but when twenty thousand dead and wounded national soldiers and rebels lay upon the' field on that April night, there stood the Commission with its efficient, peripatetic hospital, its supplies, its surgeons, its nurses, ready for the fearful but necessary work, and, to the honor of our humanity, to know no difference between Confederate or National soldier, but to do its best to relieve the wants of all.
The work of Mrs. Henshaw deserves earnest praise. She has shown facility and grace in narrative, with thorough and conscientious arrangement of her materials. From the nature of the work, it was inevitable that much space should be allowed to local details, which give it great interest in the regions for which it was especially designed ; but the general reader will find in it a very attractive and instructive episode in the great history of which the American people will never be weary. Her story is lively; many of the anecdotes aie good, and she has skill in portraiture. Mrs. Porter, Mrs. Bickerdyke, the venerable Thomas Maddy, are all very lifelike.
The figure of the ancient gray-haired Maddy, standing among the hotel touters at the railroad-station, as they bawled, “ This way to the National or the Spread-Eagle,” and so on, and securing a couple of dozen weary soldiers at a time, shouldering their knapsacks, and “ arming them,” as he called it, along the muddy road to the gratuitous and excellent hotel called the Sanitary’s “ Home,” is almost pathetic.
A reader of poetry, too, was Maddy, and familiar with Sanscrit; for from that tongue must have come “the sentiment expressed by the poet,” to which as he tells us he always tried to act up, “ Never use the hasher way when love will do the steed,” — a noble sentiment doubtless, for Maddy could act up to no other, but quite unintelligible to the general public.
Gentle, refined, courageous, energetic Mrs. Porter is a very attractive picture ; but of all the characters, strong-minded, boisterous Mrs. Bickerdyke “ has our warm heart.” This amazing woman might have been a corps-commander, certainly a quartermaster-general, and she is very vividly portrayed. Notwithstanding that she is still alive, and we trust in health, she is as real and lifelike a personage as any character in Shakespeare or Dickens.
From the moment when she makes her first appearance at midnight on the battlefield after the victory of Fort Donelson, looking about among the slain with a lantern, to save, if possible, some sufferers that might not be quite dead, and seeming to an officer looking out from his tent like a will-o’-the-wisp flitting over the ghastly scene, —from that moment to the end of the book we find her always sympathetic, courageous, noisy, patriotic, of irrepressible energy, and with superhuman power of work.
Improvising upon one occasion a gigantic laundry, and ordering from a startled but obedient colonel a detail of soldiers to act as washerwomen, she saves, in a couple of days, we should be afraid to say how many thousand shirts and sheets and other linen to the “ Sanitary,” which had been doomed to the fire because steeped in blood from the battle-field. At Memphis she shuts up herself alone for several days in a smallpox hospital, that she may work there with her own hands, and see with her own eyes that it is thoroughly purified. When the laconic order is given to “ Rush forward antiscorbutics for General Grant’s army,” Mrs. Bickerdyke scours the territory of half a dozen States, and sweeps off thousands of bushels of onions, potatoes, and pickles; doing battle as bravely with the scurvy as “ the boys ” — so she invariably calls the soldiers — ever fought the Rebels. On occasions she even mounts the pulpit in one church after another, and thunders forth the need of onions in tones to wake the dead.
“ It is a shame for you,” she preached, “ to live here in idleness and comfort, while the boys are dying for vegetables. Get together your potatoes and onions, and send them to the Sanitary Commission.”
“ Did you do that ? ” inquired Mrs. Porter with mild surprise, on Mrs. Bickerdyke’s return.
“ Yes, I did,” she said ; “ I made a fool of myself” ; but she added, softening, “I would do it again for the boys.”
When milk and eggs are wanted in greater quantity and freshness than at the time can be supplied, this heroine makes a raid from Memphis beyond St. Louis, escorted by a body-guard of several hundred cripples, — not a man of them best had lost a leg or an arm in the battles, — harries the country-side for a time, and returns followed by hundreds of cows, and thousands of hens and chickens, most willingly contributed by the patriotic farmers, who would rather brave the wrath of Forrest than resist the black-mail of Mother Bickerdyke.
But her crowning exploit was to order back to the wharf a government steamer in full career for Texas; and this story is so well told, that we shall let Mrs. Henshaw repeat it in her own words.
“ An incident occurred at Louisville so characteristic of Mrs. Bickerdyke, that it ought not to be omitted. She was Mrs. Bickerdyke to the last. Some of the troops were about starting for Texas, and word came that at that distant outpost scurvy was making fearful ravages. Mrs. Porter and Mrs. Bickerdyke desired to forward, under care of the men just leaving, a quantity of anti-scorbutics. The captain of the boat promised that, if the articles were on the wharf by a certain hour, he would take them. As the boat was not to break bulk between Louisville and Texas, it was a golden opportunity.
“ It was Sunday, and raining furiously. Through the pelting storm went about Mrs. Porter and Mrs. Bickerdyke, to find teams which should carry the potatoes to the boat. With the utmost difficulty wagons were found, loaded, and hurried off. The driver was urged to drive rapidly, which he did as well as he could amid the rain and mud. When they came within sight of the river he suddenly slackened his pace. ' Why don’t you go on?’ remonstrated Mrs. Porter. ‘It’s of no use,’ he replied ; ‘the boat is gone.' With dismay Mrs. Porter looked, and there, true enough, was the steamer rapidly retreating. The hour set was not quite passed, but the captain felt sure that so many obstacles could not be overcome, and the boat had put off. 'It shall come back,’ said Mrs. Bickerdyke, decidedly.
“ The boat was in the stream ; in the driving rain sat the two resolute women ; behind them were the potatoes, which had cost so much labor and exposure, Mrs. Bickerdyke rose to her feet and beckoned. The conscious captain stood observing. With the air of an empress she beckoned again. The boat evidently slackened its speed. Again she beckoned still more emphatically. The boat rounded to, and, in response to what had now become a volley of signals, actually returned and took on the potatoes. The next morning a caricature was posted up in the streets of Louisville, representing a woman ordering about a government steamer with a wave of her hand. The picture was obtained by Mrs. Porter, and forwarded to Mr. Blatchford at Chicago.”
In conclusion, we congratulate Mrs. Henshaw for her animated and faithful narrative of a noble and important enterprise.
We would add, that the volume is beautifully published, and as a specimen of typography is an honor to Chicago.
The proof-reader has occasionally forgotten his dutv, and has let such indifferent spelling as “ irrefragible ” and “ incontestible ” on a single page (245) escape him.
We would also suggest to Mrs. Henshaw that there are no such words as “ tireless ’’ and “mentality,” and we would implore her on our bended knees not to call a soldier in the national armies a “ federal.” It used to be bad enough to bear this from the London Times.