How Ladies' Aid Societies Worked

ladies aid societies
Ladies' aid societies organized and sent supplies for soldiers off at war.
London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died in the Civil War. Tragically, many of these deaths were the result of disease -- not warfare. Historian Mark E. Neely explains that deaths from disease amounted to more than twice the number of deaths in battle [source: Neely]. Looking back -- now that we understand how germs cause disease -- it's no wonder so many soldiers fell ill. In the deplorable conditions soldiers faced, germs spread like wildfire through the troops in a time before everybody understood exactly how to stop them. As a result, some of the most important aid came from those who improved sanitary conditions and provided new, clean supplies to soldiers.

Ironically, women, who were long considered too weak and delicate to be exposed to the horrors of war, provided the bulk of sanitation services. Not content to merely pine away for their loved ones who'd marched off to war, many women were bent on doing something to help out. Their contributions of supplies, food, clean clothes and nursing services combated the disease fatality rate. Something as simple as a new blanket sent from the homefront could replace one that was infested with disease, possibly saving a life.


But these efforts came from individual families; at first, there were no organized groups of women who served wounded soldiers. Wives and mothers scrounged up what supplies they could and sent them to their beloved ones on the battlefield. Yet, many soldiers were from poor families who didn't have much to give -- or they had no families at all. Individual contributions were significant to individual soldiers, but if women banded together, they would be able to do exponentially more for the soldiers. This kind of logic led to the creation of ladies' aid societies, also known as soldiers' aid societies. Thousands of these groups were scattered throughout the United States, but in the North, federal support from the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) made them even more effective and organized.

The concept for ladies' aid societies didn't develop overnight. It was tied to sanitation lessons learned from a recent European war and the legacy of Florence Nightingale.


Florence Nightingale: Legitimizing Women's Work in War

florence nightingale
Because of her habit of personally attending to patients during the night, Florence Nightingale earned the name "Lady of the Lamp."
London Stereoscopic Company/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Crimean War erupted in 1853 among major European powers who wanted control over Palestine. The war pitted Russia against Britain, France and Ottoman Turkey. In the midst of horrific medical conditions, diseases such as dysentery and cholera fatally swept through the troops. When word got out to the British public about the conditions their soldiers were living in, outrage paved the way for a relief movement. The British secretary of state at war personally requested one prominent nurse, Florence Nightingale, to lead a group of 38 female nurses to improve conditions on the war front.

Nightingale was born into a comfortable, affluent family and showed an enduring dedication to serving the sick. But more than that, her education and perseverance gave her the resources to advance understanding and awareness of good sanitary principles. She'd studied scientific evidence of the connection between good sanitation and fewer deaths from disease. By the time of the Crimean War, she had established herself as a nursing expert who helped reduce fatality rates in hospitals by improving sanitation.


When she and the other nurses arrived at the military hospital in Scutari, Turkey, she was appalled at the unsanitary conditions. Besides living in filth, the soldiers didn't have enough supplies and were stuffed like sardines into overcrowded facilities. After she had the place cleaned and instituted sanitation standards such as bathing, better food and clean clothes, Nightingale reduced the mortality rate to 2 percent [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. She became famous for this amazing feat and subsequently used her influence and knowledge to advance others' understanding of sanitary conditions.

Nightingale quickly achieved international renown. What's particularly important about Nightingale's sanitation advocacy was that she demonstrated to the world that the tasks of cleaning and preparing food, which were traditionally considered women's work, played pivotal roles in the male world of war. Nightingale convinced authorities that they needed help from the fairer sex in wartime -- shattering gender expectations.

Scholars attribute the development of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) during the Civil War to Nightingale, but a woman who was more directly involved with this organization's inception was Elizabeth Blackwell, a close friend of hers.


Ladies' Aid Societies During the Civil War

elizabeth blackwell
Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female physician in the United States, helped establish the organization that would pave the way for ladies' aid societies.
AP Photo

Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the first female physician in the United States, helped establish the Women's Central Association of Relief (WCAR), which trained nurses to serve the wounded during the Civil War. The WCAR also put pressure on the government to form the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC). One of the USSC's responsibilities was to inspect Army facilities, and the government tasked men to perform these inspections. However, officials did grant women roles in other USSC functions, such as serving as nurses and collecting supplies from the home front.

The USSC enlisted the support of thousands of women's groups across the Northern United States to collect supplies. Many of these groups, from informal sewing circles to formal women's organizations, were already sending supplies to soldiers, but the USSC aided in and unified their missions. One of these groups was Ladies' Aid Society of Philadelphia. The USSC stepped in to help organize their collection of clothing, food and medical supplies.


In addition, the ladies' aid societies worked to collect cash donations. This was especially important because the USSC was funded entirely through voluntary donations. To collect donations, the aid societies would often hold social functions such as picnics, pageants and fairs. What's more, they performed all these duties despite having more work at home than usual due to the absence of many male hands. These societies proved helpful not only for the soldiers, but also their own members. When news of the latest casualties was released (usually distributed by the aid societies themselves) the women were there to offer each other emotional support in their mourning [source: Blair].

A few leaders of the era, including Blackwell, immediately recognized the aid societies as a way to gather support for women's rights. And even if it wasn't the societies' explicit mission goal, they gave women invaluable administrative experience. A few decades after the war, Mary Livermore wrote that the ladies' aid societies helped women develop business skills and gave them experience keeping accounts and running meetings. Thus, women were able to begin elbowing their way into politics and advance their own causes.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Blair, William Alan. William Pencak. "Making and Remaking Pennsylvania's Civil War." Penn State Press, 2001. (May 15, 2009)
  • Civilization. "Warmth from the North." Civilization. Aug/Sept 1996, Vol. 3, Issue 4.
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Florence Nightingale." Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. (May 15, 2009)
  • Neely, Mark E. "The Civil War and the Limits of Destruction." Harvard Press University, 2007. (May 15, 2009)
  • Rodgers, Thomas E. "Hoosier Women and the Civil War Home Front." Indiana Magazine of History, 2001, Vol. 92, Issue 2.
  • Shields, Patricia M. "History of Women in Public Administration: Redefining Theory Practice, Past and Present." Texas State University Department of Political Science, 2009.(May 15, 2009)