Within hours of the beginning of the Civil War, the women of the North began to come together to provide support for the thousands of men who eagerly volunteered to put down the Southern rebellion. In Madison, Wisconsin, Emily Quiner and her sisters began raising money and sewing a regimental flag for the brave boys of Wisconsin. On Saturday, April 20th, Emily and her sister Maria raised $84.00 to support the war effort.
Emily’s efforts and those of other Wisconsin women were encouraged on April 22, 1861 by Governor Alexander in a letter to the “Patriotic Women of Wisconsin”. He asked Wisconsin women to prepare lint and bandages for soldiers who would be wounded in battle. Governor Alexander also stated ‘that when the occasion calls, many, very many Florence Nightingales will be found in our goodly land”. In 1863, Emily volunteered to be one of those Florence Nightingales.
Women’s war efforts were not confined to Wisconsin. In New York, prominent men and women, including Dorothea Dix, met on April 25 to discuss the formation of a Sanitary Commission. Four thousand New York women answered this call to action in a meeting at Cooper’s Union on April 29 and formed the Women’s Central Association for the Care of the Sick and Wounded in the Army (WCAR).
Although there were other organized efforts including those in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Cleveland, Ohio, WCAR is regarded as the precursor of the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) which provided support to soldiers and their families throughout the war. In addition to coordinating the work of local and state Ladies Aid Organizations, the USSC worked with women who organized and held sanitary fairs. The Northwestern Sanitary Fair of 1865 was one of these events and raised funds for wounded soldiers equivalent to 4.3 million dollars today.
Women’s war work not only served the needs of the soldiers and their families during the war but also served as a model for women to work in collaboration on social issues. After the war, the organizational skills which women had learned through their war work contributed to the development of women’s clubs which coordinated activities at the state and national level. For example, the Wisconsin Federation of Women’s Clubs, under the leadership of Lucy E. Smith Morris, brought together local women’s clubs and coordinated the establishment of over 100 public libraries in 1896-1897. Lucy E. Smith Morris later used her organizational skills to contribute to the women’s suffrage movement.