A Glittering Hope at the Darkest Time: Refugees and the Western Sanitary Commission During the Civil War
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By 1864, refugees from the South and the Western Border flooded into St. Louis and adjacent towns in unprecedented numbers. This influx of destitute people required aid and relief organizations in Missouri to broaden their level of operations. As the largest charity society in the Western states, the Western Sanitary Commission (WSC) answered the call for help. However, many St. Louisians, who were divided by political ideology, were not favorable to its efforts to aid these refugees. This paper focuses on the Commission’s three activities to discover how it represented and defined itself amid the political conflict. First, the Western Sanitary Commission published a report of its work on behalf of White Southern refugees whose loyalty was doubtful. The Commission observers stressed in the report that those displaced were human beings and not only refugees but also soldiers’ families who deserved aid from the Union. The report was also a form of propaganda to ask for donations and support for the Commission’s work. Second, the language used by the WSC for its biggest fundraising event, the Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair, continually highlighted the unity of Americans. It did not mean unconditional affection for human beings. It instead indicated integration under the Union. Sharing the same nationality provided Americans with a way to identify themselves with the refugees. Lastly, the Refugee and Freedmen’s Home shows how the WSC practiced its new identity in its operations. By accommodating both black and white refugees in one building, it showed race did not matter for its aid and relief movement. In sum, the WSC members by 1864 found themselves needing to garner broader financial support and overcome opposition towards white refugees, many who hailed from Confederate states. Facing these challenges, they justified the work on behalf of the destitute as a patriotic endeavor consolidating racially and politically divided Americans under the Union’s cause. In this process, they pursued a glittering hope; a new nation based on the integration of racial and political identity.