Soldiers’ aid societies began to form shortly after the Civil War began. Women – most from the upper classes – wanted to do something to help their husbands, brothers, children, friends, and neighbors that went off to fight in the war. Since they couldn’t fight on the front lines, and female nurses were discouraged from helping directly on the battlefield, (even Clara Barton was viewed negatively for this, even though she didn’t let it stop her) the women back home decided to do what they could in order to help. This wound up being in the form of gathering supplies to send out to the soldiers. Specifically, first aid supplies, including bandages and blankets.
In the north, these soldiers’ aid societies (also called ladies’ aid societies) formed a network that wound up becoming part of the U.S. Sanitary Commission. These groups met regularly, held fundraisers, and also had group headquarters, usually in a storefront, in order to keep the supplies in one place until they could be shipped to the battlefield that needed them the most. This gave the women involved a taste of what it would be like to run a store or other business, and, in a way, led to the burgeoning women’s rights movement that formed during the latter half of the 19th century.
One of the first soldiers’ aid societies in the U.S. was the one in Cleveland, Ohio. Officially called the Northern Ohio Soldiers’ Aid Society, it formed in April, 1861, just five days after the Civil War began with Abraham Lincoln’s call to arms. This particular group, like others located throughout the Union, sent thousands of dollars worth of clothing, blankets, medical supplies, and other things to the soldiers on the battlefield. Once the soldiers began returning wounded, the women who ran the organization founded a group home for them. This home became the first place that soldiers returned to once they were released from duty, unless they were fit and ready to go back home. However, even those soldiers received some help from the society – in the form of handling their military benefits paperwork and helping them find jobs.
After the Civil War ended, all of the soldiers’ aid societies closed their doors. By the 1870s, not a single one remained open. The women were needed back at home. However, the impact of the work that they did could be felt for years afterwards remains an important – yet somewhat overlooked – part of history.