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President Abraham Lincoln's first call for troops to put down the Southern rebellion evoked an unsolicited outpouring of food, clothing, medical supplies, and money from individual citizens for the care and comfort of the Union soldiers. Some individuals banded together in aid societies to care for the units formed from their locality, but the mostly uncoordinated flood of material resulted in a chaos of rotting food-stuffs and undelivered but badly needed supplies.

In April 1861, Rev. Henry Bellows of New York organized a number of separate women's aid organizations into the Women's Central Association of Relief. On May 18, Bellows and three eminent medical men, seeing the great need for organization and coordination of the benevolent activities as well as improvement in cleanliness of the soldiers' camps, proposed to the secretary of war that a commission of civilians, medical men, and military officers be organized to regulate and develop the country's soldiers' aid activities. On June 7, the administration reluctantly agreed to the naming of a "Commission of Inquiry and Advice in Respect to the Sanitary Interests of the United States Forces," which became known as the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the forerunner of the American Red Cross.