Saturday, January 24, 2015

Duvergier de Hauranne: A Frenchman in Lincoln's Washington -- "...This Great Work of Patriotism and Charity"

Like many other visitors to these shores before and after,  Duvergier de Hauranne is much impressed by the spirit and practice of American volunteerism.   One organization he visits in Washington stands out above all others.
Outside the Sanitary Commission Home Lodge, Washington D.C., April 1865

Duvergier de Hauranne's foray to the United States Sanitary Commission’s offices and storerooms leaves him astounded by a “marvelous” private benevolent organization that “performs three-fourths of a task the government should do but doesn’t.”  The Commission was the brainchild of a who’s who of prominent Northerners, including renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and leading clergyman Henry Whitney Bellows.  
Henry Whitney Bellows, President, Sanitary Commission

Raising funds from private sources was only one of their tasks.  During a matter of months, an entire volunteer benevolent organization was built across the Northern states, from the ground up.  In a meeting with the Commission’s regional director – a young volunteer himself -- Duvergier de Hauranne is astounded to learn that over one million soldiers had passed through the Commission’s hands since the beginning of the war.  He lauds the efforts of the tens of thousands of private citizens, including many women, who provide practically the only care the North’s sick and wounded soldiers could count on receiving following their evacuation from the battlefield -- including via a network of “Soldier’s Homes” to aid in their convalescence.    (Duvergier de Hauranne reports, to his surprise, that three-fourths of the Union’s losses were attributable to disease rather than to combat.)

In an age long before bulging government bureaucracies and pervasive databases, Duvergier de Hauranne describes how well-organized the United States Sanitary Commission’s efforts are, and adds that its role often extended beyond care and provisioning to outright advocacy for wounded and discharged soldiers who had fallen off the Army’s chaotic rolls:

In the city of Washington alone, the expenses of the Soldier’s Home, where discharged or furloughed solders stay during the long time it takes to get their papers in order, amount to $12,000 a week.  What is even more astonishing than these large donations is the order, the dependability and the perfect discipline of this improvised administration.  Most astonishing of all is the dedication of those who are giving several years of their lives to this great work of patriotism and charity.  This achievement teaches us to admire America and the philanthropists of the Old World would do well to take some lessons from it.
The U.S. Sanitary Commission, formally chartered under Congress as the "National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers" just two months after Duvergier de Hauranne’s account, laid the foundation for what would in the nineteen-thirties become the Veterans Administration.   Were the Frenchman miraculously to return to Washington in 2015, it is not entirely clear he would be as favorably impressed by today's Department of Veterans Affairs, including its organizational acumen and determination to provide the best possible service…

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