Chicago in the War
Chicago sits hundreds of miles from most Civil War battle sites, yet the city was intimately linked to the war. Railroads continuously moved troops from the North and West through the emerging hub of Chicago, providing residents with a constant physical and visual reminder of the conflict. Chicago’s leading citizens turned the war into an opportunity for both civic boosterism and personal profit.
Many Chicagoans volunteered for relief efforts coordinated by the US Sanitary Commission (USSC), which sought to address unsanitary living conditions in Army camps and improve medical care for Union soldiers. Soon after its founding in 1861, the Chicago Branch of the USSC became the most important and innovative relief organization in what was then known as the West. The USSC’s Chicago Branch hosted the first and last of the nation’s many Civil War sanitary fairs, in 1863 and 1865. These expositions were designed to celebrate human achievement while raising money and collecting supplies for the US Army. Many Northern cities—Boston, Rochester, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Pittsburgh—followed Chicago’s lead, holding sanitary fairs of their own. These wartime relief efforts bridged the geographic and emotional distance between the Northern home front and the Southern battlefields, and brought the war home to Chicago.