Women’s relief efforts during the Civil War and in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire reflected a climate of municipal activism that led to the establishment of new social structures and democratized philanthropic practices. Two of Chicago’s most renowned relief workers, Mary Livermore and Jane Hoge, were primary organizers of the Northwestern Branch of the United States Sanitary Commission, whose purpose was to aid the Union war effort during the Civil War. Livermore, the wife of a Universalist minister, and Hoge had both worked with ailing women and children prior to the war. Motivated by patriotic and civic duty, they mobilized volunteers across the region to collect and distribute supplies to soldiers and hospitals, met with politicians and military leaders about war relief, and coordinated the Great Northwest Sanitary Fair of 1863, raising more than $78,000 for their cause. Their broad-based work and foresight ensured that relief supplies and financial assistance were still available after the war ended, and could be made available to people in need and used to help rebuilding the community.
Chicago women’s groups were again galvanized to action in 1871 to aid survivors of the Great Chicago Fire. While the Civil War connected women to a national crisis, fire relief efforts linked them emphatically to their local community. Many prominent Chicago women broke off from the male-controlled relief organizations and formed independent committees, at least in part because the groups that had been established earlier restricted working class victims’ access to aid and resources in the months following the fire. The women who led these new committees employed a national network of friends and other women’s groups to gather supplies and provide immediate relief to homeless and starving Chicagoans. Once the fire relief effort ended, women’s groups redirected their efforts toward solving larger municipal problems in Chicago.
Attie, Jeanie. Patriotic Toil: Patriotic Women and the American Civil War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Flanagan, Maureen A. Seeing With Their Hearts: Chicago Women and the Vision of the Good City 1871-1933. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Greene, Daniel. “Nothing Daunts Chicago: Wartime Relief on the Home Front,” in Home Front, Daily Life in the Civil War North. Peter John Brownlee, et al., eds. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Livermore, Mary. My Story of the War. Hartford, CT: A.D. Worthington, 1889.
Mary Ashton Livermore, “Women of the War,” from My Story of the War (Hartford, Conn.: A.D. Worthington, 1889), p. 161. The Newberry Library, F 8344 .51.
Mary Ashton Livermore (19 Dec 1820 – 23 May 1905), c. 1876. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Art Resource, NY.