Today, the Civil War Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the opening day of the first Sanitary Fair held to support the wounded soldiers.
The first fair, called the Northwestern Soldiers’ Fair, began on October 27 and ran through November 7, 1863 in Chicago.
Modeled after the British Sanitary Commission, the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) was a private relief agency created by federal legislation on June 18, 1861 and the organization sponsoring the fair.
The USSC worked to support the sick and wounded soldiers of the US Army during the Civil War.
Using thousands of volunteers, the agency collected both money and goods to support the soldiers.
A glimpse into the first day of the first event from the History of the Northwestern Soldiers’ Fair, Held in Chicago the Last Week of October and the First Week of November, 1863, published in 1864:
Hark! The gun fires! Throw open the public halls, the doors also of your hospitable houses, and the portals of your generous hearts — for the Northwestern Fair is open!
As the last gun of the thirty-four that were fired boomed on the ears of the vast multitude, they surged, like tidal waves, towards Bryan Hall, which, according to the program, was the first of the six Halls occupied by the Fair, to be entered.
The Lake County delegation, however, proceeded first to the rooms of the Sanitary Commission, to unload their precious freight.
The hundred wagons drew up before the doors, and soon the sidewalks and street were filled with boxes, barrels and sacks, scores and hundreds of bystanders eagerly putting their shoulders to the work, proud to aid in unloading the soldiers’ produce.
Madison street, for a square, was blockaded half an hour, and the progress of the street-cars was arrested, until two or three stood waiting on the rails — but nobody grumbled.
Instead of fault-finding, there were cheers for the farmers, hearty hand shakings, offers of help, congratulations and benedictions.
Many a rough fellow who elbowed his way into the crowd to lend a hand at the disburdening of the wagons, found his before ever-ready words now fail him, and turned to dash away with his coat-sleeve, unwonted tears, of which he need not have been ashamed.
“Many of the farmers,” says one who was an eye-witness of the scene — “were sun-burnt men, with hard and rigid features; and a careless observer would have said that there was surely nothing in those wagons, as they passed, to awaken any sentiment.
“Yet something there was about it all which brought tears to the eyes of hundreds, as the old farmers, with their heavy loads, toiled by.
“Among the crowd of spectators there was a broad-shouldered Dutchman, with a face expressive of anything but thought or feeling; he gazed at this singular procession as it passed, — the sun-burnt farmers, the long, narrow wagons, the endless variety of vegetables and farm produce, — he gazed as those men with their sober faces and homely gifts passed one by one, until when, finally, the last wagon had moved by, this stolid, lethargic-looking man ‘broke down’ with a flood of tears, and could say nothing and do nothing but seize upon the little child whom he held by the hand, and hug her to his heart, trying to hide his manly tears behind her floating curls.
“Among these wagons which had drawn up near the rooms of the Sanitary Commission to unload their stores, was one peculiar for its exceeding look of poverty.
“It was worn and mended, and was originally made merely of poles. It was drawn by three horses which had seen much of life, but little grain.
“The driver was a man past middle age, with the clothes and look of one who had toiled hard, but he had a thoughtful and kindly face.
“He sat there quietly waiting his turn to unload. By his side, with feet over the front of the wagon, for it was filled very full, was his wife, a silent, worn-looking woman (many of these men had their wives with them on the loads); near the rear of the wagon was a girl of fifteen, perhaps, and her sister, dressed in black, carrying in her arms a little child.
“Someone said to this man; (after asking the woman with the child if she would not go into the Commission rooms and get warm:)
“‘My friend, you seem to have quite a load here of vegetables; now I am curious to know what good things you are bringing to the soldiers; will you tell me what you have?’
“‘Yes,’ said he: ‘here are potatoes, and here are three bags of onions, and there are some rutabaga, and there are a few turnips, and that is a small bag of meal, and you will see the cabbages fill in; and that box with slats has some ducks in it, which one of them brought in.’
“‘Oh! then this isn’t all your load, alone, is it?’
“‘Why, no! our region just where I live is rather a hard soil, and we haven’t any of us much to spare any way, yet for this business we could have raked up as much again as this is, if we had had time; but we didn’t get the notice that the wagons were going in till last night about eight o’clock, and it was dark and raining at that, so I and my wife and the girls could only go around to five or six of the neighbors within a mile or so, but we did the best we could; we worked pretty much all the night and loaded, so as to be ready to get out to the main road and start with the rest of them this morning; but I can’t help it if it is little, it’s something for those soldiers.’
“‘Have you a son in the army?’
“‘No,’ he answered slowly, after turning round and looking at his wife. ‘No, I haven’t now, but we had one there once; he’s buried down by Stone River; he was shot there; — and that isn’t just so either — we called him our boy, but he was only our adopted son; we took him when he was little, so he was just the same as our own boy, and’ (pointing over his shoulder without looking back) ‘that’s his wife there with the baby!
“‘But I shouldn’t bring these things any quicker if he were alive now and in the army; I don’t know that I should think so much as I do now about the boys away off there.’
“It was in turn for his wagon to unload, so with his rough freight of produce, and his rich freight of human hearts with their deep and treasured grief, he drove on— one wagon of a hundred in the train.”
The back room of the Commission was speedily filled with wheat.
Mr. McVicker then tendered the uses of his capacious cellar, under the Theatre, and that also was filled; and at last storage was offered in the large cellars of some of the commission houses of the city, which alone were adequate to the reception of the farmers’ donation.
While unloading their treasure, a messenger approached the farmers, with an invitation from the lady- managers, to come to Lower Bryan Hall, and partake of a dinner waiting for them.
The sturdy, warm-hearted yeomen, accompanied by the marshals of the several divisions, marched to the Hall, where they were warmly welcomed by the ladies, and all present.
Hon. E. M. Haines, formerly of Lake county, presented to the Committee of Arrangements the donation made by his old neighbors, in a brief and appropriate address, to which Rev. Dr. Patton, of the Northwestern Sanitary Commission responded, in a handsome speech of acceptance and thanks.
A touching little episode occurred while the farmers of Lake county were at dinner.
In the neighborhood of their table others were set, at one of which several soldiers were dining.
Chancing to observe them, during a pause in the dinner, one of the farmers discovered, in a bronzed and blue-coated soldier-boy, nearly opposite him, his own son, whom he had not seen for two years and a half, and who was now on his way home from Vicksburg, on a short furlough.
The discovery and recognition were mutual.
Father and son started up at the same glad moment, and in the touching language of Scripture, literally “fell on each other’s necks, and wept.”
This little occurrence gave new zest to the dinner, and added to the excitement of the hour.
The Civil War Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with an image of another of Chicago’s Northwestern Sanitary Fairs in 1865.