The Civil War – The Beginning of YMCA War Work
*This is the first piece in a running series highlighting the YMCA’s support for the Armed Services throughout our history.
During the Industrial Revolution young men flocked to London, leaving behind both family and religious ties. When it was established in London, the purpose of the Young Men’s Christian Association was to serve as a replacement for those ties. As the movement gained momentum it was a natural extension to provide that same service to young men who faced a similar loss of ties due to military service.
The earliest YMCA work with the armed services was on a training ship in Portsmouth, VA in 1856. The YMCA’s Portsmouth Association received endorsement from the government to place books in the ship’s library and to hold meetings on board. A few years later, in 1859, the Boston Association followed suit. These small efforts were the starting point for what would become a much larger movement.
After the start of the Civil War in early 1861, members of the New York City YMCA began spending time in nearby encampments mingling with soldiers to offer words of encouragement. Officers and soldiers welcomed the presence of the volunteers and the New York Association established a specific ‘Army Committee’ to provide preaching services, individual visitation, and distribute publication.
Later that year, at the suggestion of the New York Association, fifty delegates from 15 YMCAs met and appointed a “Christian Commission” of twelve members to organize religious work in the armed forces on a national level. The goal of the Commission was, “to promote the spiritual and temporal welfare of soldiers in the Army and the sailors in the Navy.”
During the Civil War the US Christian Commission recruited 5,000 volunteers who worked both at the front and behind the lines to establish camp social centers, provide letter writing materials and dictation services, distribute medical supplies and foodstuffs, and operate canteens and libraries. Along with the needed manpower the Commission also gathered monetary and supply donations equivalent to 130 million dollars today.
The establishment of the Commission was a turning point in the history of the YMCA movement in North America. Both military and civil authorities recognized the value of services rendered during the war and immediately following. The work done generated a significant amount of prestige for the YMCA Movement and provided the basis for future large-scale cooperation between the Association and the general public.