By Antoinette G. van Zelm, Assistant Director, Center for Historic Preservation
During and after the Civil War, civilians held fairs and bazaars to raise funds for relief efforts. These events ranged from small, local affairs to extravagant festivals held in large urban areas. Most of these relief efforts took place in the North, but some were held in the South. As a battleground state, Tennessee did not host any fairs of significant size but its civilians and soldiers benefited from them.
Organizers of relief efforts for wounded soldiers and displaced civilians found fairs to be extremely lucrative. Large fairs held in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the U.S. Sanitary Commission and its regional branches (the commission was a private charitable organization sanctioned by the U.S. government to distribute medical supplies and to run military hospitals). These grand fairs were modeled after the 1851 London World’s Fair and basically constituted mini cities with their own restaurants, police and fire forces, post offices, daily newspapers, and even skating rinks.
The Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair held in St. Louis in 1864 was specifically geared toward assisting Union soldiers engaged in the Western Theater. In addition, the fair included a Freedmen and Union Refugees’ Department. Contributions were solicited for the department so that assistance could be provided to the formerly enslaved who were making the transition to freedom and to Unionists who had left their homes within the Confederacy, including Tennessee.
Women played a prominent role in Civil War-era fairs and bazaars, which featured the sale of crafts and other handmade goods; the display of artworks, historical objects, manufactured goods, and relics from the front; the staging of musical and dramatic performances; and the sale of fruit, flowers, and confections. Many of these events were organized and executed primarily by women. Even the large fairs under the auspices of the male-run U.S. Sanitary Commission included committees of female managers who, like the Midwestern women promoting the 1863 Northwestern Fair in Chicago, exhorted their fellow citizens (and particularly ladies’ aid societies) to get involved and “DO SOMETHING.”
Fair organizers actively solicited contributions from famous people, including those with Tennessee connections. Shortly after his victories in and around Chattanooga, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant responded to a request from the Rochester Ladies’ Hospital Relief Association for a lock of his hair for their Christmas Bazaar. From Chattanooga on December 13, 1863, he facetiously wrote, “The object for which this little request is made is so praiseworthy that I cannot refuse it, even though I do, by granting it, expose the fact to the ladies of Rochester, that I am no longer a boy.” In a somewhat similar fashion, Elvira Powers, a Northern nurse working in Nashville, visited former First Lady Sarah Childress Polk at Polk Place in October 1864 “to obtain some leaves and flowers for souvenirs of the place, to arrange on paper for a Sanitary Fair.” Mrs. Polk cut the greenery herself and threw in a photograph of Polk Place that showed the tomb of the president.
The 1866 Baltimore Fair was organized by women in Maryland to assist people within the former Confederacy, including Tennesseans. The final report of the relief association is particularly interesting with respect to Tennessee and demonstrates an East Coast obliviousness regarding the Western Theater that is still sometimes apparent today. At first, Tennessee was only appropriated $6,000 “from an impression that the State had suffered very little in the late war.” This “very great mistake” was soon rectified and additional money funneled to Tennessee, including $500 for an orphan asylum in Clarksville.
The detailed reports kept by organizers of Civil War-era fairs and bazaars provide a treasure trove of information for historians of the war, particularly those interested in material culture and the role of civilians on the home front.
Report of the Christmas Bazaar: Held Under the Auspices of the Ladies’ Hospital Relief Association, from December 14 to December 22, inclusive at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, N.Y. (Rochester, Benton & Andrews, 1863).
Report of the Ladies’ Southern Relief Association of Maryland, September 1st, 1866 (Baltimore: Kelly & Piet, 1866).
Teaching with Primary Sources–MTSU Lesson Plan: “Help Is on the Way: Civil War Women and Relief Work.”
Antoinette G. van Zelm, “Fairs and Bazaars,” in Lisa Tendrich Frank, ed., The World of the Civil War: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2015).