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Guide to the Southern Famine Relief Commission Records
1867-1868 (bulk 1867)
  MS 2430

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jan Hilley

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on August 12, 2014
Description is in English.

Historical Note

Aside from social and political turmoil in the Civil Wars immediate aftermath, the South faced other major problems -- significantly increased numbers of widows, orphans and disabled men; destruction of homes, rural and urban; and great loss of such property as tools, farm implements and stock. To make matters worse, a severe drought in 1866 led to widespread crop failures. Much of Southern citizenry was without work and many were on the brink of starvation.

News of this worsening situation began reaching the Northern states by means of personal letters, agents sent by Southern churches and benevolent organizations, and word passed along to societies and clubs having Southern branches. As a result, a few independent groups began forming to provide assistance to specific groups and locales.

In New York City, private concern resulted in the calling of a public meeting on January 25, 1867 at the Cooper Institute for the purpose of discussing the Southern Destitution and considering potential action. Speeches were made by Peter Cooper, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher and Horace Greeley, and the Southern Famine Relief Commission was established to investigate the facts and take any warranted action.

Executives of this group included:

Archibald Russell President
Edward Bright Corresponding Secretary
Frederick Law Olmsted Recording Secretary
James M. Brown Treasurer
John Bowne General Agent

Standing Committees were appointed:

On Business with the South Edward Bright, Chairman
On Business with the North Frederick Law Olmsted, Chairman
Purchasing and Forwarding Howard Potter, Chairman
On City Collections J. Pierpont Morgan, Chairman

Over a five month period, the committees met daily, with a general meeting held once a week. The organization determined its responsibilities to be the following:

  1. To collect credible information. Initial requests for information were made to military personnel and members of the local provisional governments in the Southern states. Subsequent information was provided by a wide variety of individuals and groups.
  2. To make the information public. This they accomplished by means of circulars, handbills, newspaper stories, public events and correspondence. Providing reliable information was of particular importance as some in the North were skeptical about the seriousness of the situation and many continued to harbor ill feelings towards their old enemies.
  3. To suggest and assist in the formation of other independent cooperating societies. The group was careful not to interfere with or duplicate the tasks of other groups.
  4. To stimulate loans and other forms of aid.
  5. To solicit donations for the purchase and transport of Indian corn in small quantities to those areas of the South most in need. States receiving most of the aid were North and South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.

During its brief existence (January 25, 1867 through its final meeting on November 8, 1867), the Southern Famine Relief Commission purchased and transported 169,316 bushels of corn. This represents enough corn to sustain 600,000 people for a four month period. The total cost was $206,287. In addition, $12,000 was sent in cash to trustworthy agents to be used in caring for the sick. The group also made possible the shipment of a variety of small donations for Southern relief. Such items as clothing, wine, potatoes, beans, pork, buckwheat and flour were sent directly to the Commission by individuals in New York and surrounding states.

There were other groups involved in relief efforts during 1867, including the Federal Government through its Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Land. The Ladies Relief Association of New York City, for example, collected $80,000; the state of Maryland, $1,000,000; and the city of Pittsburgh, $30,000. A total of three to five million dollars is estimated to have been expended overall during 1867 to save thousands from starvation in the South.