Frederick Law Olmsted’s War on Disease and Disunity

Men stand around a soldiers' home.
During the Civil War, the newly created U.S. Sanitary Commission oversaw medical facilities and health services for Union soldiers.Photograph Courtesy New York Public Library

In October of 1862, with the country still reeling from the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Antietam, Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect and a of the Southern slave economy, published a pamphlet that called for a nationwide effort to assemble provisions to care for sick and wounded soldiers. “The recent battles East and West have completely exhausted the reserved stock,” he wrote, “and it is found now not only impracticable to accumulate supplies, but impossible to meet even urgent demands daily made by hospitals within sight of the very dome of the Capitol.” His plea has a familiar ring today, as does the title of the , “What They Have to Do Who Stay at Home.”

Olmsted is most beloved for his work on New York City’s Central Park and Prospect Park, which he designed and built with Calvert Vaux before and after, respectively, the War Between the States. In recent weeks, New Yorkers have ventured out for strolls and sits among the blossoming landscapes that Olmsted wrought from unscenic acreage a century and a half ago. But Olmsted’s service to the country during the Civil War is what makes him especially relevant just now. In 1861, Olmsted gave up oversight of Central Park to run the newly created and privately funded U.S. Sanitary Commission, a predecessor to the American Red Cross. The Civil War was a public-health emergency—more soldiers died of disease than of battlefield wounds, owing partly to the miserable condition of the Army’s medical apparatus. Olmsted oversaw the creation and operation of medical boats and field hospitals, and set up new triage and quarantine procedures for infectious patients. The emergency tent hospital in Central Park and the U.S.N.S. Comfort parked on the Hudson were probably the Olmsted-iest things we’ve seen in a while.

伊人在香蕉在线2018最新版The United States had a relatively small standing army at the start of the Civil War, one that was further divided, in two, by secession. Volunteer regiments were raised and equipped in an enthusiastic but ad-hoc manner, and, when the first test of the new Union forces came in July of 1861, at Bull Run, the result was a disorganized melee. Olmsted, wanting to document and cure the deadly lack of discipline, morale, and medical preparation that he and his front-line responders had witnessed, deployed a team of Sanitary Commission inspectors to conduct a meticulous seventy-five-question survey of the soldiers. Armed with those insights, Olmsted compiled a “Report on the Demoralization of the Volunteers,” a document the commission’s board scuttled for fear that it would have hurt recruiting efforts. The Sanitary Commission was generally a thorn in the side of the federal government, the leaders of which did not immediately appreciate the meddling of wealthy New York élites, or the implication that the war was not under control. Lincoln himself referred to it as “a fifth wheel.”

So, that October, Olmsted went straight to the people, specifically to the “Loyal Women of America,” with a direct for badly needed supplies for the winter, asking that every woman in the country knit or buy a pair of woollen stockings. Existing sewing societies and reading clubs were prevailed upon to gather blankets, drawers, splints, and pillows to support wounded limbs. Seeing morale as key to health, Olmsted called for jelly, booze, and backgammon boards. “Books, for desultory reading and magazines especially if illustrated will be useful,” he wrote. (Side note for desultory readers: the Internet Archive’s National Emergency Library伊人在香蕉在线2018最新版 currently offers two very worthwhile biographies of Olmsted: Witold Rybczynski’s “A Clearing in the Distance” and Lee Hall’s “Olmsted’s America.”)

伊人在香蕉在线2018最新版Olmsted’s appeal was printed in newspapers across America, and carried a pithy endorsement from President Abraham Lincoln, who said, lukewarmly, that “there is no agency through which voluntary offerings of patriotism can be more effectively made.” The White House itself wasn’t much help, as Olmsted pointed out a few paragraphs later: “For the means of administering to the needs of the sick and wounded, the Commission,” he wrote, “receives not one dollar from Government.”

The welfare of the casualties would be up to the people and to the states, many of which launched their own robust supply drives aimed at equipping native sons. This deeply frustrated Olmsted, who complained, a year later, “What real patriot can wish or be willing, even, to have soldiers from his State, or from his town, or his kindred, enjoying extra comforts and luxuries, while wounded men by their side, or on the distant battle-field, are, perhaps, in actual stress of life for want of the very supplies which a better distribution would secure to them?” Olmsted was a big fan of democracy doing big things for everyone, including future generations. Whether scenic beauty or war, hospital or park, Olmsted believed that we were all in this together, like it or not. Incompetence wouldn’t do. Short-term thinking wouldn’t do. It seemed to Olmsted that the entire point of the war was for the states to come together as a country. “In union is strength. In disunion is weakness and waste. Can we not, in this trial of our nation, learn to wholly lay aside that poor disguise of narrowness of purpose and self-conceit, which takes the name of local interest and public spirit, but whose fruit is manifest in secession?” he wrote.

He was out with the Army as often as he was in Washington—a Fauci and伊人在香蕉在线2018最新版 a front-line worker. After the Battle of Seven Pines, in June, 1862, Katharine Prescott Wormeley, one of the Sanitary Commission’s top nurses, wrote to her mother, saying, “Mr. Olmsted is everything,—wise, authoritative, untiring; but he must break down. . . . To think or speak of the things we see would be fatal. No one must come here who cannot put away all feeling. Do all you can, and be a machine,—that’s the way to act; the only way.” Closing the letter, she noted that she was sitting on the floor with Olmsted, resting, with a pitcher of lemonade between them.

伊人在香蕉在线2018最新版At the Battle of Antietam, the single day of the Civil War, some twenty-three thousand Americans—from the North and South—were killed, wounded, or missing. The Sanitary Commission agents arrived three days after the battle, and, according to Olmsted, within a week the commission had delivered to the hospitals “ten thousand shirts and drawers, five hundred bottles of stimulants”—booze—“two thousand sponges, several tons of soup, and other nice articles of nutriment.”

That list suggests the current contents of a restaurant called Olmsted, on Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, which this magazine called “an urban sanctuary” back in 2016. It’s truly one now. The chef, Greg Baxtrom, and his co-owner, Max Katzenberg, had to furlough their staff after the stay-at-home order, but decided to turn their kitchen into a food bank for neighborhood restaurant workers. Soon they started feeding hospital workers, too, and then whoever needed a meal. And now, having received donations of baby formula, diapers, bras, and toothbrushes, Baxtrom is giving away more than food. “We’re basically a bodega now,” he said by phone the other day, in the midst of opening boxes. He was converting the restaurant’s private dining room into the Olmsted Trading Post, selling bread, organic vegetables, bottled cocktails, and wine, to help fund their food-bank efforts and rehire some of his furloughed employees. To ward off demoralization, flower boxes and a rainbow pennant banner frame the front window, on which the Trading Post logo is nicely painted, as though the pop-up may stay for a while.

伊人在香蕉在线2018最新版 of himself as an Eagle Scout on Instagram, in an effort to inspire followers to do their duty. Olmsted himself would have approved. As he wrote in “What They Have to Do Who Stay at Home”: “We must make any necessary sacrifices to firmly and finally establish here the policy of cooperation and brotherly unity.”

Baxtrom’s emergency version of Olmsted makes a fitting, if unintentional, tribute. But it’s worth mentioning that there is no statue of Frederick Law Olmsted in Prospect Park, nor in Central Park, nor anywhere in New York City—nor anywhere at all, it seems, except for a fairly recent in North Carolina. His sits abandoned and in need of restoration. Maybe when this is all over we should think about a monument worthy of him. Or maybe the parks are monument enough.