As we recognize President Lincoln’s birthday this month, let’s reflect on his connection to the YMCA at a pivotal moment in the nation’s – and the Y’s — history.
Lincoln wrote this letter to the YMCA just five months after Bull Run, the first major battle of the Civil War. Americans were shocked by the death and violence of the battle, which was far worse than many expected. Lincoln commended Y volunteers for springing into action to support the troops.
The story behind Lincoln’s letter begins with YMCA volunteer Vincent Colyer of New York City. He left his business to visit local encampments where soldiers were stationed while on their way to the battlefront. Out of concern for the religious and spiritual needs of the soldiers, Colyer offered words of encouragement, and handed out bibles and religious pamphlets.
As military camps multiplied, the needs, both physical and spiritual, increased. The YMCA felt a deep obligation to meet these needs, for many of the soldiers had been active members of the Y.
Colyer sounded the call to other YMCA leaders across the northeast that the need for volunteers to support soldiers was far greater than anyone could imagine. Many local Y branches were already doing what they could to help, but as soldiers moved farther away, it became clear that a coordinated, national response was needed.
At Colyer’s urging, a special YMCA convention was held in New York in November 1861 and the Christian Commission was created to organize Y volunteers to support troops in the field. Lincoln endorsed the Y’s plan the following month.
Though originally devised to meet spiritual needs, the activities of the commission soon expanded, making it a valuable agency of wartime relief. A news report described the Y effort as “promoting temperance, multiplying libraries, reading-rooms, and gymnasiums.” Thirty years later, in 1891, this commitment to nurturing “mind, body and spirit” would be emblazoned as part of the YMCA’s signature triangle logo.
Y volunteers serving at the front and behind the lines established tents as social centers with stationery and periodicals, and taught soldiers to read and write. They provided emergency medical supplies, food, and clothing, and operated canteens and lending libraries.
The work of the commission was a pivotal moment in the history of the YMCA movement in America. At the outset of the Civil War, the YMCA in the United States was just 10 years old. Yet, 5,000 YMCA volunteers served as surgeons, nurses and chaplains. Y volunteers distributed more than $6 million worth of goods and supplies in hospitals, camps, prisons and battlefields
The YMCA’s relief work during the Civil War was recognized by civil and military authorities. That recognition created national prestige for the Y and cemented the YMCA’s commitment to social responsibility, a commitment that continues to this day. Honest Abe would be proud.
— Mark Hansen