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Our History

Our History

What started as a call to comfort the wounded during the Civil War has evolved into a movement to "Strengthen Our Military Family®" every single day.

The proud heritage of the Armed Services YMCA begins in April 1861 when YMCA volunteers provided relief and comfort to sick and injured Civil War soldiers. Initially, the volunteers handed out coffee, held hands in medical tents and helped to write letters at military encampments. But shortly after, the volunteers braved the danger of the battlefields and delivered services to the soldiers on the front lines.

News of these selfless and courageous actions spread quickly, and the number of volunteers increased dramatically. Within seven months, the movement turned into the first large-scale civilian volunteer service corps.

Representatives of 15 YMCAs joined forces to coordinate the relief efforts and formed the United States Christian Commission, whose purpose was to provide spiritual and physical comfort to soldiers, and today’s Armed Services YMCA was born.

President Abraham Lincoln took notice and responded to a letter by Chair Reverend George H. Stuart on December 12, 1861. The President wrote the “benevolent undertaking for the benefit of the soldiers” was both “proper and praiseworthy.” He concluded with, “I sincerely hope your plan may be as successful in execution, as it is just and generous in conception.”

Our Timeline

  • 1861
    During the Civil War, a group of local YMCA members voluntarily provided relief services to American Armed Forces in encampments near the front lines. Within seven months, the movement spread across the country and became the first large-scale civilian volunteer service corps, established as the United States Christian Commission. President Abraham Lincoln recognized the Commission for its efforts during the Civil War.
  • 1864
    By 1864, the iconic Coffee Wagon, also called the Cooking Wagon, became synonymous with comfort for soldiers. Invented and built by Jacob Dunton of Philadelphia, it is estimated that 90 gallons of tea, coffee or hot chocolate could be every hour and provided food for 400 soldiers. As they said, “a most ingenious and beneficent invention.”
  • 1889
    YMCA established the first permanent Army YMCA at Fort Monroe, Virginia.
  • 1898
    At the onset of the Spanish American War, the YMCA sent more than 500 volunteers to various stations in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. YMCA’s volunteer efforts were so highly regarded that the U.S. government established a permanent Army and Navy Committee to give national direction to the work of the YMCA.
  • 1902
    Congress authorized construction of additional YMCA buildings on military installations.
  • 1914
    YMCA built a national service network of 31 Army and Navy YMCAs operating across the country.
  • 1917
    When World War I began, the YMCA launched a massive program of morale and welfare services for the military, serving 90% of American military forces in Europe. Never in history had an organization aided so many troops over such a wide geographic area and under such adverse conditions.
  • 1941
    President Franklin Roosevelt asked the YMCA to take the lead in mobilizing military support during World War II. The YMCA, YWCA, National Catholic Community Services, Jewish Welfare Board, Salvation Army, and National Travelers Aid Association came together and formed the United Services Organizations (USO).
  • 1947
    The USO deactivated, and the YMCA’s Army and Navy Department immediately filled the gap in social services for military personnel, changing its name to the YMCA Armed Services Department.
  • 1948
    The YMCA Armed Services Department assumed responsibility for 26 former USO branches and also established work overseas.
  • 1951
    The USO reactivates during the Korean War, with the YMCA serving as its major operating agency and continued operations through the Vietnam conflict.
  • 1977
    The end of the draft in 1973 and establishment of an all-volunteer Armed Forces created new demands for organizations serving military personnel, spurring the USO to ask the YMCA to assume responsibility for 12 USO centers.
  • 1980
    The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense asked the YMCA Armed Services Department to develop and operate a national center called the Military Family Resource Center (MFRC).
  • 1983
    The Department of Defense and the military branches determined that YMCA’s Military Family Resource Center had successfully demonstrated its need to become a permanent part of the Department of Defense.
  • 1984
    The Armed Services YMCA officially established a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Defense.
  • 2013
    The Armed Services YMCA operates programs for young troops and their families through branches and affiliates nationwide.