Though movies and popular television like to depict acts of respect and chivalry for one’s adversaries on the battlefields of yore, the idea of nonpartisan, humanitarian aid to all victims of war and disaster is not as old as you might think.
When the Civil War began in 1861, Clara Barton was just another clerk at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Barton’s great crusade, which helped define modern humanitarianism, began when she saw soldiers crowding into the city without food or shelter prepared for them. More importantly, there was not enough medical care for wounded soldiers returning from the front.
She began distributing food and supplies to sick and wounded soldiers in the area but soon realized there was an even greater need for her services closer to the battlefield. After receiving permission to travel to the front lines, she started delivering medical supplies and tending to wounded soldiers right on the fields of battle, often risking her life to do so. Eventually, army commanders recognized the good work she was doing and gave her responsibility for all the Union’s hospitals along the James River.
After the war, Barton continued her humanitarian work by helping relatives find the remains of 22,000 soldiers who’d been reported missing. She also helped identify — and bury — 13,000 casualties of the Andersonville Prison Camp in Georgia.
After four years of this work, Barton took a break and visited Europe. But any chance for a restful vacation ended when she learned of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had been founded in Geneva in 1864. She was drawn to its mission of providing international aid to protect the sick and wounded on all sides in war.
Barton stayed to help civilians caught up in the Franco-Prussian War, and when she returned to the States, she urged the U.S. government to sign the Geneva Treaty that created the ICRC. U.S. approval to join the international organization came in 1881, and the American Red Cross was incorporated on May 21 of that year.
Now, 135 years later, the American Red Cross is still going strong, providing shelter, food, and healthcare services at roughly 70,000 disasters every year, from single-home fires to earthquakes that affect millions. Its blood program collects, tests, and types over 40 percent of the country’s blood supply. It delivers needed services to 150,000 military families each year, including training and support for wounded veterans. The Red Cross also provides training in first aid, CPR, and lifeguarding.
As part of an international organization, it joins the Red Cross in 187 countries to help over 100 million people worldwide every year.
In 1878, when the item below appeared in the Post, few readers would have heard of the Red Cross, which is why the author felt the need to describe the organization’s symbol and mission. Though the ICRC’s original focus was the treatment of war wounded, this uncredited news item shows that Barton already had a broader vision for the Red Cross. Under her direction, the American Red Cross — and eventually the ICRC — would provide aid to survivors of natural disasters, including forest fires, floods, and famines.
Note: The Howard Association referred to in this article was a relief organization set up in 1855 to help victims of the viral Yellow Fever epidemic in Norfolk, Virginia.
Originally published on December 28, 1878
Miss Clara Barton, who has been termed the Florence Nightingale of America, has issued a pamphlet on the subject of establishing a “Red Cross Society” in this country which will be a branch of that great international humane association whose symbol — the red cross on a white ground — has carried succor and help to so many scenes of distress.
While the aim of the relief societies which have carried on their work under the name of the Red Cross has been to ameliorate the condition of wounded soldiers, it is also intended to furnish relief and assistance to sufferers in time of great national calamities such as plagues, cholera, yellow fever, devastating fires or floods, railway disasters, mining catastrophes, etc.
The readiness of organizations like those of the “Red Cross,” to extend help at the instant of need, renders the aid of quadruple value and efficiency, as compared to that gathered together hastily and irresponsibly in the bewilderment and shock which always accompanies such calamities, and which prove to be obstacles rather than aids to the cause.
The trained nurses and also attendants subject to the relief societies, in such causes would accompany the supplies sent, and remain in action as long as needed. Organized in every state, the relief societies of the Red Cross would be ready with money, nurses and supplies, to go on call to the instant relief of all who were overwhelmed by any of those sudden calamities which occasionally visit us. In case of yellow fever, there being an organization in every state, the nurses and attendants would be first chosen from the nearest societies, and being acclimated would incur far less risk to life than if sent from distant localities.
The work of the Howard Association during the late Southern affliction is a substantial proof of the success of a trained relief organization, and the desirability of Miss Barton’s plan is so obvious, it should be heartily sustained by every state.