Considering History: The Civil War and Antiracist Origins of the American Red Cross

Long before she founded the Red Cross, Clara Barton was an ally of the abolitionist and civil rights movements.

Clara Barton

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

After the unprecedented and horrific tornadoes that tore through much of the South and Midwest late last week, Americans were greeted with a familiar and reassuring message: the American Red Cross calling for contributions, not just of financial donations but also of blood and supplies, to aid in their relief efforts. For 140 years, the American Red Cross has been a constant and crucial presence across all manner of disasters, wars, and crises, complementing local medical and relief efforts and giving Americans everywhere a chance to help respond to these destructive events.

While the American Red Cross was formally founded by Clara Barton in May 1881, its origins truly date back two decades earlier, to the Civil War. Barton’s roles in that conflict, including her wartime encounter with one of the era’s most impressive nurses and most inspiring figures, the escaped slave Susie King Taylor, help us recognize that the American Red Cross, like every part of our national story, is interconnected with histories of race and antiracism alike.

Born on Christmas Day 200 years ago, Barton’s first experiences in the federal government were directly tied to the Civil War era’s earliest events. After teaching for nearly two decades, including in New Jersey’s first “free school” which she helped found in 1852, Barton moved to Washington in 1855 and began work as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. She lost that position and returned to her birth state of Massachusetts not long after the 1856 election of Democrat James Buchanan, as his administration sought to purge both women and Republican sympathizers from the government. When Republican Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860, Barton returned to D.C. and the patent office, working as a temporary copyist with the hopes of contributing more fully to the burgeoning conflict.

She got her chance in April 1861, when the first contingent of U.S. Army volunteers arrived in Washington. Lincoln issued his initial call for such volunteers on April 15th, the day after the attack on Fort Sumter concluded, and the first soldiers to arrive in D.C. were members of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment; they had been attacked by Confederate sympathizers while traveling through Baltimore and many were wounded. The soldiers were initially housed in the U.S. Senate chamber, and one of the first people to come to their aid there was Clara Barton, who helped nurse and provide supplies for the injured and non-injured soldiers alike. Working by her side to provide that aid was Massachusetts Senator Henry Wilson, one of the founders of the Republican Party and a lifelong abolitionist who was one of Lincoln’s key allies and advocates.

That alliance with Wilson would prove crucial as Barton worked to broaden and deepen her contributions to the unfolding war effort. As she put it, “What could I do but go with them, or work for them and my country? The patriot blood of my father was warm in my veins.” That work began by using her Washington home as a storeroom and distribution center for supplies; the War Department opposed this measure, but Barton recognized severe gaps in the government’s readiness, and Wilson, who chaired the Senate’s Committee on Military Affairs, supported her. In August 1862, again with Wilson’s aid, Barton gained official approval to work on the front lines; despite her lack of formal medical training she would become an indispensable part of the nursing and surgical efforts at every subsequent Virginia battle, most notably the horrific December 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg.

Over the war’s remaining years, Barton would extend that service beyond Virginia, to camps and battlefields wherever the U.S. Army traveled. At a military hospital in Beaufort, South Carolina, she met and worked for a time alongside another Civil War nurse and one of the era’s most impressive and inspiring individuals, Susie King Taylor. Born into slavery in Georgia in 1848, Susie Baker escaped in 1862 at the age of 14; she found her way to South Carolina’s Sea Islands and began work as an educator for fellow escaped enslaved people (she had secretly learned to read while enslaved). Shortly thereafter she attached herself to the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, the U.S. Army’s first Black regiment, with whom she would work as an educator, a laundress, and a nurse (and one of whom, Sergeant Edward King, she would marry and work alongside until his death in 1866).

Portrait of Susie King Taylor
Susie King Taylor (Library of Congress)

In her compelling memoir, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers (1902), Taylor describes her encounter with Clara Barton as well as Barton’s commitment to African American soldiers and civilians alike. With the regiment stationed at nearby Camp Shaw, Taylor journeyed to Beaufort’s military hospital “to see the comrades” being tended to there, and had the chance to care for them alongside Barton; as Taylor writes, “Miss Barton was always very cordial toward me, and I honored her for her devotion and care of those men.” She also notes Barton’s attachment to one particular escaped slave, John Johnson, with whom Barton worked in the hospital; “I have been told,” Taylor writes, “that when [Barton] went South, in 1883, she tried to look this man up, but learned he was dead. His son is living in Edisto, Rev. J. J. Johnson, and is the president of an industrial school on that island and a very intelligent man.”

Photo of the First Carolina Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, in 1863
The First Carolina Volunteer Infantry, 1863 (Library of Congress)

Barton’s search for Johnson was just one small part of her extensive post-war efforts, which especially included founding and running the Office of Missing Soldiers that sought to locate tens of thousands of missing in action U.S. Army soldiers (and to provide proper burials and full commemorations of those who had been killed). During the same era she befriended Frederick Douglass and became an ally in the abolitionist movement’s Reconstruction battles for African American civil rights; in an April 1869 letter to Barton, Douglass commended her on her efforts and her “devotion to suffering humanity in every form and of every color.” Her decade-long work to establish an American branch of the International Red Cross began just a few years later, and is thus clearly interconnected with these ongoing post-war efforts.

Barton’s American Red Cross has across its 140 years served every American community in every possible circumstance and need. But none of that work can or should be separated from its origins in Barton’s Civil War nursing and commitment, where she demonstrated dedication to all Americans and to the struggle for equal rights.

Featured image: Clara Barton, 1865 (Library of Congress)

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