Archives Experience Newsletter - May 16, 2023
A Symbol of Service
As soldiers lay injured on the battlefield during the Civil War, a woman ran among them, providing life-saving care. Clara Barton’s heroic deeds earned her the nickname the “Angel of the Battlefield,” and it wasn’t just American soldiers she saved. Her journey overseas during the Franco-Prussian War inspired her to bring an iconic organization to America: the International Red Cross.
Today, the American Red Cross is known for blood donation and first aid training, but its emergence on the international scene actually changed the rules of war. Once again, the National Archives holdings come to our aid to tell this story…
In this issue
Ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence….
While our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them…
The British got jelly…
The Rules of War
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which presently has more than 21,000 employees working in more than 100 countries worldwide and is affiliated with Red Cross, Red Crescent, and Red Crystal societies in more than 190 countries, started as a tiny committee of five people who met in Geneva, Switzerland, in February 1863. One of the five, Henry Dunant, had written a book in 1862 titled A Memory of Solferino, in which he documented the suffering of wounded soldiers at the Battle of Solferino, which was fought in 1859 during the Second Italian War of Independence. “Would it not be possible,” he wrote, “in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?”
By the end of 1863, the committee had convinced several governments to agree to Dunant’s proposal. In August of the next year, the 1864 Geneva Convention codified the “Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field.” Twelve states and kingdoms agreed to abide by the convention. Over the next 50 years, individual nations established Red Cross organizations within their borders, and the international committee devoted itself to its mission of caring for those injured during war. In time, the ICRC has expanded its mission to include caring for prisoners of war and for the victims, both military and civilian, of civil wars and other, less well-defined conflicts. Its fundamental understanding of its mission has never changed—the ICRC defines itself as “an independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and armed violence.”
In 1901, in recognition of his role in the establishment of the International Red Cross and the creation of the Geneva Convention, Henry Dunant received the first Nobel Peace Prize.
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Just as the ICRC was gaining traction in Europe, the American Civil War was nearing its bloody end. The woman who founded the American Red Cross, Clarissa Harlowe Barton, encountered the ICRC when she was traveling in Europe in 1869. Born on December 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, to Captain Stephen Barton and Sarah Stone Barton, Barton had been a schoolteacher and then a federal civil servant in the U.S. Patent Office until the Civil War began. Barton then quit her job to nurse sick and wounded soldiers on both sides of the conflict full time. She proved to be a formidable organizer, soliciting donations of money, food, and supplies, enlisting nurses to work in the field, and following the armies from battlefield to battlefield, setting up field hospitals and commandeering buildings to serve as surgeries and shelters for the wounded. She worked practically on the frontlines and was absolutely fearless under fire. “I shall remain here while anyone remains, and do whatever comes to my hand,” she once said. “I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.”
When the war ended, Barton established and ran the Office of Missing Soldiers, which eventually located more than 22,000 missing men, many of whom had been buried in unmarked graves. Barton and her team identified them and arranged proper burials for all of them.
Once that mission was completed, she went on a nationwide speaking tour, during which she met Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass and educated herself about their causes. But when the tour ended, she at last had to admit to being completely exhausted. To recuperate, she went to Europe, where, in 1869 in Geneva, she met Dr. Louis Paul Amédée Appia, a Swiss surgeon who was another of the five founding members of the ICRC. Appia invited Barton to found a branch of the Red Cross in the United States and helped her find benefactors to support the organization financially. She remained in Europe throughout the Franco-Prussian War, during which she helped organize military hospitals and distribute food and clothing to the poor in Paris and Strasbourg. For her humanitarian work, she received several honors from various governments.
Barton returned to the United States determined to win recognition for the International Red Cross from the U.S. government and to establish a branch of the organization here, but she was fighting an uphill battle—President Rutherford B. Hayes told her in 1878 that since the U.S. would never face another situation as dire as the Civil War, there was no need for such an organization here. She finally convinced President Chester A. Arthur that an American Red Cross would also be useful in responding to national disasters like fires, floods, and other natural calamities.
On May 21, 1881, the American society of the Red Cross held its first meeting at Clara Barton’s apartment on I Street in Washington, D.C., and elected her as its president. Her first immediate goal was to persuade Congress to ratify the Geneva Convention of 1864. That goal was achieved in 1882, and Barton then turned her attention to putting the society’s mission into action.
Under her leadership, the American National Red Cross took part in national and international disaster relief efforts. The Red Cross tended to the wounded on both sides of the conflict during the Spanish-American War. It provided help to people who were displaced by floods in Ohio in 1884, to those suffering from famine in Texas in 1887, to those whose lives were upended by a tornado in Illinois in 1888, and to those suffering from an outbreak of yellow fever in Florida that same year. In the aftermath of the Armenian Massacre in the Ottoman Empire in 1896, which occasioned a humanitarian crisis, Clara Barton and the American Red Cross were on the scene, providing direct aid to the victims. Barton’s last disaster relief operation was in response to the Galveston hurricane of 1900. She resigned her presidency in 1904.
The ICRC was instrumental during World War I in caring for the wounded, in establishing agencies to create links between prisoners of war and their families back home, and in calling for the cessation of the use of weapons that caused mass destruction, specifically, mustard gas. Between the World Wars, the international committee brokered additional agreements in Geneva between nations about how combatants and noncombatants should be treated and served on the battlefields of civil wars, specifically the Spanish Civil War.
During World War II, the ICRC devoted itself to helping victims on both sides of the conflict, including civilians and prisoners of war. However, the Red Cross markedly did not take any official action to help the Jewish people and other minorities whom the Nazis systematically annihilated, which the organization itself describes as “the ICRC’s greatest failure.”
Since the end of World War II, the ICRC has continued its efforts simultaneously on two fronts—to help those who suffer on account of wars and to urge all nations to strengthen international humanitarian laws and to abide by them.
Currently, the Red Cross is composed of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and more than 190 individual national societies. In 1864, the ICRC chose as its symbol a red cross on a white backdrop to show people where they could seek medical aid, comfort, and refuge. The name the organization operates under in countries with primarily Christian populations is “Red Cross,” while in nations with mainly Muslim populations, it uses the name “Red Crescent.” The latter name was adopted at the urging of the Ottoman Empire in 1906. In addition, in 2005, the organization adopted a third symbol, the Red Crystal, for countries that prefer an emblem not affiliated with a Christian or Muslim identity. The crystal is a red square standing on its edge against a white background.
In the United States, the American Red Cross is of course active in disaster relief, including at the local level for events like house fires, floods, and tornados, but it has expanded its mission to include many other services. In the 1940s, the Red Cross created the first civilian blood donation program in the U.S., an effort that continues to this day. It also offers classes and certifications in first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation/automated external defibrillator (CPR/AED), basic life support/CPR for healthcare, Al’s Pals (classes that teach life skills to young children), lifeguarding, and swimming and water safety.
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