The American Red Cross traces its beginning to 1881 with the formation, by Clara Barton and a group of supporters, of the American Association of the Red Cross in Washington, DC. But the roots of the Red Cross in America go further back into our history — to the US Civil War.
When the Civil War began, Barton, formally called Clarissa Harlowe Barton, was a US Patent Office clerk. Appalled at the lack of clothing and bedding of some soldiers, she began taking supplies to men of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry. It wasn’t long before Barton was collecting medical supplies and relief articles and distributing them to the scenes of battles and in Army field hospitals.
After the northern Virginia battle of Cedar Mountain, Barton drove to the battlefield with a four-mule team wagon filled with medical supplies, arriving at midnight. The surgeon on duty would later call her an “angel” because her “assistance was so timely.” Barton thereafter became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” and would go on to be of service to troops at the battles of Fairfax Station, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Charleston, Petersburg and Cold Harbor.
Barton visited Europe in 1869 where she was introduced to the Red Cross through the work of Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross Movement. His calls for international agreements to protect the wounded and sick during wartime became the basis for the Geneva Convention.
In 1870 when the Franco-Prussian War was in progress, Barton went to the war zone with volunteers from the International Red Cross, helping to distribute relief supplies to the needy in conquered cities. On returning to the United States, she made appeals to three presidents before Chester Arthur signed the Geneva Convention for the United States in 1882.
The American Association of the Red Cross that Barton formed in 1881 was reincorporated as the American National Red Cross in 1893, and was given charters by Congress in 1900 and 1905.
Barton was head of the organization for 23 years, conducting disaster relief efforts both in the US and overseas, aiding the US military during the Spanish-American War, and introducing programs on water safety, first aid and public health nursing.
After the outbreak of World War I, the American Red Cross experienced a huge growth, with membership exceeding 20 million adult members and 11 million junior Red Cross members by 1918.
Service to veterans, safety training, home care for the sick and accident prevention became the areas of focus for the Red Cross after the First World War, but it also provided relief to victims Mississippi River floods in 1927 and severe drought during the 1930s.
The Red Cross provided extensive services to the US military and civilians during World War II, providing more than 100,000 nurses for service and preparing 27 million aid packages for Allied prisoners of war. It also began a national blood program to collect blood for use by the military services, a program that would be expanded after the war to become the first nationwide civilian blood program.
The Red Cross continued to provide services to military members and their families during the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf wars, and also expanded into areas such as civil defense, CPR training and giving emotional care to disaster victims.
Today, the Red Cross is an independent, volunteer organization led by a 50-member volunteer board and gets its support from cost reimbursement charges and contributions from the public. It works closely with the International Committee of the Red Cross on issues of international conflict and continues to bring aid to disaster victims throughout the world.
Important Dates in Red Cross History
• In September of 1881, the Red Cross was five months old and has its first opportunity to test its abilities in one of the nation’s worst wildfires.
• On April 18, 1906, an earthquake measuring 8.25 on the Richter scale struck San Francisco. Four square miles of the city were destroyed by the subsequent fires. The Red Cross responded and helped thousands of injured and homeless citizens.
• The Red Cross assisted miners and their families after 250 miners were entombed in a collapse in the St. Paul coal mine in Cherry, Illinois on November 13, 1909. The disaster led to national Workers’ Compensation Laws.
• The influenza pandemic of 1918 was one of the largest and deadliest disease outbreaks in the history of the United States and the Red Cross played a principal role in helping fight the outbreak.
Red Cross Wartime Assistance
The American Red Cross first performed war-related services in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, responding to the need for help for the men who went to fight in Cuba and the Philippines.
When Europe was engulfed in the First World War in 1914, the United States remained neutral until it was drawn into the conflict in 1917. The American Red Cross was still a fledgling group when the war began, but after the US declared war against Germany, the organization experienced a growth spurt.
When war broke out in Europe again in 1939, the Red Cross was the main provider of relief supplies for civilians displaced by the conflict and others who needed assistance. The International Red Cross Committee, based in Geneva, Switzerland, became the central point of assistance.
After the Allies invaded the European continent in Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, Red Cross workers crossed in their wake and began to provide services for the various branches of the US armed forces.
Half a decade later, the Red Cross again mobilized its resources to provide services to US military personnel fighting in the Korean War.
In the mid-1960s, the Red Cross presence grew dramatically in Vietnam with the introduction and build-up of United States combat troops. After the US troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1973, the Red Cross stayed on to provide assistance to Vietnamese refugees.
The Red Cross provided assistance to members of the military during the Gulf War of 1991 and continues its activities with service members today.