The Red Cross is an international humanitarian network founded in 1863 in Switzerland, with chapters worldwide that provide assistance to victims of disasters, armed conflict and health crises. The Red Cross’s roots date to 1859, when businessman Henry Dunant witnessed the bloody aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in Italy, in which there was little medical support for injured soldiers. Dunant went on to advocate for the establishment of national relief organizations made up of trained volunteers who could offer assistance to war-wounded soldiers, regardless of which side of the fighting they were on.
Henry Dunant and the Origins of the Red Cross
In 1859, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was traveling in northern Italy when he witnessed the aftermath of a bloody battle between Franco-Sardinian and Austrian forces near the small village of Solferino.
The fighting had left some 40,000 troops dead, wounded or missing, and both the armies, as well as the residents of the region, were ill-equipped to deal with the situation.
By 1862, Dunant published a book, A Memory of Solferino, in which he advocated for the establishment of national relief organizations made up of trained volunteers who could offer assistance to war-wounded soldiers, whichever side of the fighting they were on. The following year, Dunant was part of a Swiss-based committee that put together a plan for national relief associations.
The group, which eventually became known as the International Committee of the Red Cross, adopted the symbol of a red cross on a white background, an inverse of the Swiss flag, as a way to identify medical workers on the battlefield. (In the 1870s, the Ottoman Empire began using a red crescent as its emblem, in place of a red cross; many Islamic countries continue the practice today.)
In late 1863, the first national society was started in the German state of Württemberg.
And in 1864, 12 countries signed the original Geneva Convention, which called for the humane treatment of sick and wounded soldiers, regardless of nationality, and the civilians who came to their aid.
Dunant experienced financial setbacks that forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1867, and he resigned from the Red Cross.
However, in 1901, he received the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize; his citation for the award stated: “Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century would probably have never been undertaken.”
Clara Barton Brings the Red Cross to the US
After the U.S. Civil War broke out in 1861, Clara Barton, a former teacher then working in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., voluntarily began delivering food and supplies to Union soldiers on the front lines.
At the end of the war, Barton, who’d earned the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield,” received permission from President Abraham Lincoln to operate the Missing Soldiers Office, to help locate missing troops for their families and friends.
Over the course of several years, Barton and her small staff received more than 63,000 letters asking for help and were able to track down some 22,000 men.
In the late 1860s, Barton, a Massachusetts native, traveled to Europe to recuperate from years of tireless work during the war, and while there she learned about the Red Cross movement.
Upon her return to the U.S., she launched a years-long campaign to get the U.S. to ratify the Geneva Convention of 1864; it did so in 1882, a year after Barton founded the American Red Cross.
Under Barton’s leadership, the Red Cross focused on helping victims of peacetime disasters, including the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, which killed more than 2,000 people, and the 1893 hurricane in South Carolina’s Sea Islands that left some 30,000 people homeless, most of them African American.
In 1898, the American Red Cross aided the U.S. military for the first time when it provided medical care to soldiers in the Spanish-American War.
Barton resigned as head of the Red Cross in 1904, when she was 83.
History of the American Red Cross
In the early 20th century, the American Red Cross expanded its efforts to include such public programs as first aid training and water safety.
During World War I, the organization experienced significant growth, going from some 100 local chapters in 1914 to more than 3,800 chapters four years later. The Red Cross recruited 20,000 nurses for military service and provided support for U.S. and Allied troops as well as civilian refugees.
In World War II, the organization’s efforts included recruiting more than 104,000 nurses for the armed forces and sending more than 300,000 tons of supplies abroad. In 1941, the Red Cross started a national blood donation program to collect blood for U.S. armed forces; by 1945, the service had collected more than 13 million pints of blood.
In 1948, the American Red Cross launched the nation’s first blood program for civilians. In 2017, the program provided approximately 40 percent of America’s blood and blood products.
The Red Cross supported U.S. service members and their families during the Korean War, the Vietnam War and conflicts in the Middle East, as well as providing aid to victims of disasters, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
READ MORE: 7 Red Cross Facts
History of American Red Cross. American Red Cross.
Henry Dunant biography. Nobelprize.org.
History of the ICRC. International Committee of the Red Cross.
Clara Barton and U.S. Civil War. Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.
Red Cross Services to the Armed Forces: Then and Now. American Red Cross.