From the Archives: Clara Barton, Act III–the American Red Cross

For the next little while, I’m juggling revisions with prepping for a talk about Civil War nurses. (I love giving talks, but I was overly optimistic when I agreed to do this one last September.) It makes for an interesting mix of tough broads competing for my attention.

Working on the theory that if I’m thinking about Civil War nurses, you should be too, I offer you a three part series from back in 2016. If you’re coming in late to the story, you can read part one and two here and here.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton in 1904

When we last saw Miss Barton, she was in Switzerland, recovering from the exhaustion of her war efforts.  She didn’t rest for long.  When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Barton leapt back into action.  Constrained by her lack of political connections in Europe, she did not try to work on her own the way she had in the American Civil War.  Instead she traveled to Strasbourg as a volunteer of the International Red Cross, wearing a cross she improvised from a red ribbon and a Red Cross pin given her by the Grand Duchess Louise, daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I.

The International Red Cross had been founded several years before. In 1863, while the United States was locked in its internal struggle, Swiss businessman Henry Dunant, who had witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solfierno in the Italian War of Independence several years before, called a conference of thirty-nine delegates from sixteen nations to Geneva to discuss questions of battlefield relief and humanitarian aid. The group met again in 1864 and created the set of recommendations that would become the Geneva Treaty, now the Geneva Convention. The guidelines called for the humane treatment of wounded soldiers and universal recognition of the neutrality of medical personnel, ambulances, and hospitals in time of war. The convention adopted a reverse Swiss flag, a red cross on a white ground, as an emblem of medical neutrality that would be easily recognized. They also urged each country to create its own national society of volunteers to provide battlefield relief when needed. Twelve European governments ratified the treaty. The United States refused to sign on the grounds that it was a possible “entangling alliance.”*

Barton’s experience in the Franco-Prussian War was very different from her experience in the American Civil War. Instead of caring for wounded soldiers, she worked with the war’s civilian victims. For her first several days in Strasbourg, she dutifully served soup and distributed supplies to survivors. But as she spent more time in the burned-out city, she realized that more than soup and soap were needed. She organized women into sewing workrooms as a first step in reestablishing the city’s economy. She organized a similar relief effort in Paris the following year.

When she returned home in 1873, Barton took on the task of lobbying for the United States to ratify the Geneva Treaty. It took her nine years and three presidents to convince the government.  President Chester Arthur signed the treaty in 1882, and the Senate ratified it several days later.

Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and led it for the next twenty-three years. At her initiative, the American Red Cross proposed an amendment to the Geneva Treaty calling for the expansion of Red Cross relief to include victims of natural disasters. The so-called American Amendment, perhaps more accurately the “Barton Amendment,” was passed in 1884.

Under Barton’s leadership, the American Red Cross helped victims of the Johnstown flood,** hurricane victims in the Sea Islands of South Carolina, both Armenian and Turkish victims of ethnic unrest in the Ottoman empire,***and famine victims in Russia. (If you can’t be described as a victim or something, you probably don’t need the Red Cross.) She traveled with nurses to Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898 to nurse the wounded and provide supplies. Her last relief operation with the Red Cross was distributing supplies and financial assistance to survivors of the hurricane that wiped out Galveston, Texas, in 1900.

After she retired from the American Red Cross in 1904 at the age of 82, she founded an organization to teach basic first aid and emergency preparedness, wrote several books,  and went on a speaking tours.****  She died at home on April 12, 1912 at the age of 90.

A life well-lived by any standard.

If you’re interested in learning more about Clara Barton– including the slightly scandalous bits that I didn’t have room for in either these blog posts or Heroines of Mercy Street–I strongly recommend Stephen Oate’s excellent biography, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War.

*The same reason we failed to join the League of Nations after World War I.
**The 68 year old Barton personally led fifty volunteers on the first train into town following the disaster
***In 1896, well before the Armenian genocide of 1915.  Obviously a long-standing conflict.
****Do you feel like a slacker yet?


  1. Iris Seefeldt on August 27, 2023 at 7:42 pm

    Thank you. This segment seems to sum it up! Caring, sharing, leading, guiding, and a little manipulation. I was very glad to see that you referenced the book by Steven Oate: A Woman of Valor..At such a late age she was still managing her well. Letting women do their thing was never easy but a life well lived her reward. Wars that continued to be instigated and mismanaged by men’s power, can never be overturned by women unless they are a part of the decision.

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