Alleviating the suffering of victims of armed conflict and advocating for limits during war is one of the American Red Cross’ oldest traditions and remains a core function of the organization today. This mission was started over 150 years ago by the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, whose legacy continues to serve as an inspiration for the work of the organization throughout the world.
Barton’s legacy began in 1861 while working for the federal government as a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. As the American Civil War escalated and fighting spread into the nation’s capital, Barton bore witness to the violence and suffering which engulfed the nation. Refusing to be a bystander or flee the conflict, Barton rushed forward onto the battlefield to aid the victims of war. Throughout the course of the conflict, Barton provided aid and supplies to sick, wounded and hungry soldiers, irrespective of their allegiance. She petitioned political officials and army leadership who granted her access and safe passage into battle zones to provide life-saving care. Barton’s aid was widely praised, her selfless services earning her the name “Angel of the Battlefield.”
Toward the end of the Civil War, Barton offered families assistance locating loved ones, eventually establishing the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army. Recognizing the importance preserving family ties, she helped identify over 22,000 missing soldiers.
After the war, Barton travelled to Europe where she was introduced to the work and writings of Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman who documented the horrors of war at the Battle of Solferino in Italy and subsequently went on to found the International Committee of the Red Cross. His work set the stage for the creation of the Geneva Convention of 1864, the first internationally recognized codification of basic principles regarding the conduct of armies during war. That served as the bedrock upon which the present-day Geneva Conventions were built. During her time in Europe Barton served alongside Red Cross entities throughout the Franco-Prussian War, assisting in the delivery of humanitarian aid to combatants.
When Barton returned home, she advocated that the federal government ratify the Geneva treaty. Despite resistance from President Hayes in 1877 and delay caused by the assassination of President Garfield, President Chester Arthur finally signed, and the Senate ratified the treaty in 1882.
A year earlier, in 1881, with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Barton formed the American Association of the Red Cross. This association would be given Congressional charters in 1900, 1905 and 2007 evolving into the American Red Cross seen today.
Guided by our Congressional Charter, the American Red Cross provides critical disaster relief services and life-saving aid to victims of disaster and armed conflict wherever they may be found. The American Red Cross continues to unite family members who are missing or displaced by disaster and armed conflict. We provide numerous services to military families and are also a key conduit for the dissemination of international humanitarian law principles to the American public. This website is one method to accomplish this mission, offering students, educators, government officials, legal practitioners, and anybody interested in international humanitarian law a unique resource to learn about IHL and to take action to strengthen the rule of law.