Where it all began…

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent started on the battlefield. During the Battle of Solferino, on June 24, 1859, a total of about 29,000 soldiers from both sides were killed or wounded.

Henri Dunant witnessed the carnage almost by accident. He had travelled to the area to get Napoleon III’s help to get water rights to a tract of land and witnessed the results of the battle. Afterward, he wrote Un Souvenir de Solférino (A Memory of Solferino). The book included a plan for national relief societies to care for those wounded in battle. As a result of his efforts, the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded (later the International Committee of the Red Cross) was born.

Dunant, who in 1901 was a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a hero among humanitarians but failed as a businessman, spending 20 years in poverty after going bankrupt. Although later in life the journalist Georg Baumberger brought him again into the public eye and he received honors and prizes, Dunant continued to live in the institution that had sheltered him when he was poor and ill. He bequeathed his estate to various charitable enterprises.

The American Red Cross was also born on the battlefield. Its founder, Clara Barton, had been both a schoolteacher and a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. But Barton found her life’s work on the battlefields of the Civil War.

Previous to Dunant and Barton, there was no systematic way to track or care for soldiers wounded or killed in battle, nor to inform their loved ones of their fate. The once shy Clara became a bold humanitarian who sometimes preceded medical units to the battlefields. Foreshadowing Red Cross bulk distribution, she collected and stored relief supplies for the soldiers. By listening to them and helping them write letters, she provided them emotional as well as material support. After the war, Barton spearheaded the identification of more than 22,000 missing soldiers, as well as almost 13,000 graves of men buried at the Confederate Andersonville prison.

Following Dunant’s thought, she too advocated for what became known as the Geneva Convention, which requires the protection of the sick and wounded of all nationalities during wartime.  The two humanitarians were instrumental in developing the ethos that forbids attacking medical personnel and hospitals.

Both humanitarians also viewed disaster relief as part of the fledgling Red Cross’s purpose. In 1881, the year she founded the American Red Cross, Barton collected funds and clothing to assist the survivors of a forest fire in Michigan.

The American Red Cross’s Congressional Charter reflects this founding vision:

“To continue and carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace and apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine fire, floods, and other great national calamities, and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same. “

Like Dunant, Barton ran into difficulties when it came to the day-to-day administration of an expanding organization. In 1904, she resigned from the American Red Cross.

The American Red Cross has extended its services beyond Henri Dunant’s and Clara Barton’s vision, but their founding passions remain central aspects of its mission. Through its Services to the Armed Forces Department, the organization facilitates communication between U.S. service members and their families during family emergencies. Its International Services Department helps to connect refugees and immigrants with their families abroad. Red Crossers also provide material and emotional support to survivors of both local and national disasters.

Dunant’s and Barton’s voices echo in the current mission statement: “The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.”


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