American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

The Red Cross


In 1861, when the Civil War began, there was a clerk in the patent Office at Washington whose name was Clara Barton.

She was then about thirty years of age, well educated, refined in manner, intensely energetic. She had been in the Patent Office seven years. Previous to that time she had been a school-teacher. Stories are still current of her wonderful success in school management.

Those were the days when the public schools were but little esteemed, and methods of education were not such as we have now. It is said that when Miss Barton assumed charge of a certain school in New Jersey there were but six pupils in attendance; but such was her genius and such the magnetism of her presence that the number increased within a few months to nearly six hundred.

One might think that such success would have made her a school-teacher for life. But this was not her destiny.

The war began.

Clara Barton read President Lincoln's proclamation calling for seventy-five thousand volunteers to fight for the preservation of the Union.

She gave up her position in the Patent Office, and volunteered—volunteered as a nurse without pay in the Army of the Potomac. Her work was not in safe and quiet hospitals far from the sound of danger; it was on the battlefield rescuing and nursing the wounded while yet the carnage and the strife were there.

It surely required a brave heart to pass through the horrors that followed the struggles at Pittsburg Landing, at Cedar Mountain, at Antietam, and at old Fredericksburg. Very heroic must have been the women who faced those dreadful scenes with only the one thought to give relief to the wounded and the dying.

Toward the close of the war, Clara Barton was appointed "lady in charge" of all the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James—a worthy and well-earned promotion.

Then there came inquiries concerning soldiers whose whereabouts were unknown. Their friends wrote to ask about them. Were they living or dead? If alive, where were they? If dead, when and how did they die? There were thousands of such inquiries, and no one could answer them.

It occurred to President Lincoln to appoint some competent person to conduct a search for all such missing men, to learn their history, if possible, and to place that history on record.

Who was more competent for such a duty than Clara Barton?

At the request of President Lincoln, then very near the end of his career, she undertook the task. With all her great energy and her habits of thoroughness, she carried it through. It was a work of months, taxing all her strength, and requiring the closest application. In the end she was able to report the names and the fate of more than thirty thousand missing men of the Union armies.

Is there any wonder that her health was broken? The years of constant labor, the weight of great responsibilities, had told sadly upon her strength. When her work was finished, then came the re-action. For days and weeks she was obliged to refrain from every sort of labor. She went to Europe. She spent the next few years in Switzerland, trying to regain her lost strength.


It was on a midsummer day in 1859 that a great battle was fought at Solferino in the north of Italy. There the Austrian army was defeated by the combined forces of France and Sardinia. At the end of the bloody struggle more than thirty-five thousand men lay dead or disabled on the field of battle. There was no adequate aid at hand for the suffering and the dying. For hours and even days they lay uncared for where they had fallen. It was the old, old story of the barbaric cruelty of war.

While the battlefield was still reeking with horrors it was visited by Henri Dunant, a gentleman of means from Switzerland. His heart was touched at the sight of the suffering that was around him. He gave every assistance that he could; he aided the few surgeons who were on the field, and was instrumental in saving many a wounded man from death.

When he returned home, he could not forget what he had seen. A vision of the battlefield was ever in his mind. He could not rest until he had written the story of the field of Solferino, and had tried to make others understand the horrors which he had witnessed. He delivered lectures and issued circulars, calling upon the good people of all nations to untie in forming a world's society for the care of disabled soldiers on the field of battle.

The work of Henri Dunant led to great results. A world's society was formed. A conference was held at Geneva. Eleven nations agreed to do a plan which recognized this society and its work. Its members, its helpers, its hospitals, and the sick and wounded under its care should be free from molestation on the battlefield; and each of the eleven governments pledged its active aid and support.

In order that the workers of the society should be known when in posts of danger, and in order that its hospitals and all their belongings should be protected, it was found necessary to adopt a badge that should be universally known. The badge chosen was a red cross on white ground. It was adopted in compliment to the Swiss government, whose flag is a white cross on red ground.

Thus it was that upon "the wild stock and stem of war" a noble philanthropy was engrafted. Thus it was that the movement was inaugurated which "gives hope," says Clara Barton, "that the very torrent, tempest, and whirlwind of war itself may some day at last (far off, perhaps) give way to the sunny and pleasant days of perpetual and universal peace."

It was while seeking health in Switzerland that Miss Barton first became fully acquainted with the objects and the work of the Red Cross. She met and formed friendships with the leaders of that movement. She resolved to give her energies and her life to its support.


At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Clara Barton was still in Europe. She at once threw herself into the work of the Red Cross in the campus and on the battlefields of that war. Her long experience as a nurse with our own armies gave her a great advantage in the management of hospitals and the care of the sick. During the course of that short but bitter struggle, no person did more good than she, no person deserved or won nobler laurels of praise.

After the siege of Strasburg twenty thousand people were without homes; they were without employment; starvation was before them. Clara Barton saw the situation and was the first to act. She provided materials for thirty thousand garments, and parceled these out among the poor women of the city to be sewed and made at good wages. Everywhere her quick eye saw what was needed most, and her quick intelligence showed what was best to be done. Everywhere officers and civilians, the rich and the poor, acknowledged her good work and lent a helping hand.

In Paris after the close of the war the lawless Commune seized the power. The city was in the hands of men of the lowest character. It was besieged by the army of the republic. The thunder of the cannon was heard day and night. There was constant fighting on the streets. Scores of innocent people were shot down or put to death. In some parts of the city not one person was to be found in his home, so great was the terror and so general the destruction. In the midst of all these horrors, Clara Barton entered the city on foot and began her work of ministering to those in distress.

[Illustration] from American Book of Golden Deeds by James Baldwin


Among the common people there was but little food. Women and children were starving. On a certain day a great mob surged through the streets crying for bread. The officers were powerless. There was no telling what such a mob would do. Clara Barton stood at the door of her lodgings; she raised her hand and spoke to the infuriated men and the despairing women. They paused and listened to her calm and helpful words. "Oh, mon Dieu!" they cried. "It is an angel that speaks to us." And they quietly dispersed to their homes.

"What France must have been without the merciful help of the Red Cross societies, the imagination dare not picture. At the end of the war ten thousand wounded men were removed from Paris under the auspices of the relief societies—men who otherwise must have lingered in agony or died from want of care; and there were brought back to French soil nine thousand men who had been cared for in German hospitals."

In recognition of the golden deeds which she had performed in this war, Clara Barton received as decorations of honor the golden cross of Baden and the iron cross of Germany.


As yet there was no Red Cross society in American. It there fore became the work of Miss Barton for the next few years to found such a society. It was not until 1882 that the United States joined the family of nations which at Geneva, eighteen years before, had pledged their support to this movement in behalf of civilized humanity.

The plan for an American society included much more than merely the relief of wounded soldiers. Miss Barton's experiences in Strasburg and in Paris had shown the need and the possibility of wider usefulness. And so the work of the Red Cross Association of America was to relieve suffering wherever it was found, and especially during great calamities, such as famine, pestilence, earthquake disaster, flood, or fire.

Before a month had passed the first call for help was sounded. A great fire was sweeping through the forests of Michigan. For many days it raged unchecked. Homes were destroyed, farms were burned over, every living thing was swept away by the devastating flames, thousands of people were in dire need of food, clothing, and shelter.

The Red Cross Association was little prepared to meet so great a calamity, but under the direction of its president, Clara Barton, it began at once to do what it could. The white banner with its red cross was unfurled here for the first time. The call for aid was quickly responded to. Men, women, and children hastened to bring their gifts of sympathy and human kindness to be distributed by the society. Eighty thousand dollars in money, food, clothing, and other needful things were forwarded to the suffering people of Michigan.

After that there were calls for help almost every year. There were great floods along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Charleston, South Carolina, was partly destroyed by an earthquake. There were fearful cyclones in the West, causing much destruction of life and property. Wherever there was suffering from any of these causes, Clara Barton with the Red Cross was present to give relief and assistance.

In 1885 and 1886 there was a great drought in Texas. For eighteen months no rain fell. No crops could be raised. Hundreds of thousands of cattle died for lack of forage and water. Thousands of people were in want of the comforts of life. Through the labors of the Red Cross Association and its president, more than a hundred thousand dollars were contributed for the relief of the distressed.

On the 30th of May, 1889, the city of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was overwhelmed by a flood caused by the breaking of a dam in the Little Conemaugh River. Nearly five thousand lives were lost, and property to the value of twelve million dollars was destroyed. Scarcely had the first news of the disaster been telegraphed over the country before Clara Barton was on the ground doing the good work of the Red Cross. For five months she remained there amid scenes of desolation, poverty, and woe, which no pen can describe.

She fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, comforted the sorrowing, was a ministering angel to the sick, the impoverished, and the despairing. "the first to come, the last to go," said one of the newspapers of Johnstown, "she has indeed been an elder sister to us—nursing, soothing, tending, caring for the stricken ones through a season of distress such as no other people ever knew—such as, God grant, no other people may ever know. The idea crystallized, put into practice: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.' "

In 1893 occurred the great hurricane in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. It was a calamity second only to that of Johnstown, and the number of persons who perished will never be known. There, among black people of the poorest and most ignorant class, Miss Barton labored unceasingly for months. She distributed weekly rations of food to thirty thousand Sea Islanders. She gave them materials for clothing and taught them how to make these into garments. She encouraged them in the rebuilding of their homes. She directed the digging of more than two hundred miles of ditches, thus reclaiming thousands of acres of land. She distributed garden seeds to every householder on the islands, besides seed corn and grain to the farmers. Within nine months, under the supervision of the Red Cross, industry and prosperity were restored and the poor blacks were enabled to become self-supporting and independent. Is it any wonder that they revered the name of the woman who brought them so much comfort and happiness, and that to this day they name their girls "Clara Barton" and their boys "Red Cross"?

The work of the Red Cross was transferred to other places and other peoples. In Armenia after the Turkish massacres, in Cuba during the Spanish Was, in every place cursed by war or afflicted with some great calamity, there was found the Red Cross, doing its noble work.


As yet the American Association of the Red Cross had but few members and its work was much hampered through the lack of funds and systematic management. In 1893 it was reorganized as the American National Red Cross, but not until twelve years later did its membership exceed three hundred persons.

When the war with Spain began, a number of helping Red Cross societies sprang into existence, each to some extent independent of the national association. This division of management led to much confusion, which resulted in a large amount of unnecessary suffering among the sick and wounded. It frequently happened that in once place there was an over-abundance of supplies, while in another there were none at all. Too many articles of one kind were provided, and too few or perhaps none of another. Nevertheless, despite all these unfortunate circumstances, the Red Cross was instrumental in saving many lives and in relieving much suffering.

"And yet, with proper management, it might have done a great deal more," said many thinking people.

Therefore, in 1900, the society was incorporated by Act of congress and placed under the supervision of the government. From that time forward it was to be controlled by a central committee composed of eighteen members, six of whom were to be appointed by the President. The association is now required to report to the War Department on the first day of each year, giving a full account of all its work. A new charter was granted to it in 1905, and the Secretary of War, William H. Taft, was elected president of the association.

Since its reorganization the work of the Red Cross has been much extended and its efficiency very greatly increased. For the sufferers in the Japanese famine, it contributed nearly a quarter of a million dollars. For those rendered homeless by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1905, it gave over twelve thousand dollars. For those who suffered in the great earthquake in California in 1906, it collected and distributed more than three million dollars. Substantial aid was also sent to chili for those made destitute by the earthquake at Valparaiso, and to China and Russia for the relief of sufferers from the great famines in those countries.

And thus the work of this noble association, founded through the efforts of one heroic woman, continues. Wherever there is great distress or widespread suffering, wherever there is famine, or earthquake, or war, there the National Red Cross, like an angel of mercy, stands ready to relieve, assist, and bless. Perhaps no other organization has ever done so much for the relief of suffering humanity.