On 21 May 2021 the American Red Cross will celebrate its 140th birthday. The proof of its success is obvious if we try to imagine what life was like before the American Red Cross existed. It’s easy to take the Red Cross for granted; that vivid symbol of the red cross against a white background seems ageless, something we simply expect to see at the site of a natural disaster or a violent conflict. But the American Red Cross came to be because of the vision of one woman: Clara Barton (1821-1912), who became known to thousands as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821. Her parents named her after the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel, Clarissa, and it was an apt choice. The novel tells the story of a young woman of superb moral character who faces an unending series of challenges to her integrity, nevertheless persevering to become a model of moral righteousness even after her death. Clara Barton’s path to prominence was also a tough one. Her life’s work, helping others in need, led to a revolution in what we now call relief work. Clara Barton invented it.
Barton was born into a patriarchal society and although she had the support of her family in her pursuit of education and meaningful work (something not all women at the time did) her struggle to make a difference in the world was nevertheless a frustrating one.
In 1852 Barton founded the first free school in New Jersey and with the help of a fellow woman teacher, was soon educating 600 children in the area who had previously had no schooling at all. The school’s success was a signal to the board of directors that it was time to hand over its control to a man, and Barton was immediately demoted to the position of “Female Assistant.” Shocked and depressed by the betrayal, Barton quit and moved to Washington, D.C. to pursue bigger opportunities.
In 1855 Barton began working as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office, making her one of the first women to hold what was considered a man’s job (she also received a man’s salary). But her male colleagues were so offended by her hiring. Then they became offended by Barton’s proud identification as an abolitionist. The male clerks insisted she be demoted to copyist and she was fired not long after. Disappointed but, at this point, probably not surprised, Barton continued to seek a way to make a difference in the world. The American Civil War provided the opportunity.
When members of the 6th Massachusetts Militia were injured in the 19 April 1861 Baltimore Riot (considered the first bloodshed of the Civil War), Barton acted on her own humanitarian instincts and brought medical supplies to the wounded soldiers. She was not a trained nurse, but she had tended to sick family members and was also resourceful at keeping the soldiers' spirits up by reading to them and helping them write letters home. This was the beginning of Barton’s long career as a “battlefield angel.”
At the time of the Civil War, no national relief organizations existed, so Barton created her own, organizing Ladies’ Aid societies and other concerned citizens in raising funds for medical supplies for wounded Union Soldiers. Despite initial opposition by the War Department, Barton’s success at procuring and distributing medical supplies was impressive, and they gave her a special pass allowing Barton to provide aid on the front lines of the war.
In 1862 Barton arrived with three wagon-loads of supplies to Sharpsburg, Maryland. This was the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg): the deadliest day of warfare in American history. With over 20,000 casualties in total, doctors were running out of the most basic supplies and using corn husks for bandages. Barton’s team not only provided medical care but she also organized the surviving soldiers and taught them first aid techniques and how to cook for their fellow soldiers.
Barton became known for her incredible timing, often showing up on battlefields at the moment relief was most needed and the Union Army began to call her the Angel of the Battlefield. Barton served at some of the worst battle sites, including not only Antietam but also Vicksburg, Harpers Ferry, and many more. She came close to death while tending to a wounded soldier. A bullet ripped through the sleeve of her blouse and killed the man she was helping.
While Barton was hard at work in the United States, in Switzerland a movement supporting the creation of national relief societies was getting off the ground. In 1864, the first Geneva Treaty was created. Countries who signed the treaty agreed to care for all wounded soldiers, regardless of which side they fought for, and it established the red cross symbol for the first time.
By the time the Civil War ended in 1865, Barton had been appointed by the late President Abraham Lincoln as General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. In this role Barton located missing soldiers on behalf of their families, and she established new standards in this field as well. Clara Barton established the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States to make the task possible. The Bureau published Rolls of Missing Men that could be posted all over the country, aiding in locating lost relatives. Barton became an activist on behalf of the Union dead, demanding that unmarked graves at the Confederate prison at Camp Sumter (Andersonville) be identified. Of the 45,000 Union soldiers who were held there during the war, nearly 13,000 died. Thanks to Barton, their families could at least be notified.
By the late 1860s Barton had become acquainted with the International Red Cross and she joined as a member. From that moment on she began lobbying American Presidents to urge them to join the organization. For over a decade, she failed to persuade them of the need for such a service. In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes dismissed the idea on principle, seeing as the United States would never again face such extreme warfare. Finally, Barton managed to convince President Chester Arthur to agree to the formation of an American Red Cross, arguing that the organization could provide emergency relief for natural disasters and other calamities besides warfare. Barton officially founded the American Red Cross in 1881. She was 59 years old and she oversaw the growth of the ARC for the next 23 years.
Today the American Red Cross responds to 60,000 disasters every year as well as providing first aid training and organizing blood drives, among its many essential services. By the time Clara Barton died in 1912 at age 90, she was known around the world as a leader not only in the field of nursing, but also as a civil rights leader who fought for the rights of women and people of color. “You must never so much think as whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not,” she said about her life’s work of helping others, “you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.”
When you think about the American Red Cross, modern disaster relief and blood donation efforts, or those historic “battlefield angels” clad in white, caring for sick and wounded soldiers may come to mind. But it’s not as often that you think about the genealogy gems that may be available for members of your own family who were associated with the Red Cross or Red Cross community engagement efforts, particularly during “the war years.”
In 1914, within a few weeks of the outbreak of World War I, The American Red Cross dispatched the hospital relief ship SS Red Cross or “The Mercy Ship,” (originally known as the German passenger steamer Hamburg of the German-American Line). The Mercy Ship was fully funded by donations and loaded with 170 surgeons and nurses and tons of medical supplies bound for Europe to provide impartial medical aid to casualties on both sides of the war. This publicly-funded effort launched a partnership between citizens and the Red Cross that, by the war’s end four years later, would include over 8 million service corps volunteers and over 31 million members of local chapters of the American Red Cross - this was nearly one third of the United States’ population. The efforts expanded beyond medical aid to include recreational clubs and facilitated communication for service members, as well as care packages and coffee and donuts sent by citizens and served by volunteers. This partnership continued and grew throughout World War II and by the end of the war in 1945, it was estimated that every household in America contained at least one member who contributed to, volunteered for, or was a recipient of Red Cross services.
There are several ways to determine if a member of your family participated in the Red Cross. Begin with family artifacts. Do you have a wartime letter or postcard written on Red Cross letterhead? The writer may have been sending the missive from a Red Cross recreational center at a camp or field hospital. How about family photographs of nurses in uniform? This Guide to American Red Cross Uniforms may help to determine if the wearer was part of the Red Cross and help to date the photo.
Local chapters of the Red Cross may have published announcements about chapter news or community engagement efforts in the local newspaper, which could include details about family members. Additionally, some chapters may have preserved membership rolls, photographs and other collections available at various archive repositories, such as with the Minneapolis, Minnesota and Savannah, Georgia Red Cross chapters.
Because the American Red Cross is not a government organization, its personnel records are still held by the American Red Cross Historical Programs and Collections and may be requested by email. Some of the organization’s records have been donated to the National Archives and Records Administration, and can be found as part of the collection “Records of the American National Red Cross;” part of this collection includes “Rosters of World War II Overseas Personnel” and “Historical Nurse Files,” the latter of which is available on Ancestry.com as “U.S., American Red Cross Nurse Files, 1916-1959.”
Finally, you may be able to determine if a family member served overseas with the Red Cross by searching passenger lists and United States passport applications. Although the American Red Cross worked in partnership with the military to provide aid, the organization’s volunteers and full-time employees primarily traveled as civilians and the documentation of their travel overseas was processed the same as anyone else entering or leaving the United States.
Taking the time to search out your family’s more recent history and how they may have participated in the war efforts of the early 20th century may provide you with genealogically-rich information that adds to your family story. Happy searching!
Timelines can play a key role in breaking down brick walls. Learn more about this genealogy research method in the informative articles 6 Ways Timelines Can Help with Genealogy Research and Getting to Know Our Ancestors Through a Record Timeline.
International Committee of the Red Cross (https://www.icrc.org/ : accessed 19 May 2021), “History of the ICRC.”
Library of Congress (https://.loc.gov/ : accessed 19 May 202), “Clara Barton: "Angel of the Battlefield."
Debra Michals, editor,National Women’s History Museum (https://www.womenshistory.org/ : accessed 19 May 2021), “Clara Barton (1821-1912).”
American Red Cross (http://redcross.org : accessed 19 May 2021), “Clara Barton.”
American Battlefield Trust (https://www.battlefields.org/ : accessed 19 May 2021), “Clara Barton.”
National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/ : accessed 19 May 2021), “Camp Sumter / Andersonville Prison.”
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 19 May 2021), digital image from b&w film copy negative, “[Clara Barton, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front]” 1944 March 31 [from a photograph taken 186-], catalog id ppmsca.37768.
Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 19 May 2021), digital image, “Clara Barton Papers: General Correspondence, 1838-1912; Hayes, Rutherford B., 1878” catalog id mss11973.0287.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 19 May 2021), digital image of original lithograph poster, “Our boys need sox - knit your bit American Red Cross," (New York: American Lithographic Co., [between 1914-1918]) digital id cph 3g07756 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g07756
“U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925,” database with images, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 19 May 2021), certificate no. 86509, Edith Bramhall Cullis, 14 February 1919; citing Selected Passports, Volume 159: Paris, France, National Archives, Washington DC.
American Red Cross, “SS Red Cross Offers Aid at Outbreak of World War I,” Red Cross Chat (http://redcrosschat.org : accessed 19 May 2021), 1 November 2017.
American Red Cross (http://redcross.org : accessed 19 May 2021), “World War I and the American Red Cross.”
American Red Cross (http://redcross.org : accessed 19 May 2021), “World War II and the American Red Cross.”