Clara Barton first became a public figure during the Civil War, when she began to assist wounded and displaced soldiers and their family members on a quite informal and personal basis. Volunteering her own time and attracting other volunteers and many donors of medical goods, clothing, food, and sundry relief supplies, Barton became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” After the war, Barton visited Europe, where she was introduced to the International Red Cross. After volunteering with that organization in overseas war zones she returned to the U.S. and eventually founded an American branch of the Red Cross in 1881. For the next 23 years that she led the organization it was involved principally in disaster relief. Barton and her new organization again relied on volunteer laborers and donated money and supplies. She appealed for money and clothing to help victims of a forest fire in Michigan in 1881. In 1884 she hired ships to carry donated supplies to people flooded out of their homes along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. In 1889 she and 50 volunteers were the first arrivals in support of residents of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where 2,000 people were killed by a dam break. A hurricane and tidal wave that left 5,000 dead in South Carolina sparked nearly a year of Red Cross effort aimed at re-establishing self-supporting farming in the affected region. In 1900, Barton and her volunteers handed out $120,000 of aid to survivors of a killer hurricane that swept away 6,000 lives in Galveston, Texas.
As the nation approached World War I, the Red Cross became less a private charity and more a branch of American officialdom, with Congressional appointments to their board, and official responsibilities for service members and diplomatic duties. The organization nonetheless retained an enormous base of popular financial and voluntary support. At its World War I peak in 1919, the organization received at least one dollar from 33 million Americans—one third of the entire U.S. population. It raised a total of $400 million in private donations that year and marshaled millions of volunteers.
The Red Cross continues to be one of the most broadly supported organizations in America. In 2013, donors gave the group $686 million (constituting 22 percent of its total income), and volunteers made up 94 percent of the workforce it deployed on humanitarian missions. Today’s missions include relief assistance at about 70,000 disaster sites annually, blood drives (the Red Cross collects 40 percent of America’s blood supply), support for military families, and various forms of safety, health, and lifeguard training.
• Red Cross history, redcross.org/about-us/history/clara-barton
• Julia Irwin, Making the World Safe, (Oxford University Press, 2013)