How Did the Red Cross Start?

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The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, was founded in 1863 after Henry Dunant published a book advocating for wounded soldiers and lobbied for legislature to improve medical services in the military. In 1864, committee members met with government representatives at the first Geneva Convention in Switzerland, spearheading a treaty that required armies to offer care to any injured soldiers, regardless of what military they belonged to.

The Geneva Treaty was initially ratified by 12 European countries. Activist Clara Barton worked tirelessly to start an American Red Cross and succeeded in 1881, leading the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty the following year. Dunant's book "A Memory of Solferino" inspired Barton to approach President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 with a proposal letter from the ICRC urging the United States to sign the treaty, but his refusal prevented the American chapter from being established until it gained support from President Chester Arthur.

Similar experiences delivering emergency aid on the battlefield led Dunant and Barton to push for military reform. Since the Civil War, Barton had delivered supplies, food and clothing to soldiers on the front lines under the authority of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and through independent efforts. By 1862, Barton was organizing voluntary medical services and working with families to locate and identify deceased soldiers. Although the Red Cross was Dunant's idea, Barton's ongoing efforts to help others in need have shaped the organization's expanded mission statement, including disaster relief and the tracing service for missing soldiers.