Turn on the evening news, and chances are you’ll see a doctor, nurse or relief worker wearing a red cross, helping bring relief to victims of war and natural disaster. Since its founding, the American Red Cross has helped countless people in war zones and disaster areas both in America and abroad. Like many of the organizations we rely on in times of trouble, it feels like the Red Cross has just always been there.
In fact, it was founded just 141 years ago by a remarkable woman named Clara Barton. Born on Christmas Day, 1821, in Massachusetts, hers would turn out to be a remarkable life.
Clara once said: “You must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.” It would prove to be the motto that she lived her life by. As a child, when her older brother David was badly injured in a fall while raising a barn, it was Clara who stayed by his side, nursing him slowly back to health for over a year.
The experience was to stand her in good stead. When Civil War came to America in 1861 Clara immediately answered the call, putting the nursing skills she had learned at her brother’s bedside to good use. The soldiers called her the Angel of the Battlefield for the care and bravery she showed during the war years.
When peace came, Clara did not simply return to her previous life. There were new needs to be met, and she promptly set about doing just that. She gained permission from Abraham Lincoln to set up the Office of Missing Soldiers, helping reunite more than 20,000 soldiers with their families so they could rebuild their lives.
But it was a chance encounter with Dr. Louis Appia, one of the founders of the International Red Cross, while touring in Switzerland, that was to pave the way for her greatest achievement. The Red Cross had been founded to give neutral aid to soldiers on both sides of conflicts. Inspired by its ethos, Barton volunteered with the organization during the Franco-Prussian war, helping civilians caught up in the conflict. The experience, and her work during the Civil War, stayed with her, driving her on to meet ever greater needs at home.
In May 1881, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. A year later Congress ratified the Geneva Convention, setting the scene for the Red Cross to receive a U.S. congressional charter officially recognizing the organization’s work. Barton served as Red Cross president for 23 years, retiring in 1904 at the age of 82.
To this day, the American Red Cross carries the legacy of Clara’s hopes and cares forward within its work. For over 140 years, Red Cross nurses have been deployed along with American troops to provide relief to soldiers and civilians alike in war zones. But, like Clara, the work doesn’t stop when peace comes. The Red Cross still works with veterans and their families after they have completed their service, helping former soldiers to rebuild their lives, just as Clara did following the Civil War.
And true to Clara’s words – where there is need, meet it – the Red Cross isn’t limited to helping the victims of war. Since its founding, Red Cross volunteers have helped the victims of natural disasters including earthquakes, fires and floods and more.
Clara’s motto encapsulates the American ‘can do’ attitude which did so much to make America a prosperous, thriving nation despite the setbacks and disasters that come to us all. America does best when we don’t look away from a need and assume the government or someone else will take care of it, but instead shoulder the responsibility of stepping in to meet that need personally. It’s precisely that attitude that allows us to live freely, despite the risks and perils.
And that is why Clara Barton is a true Hero of Liberty.
To read more about her exciting story, check out her beautifully illustrated biography for 7-12 year olds, available now in the Heroes of Liberty store.