How the American Red Cross Works

Red Cross History

The Red Cross movement started in Europe with Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant. In 1859, he witnessed a bloody battle near Solferino, Italy that left the battlefield strewn with wounded soldiers. Dunant was horrified that the men were left there to die from their injuries. He organized local villagers into volunteer teams that recovered the injured, brought them into homes and churches and cared for them as best they could.

With little or no medical training or supplies, there was a limit to what they could accomplish. Dunant vowed to harness the willingness of people to help those in need by organizing and training international relief groups. These groups would remain independent of any nation, and work on battlefields worldwide to provide aid to civilians and soldiers who were victims of war.


In 1863, a Geneva, Switzerland conference outlined the principles of the Red Cross movement. At a second conference, participants drew up the Geneva Convention. This was a set of rules for the treatment of wounded on the battlefield and the general conduct of war. It was initially signed by twelve European nations. Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works in war zones and on battlefields worldwide.

During the American Civil War, a former schoolteacher and office clerk named Clara Barton volunteered to nurse wounded soldiers. She realized that medical care behind the lines could only accomplish so much -- wounded men needed medical care as soon after the battle as possible. As a battlefield nurse, Barton witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. After the war, she created a system for tracking down missing soldiers and reuniting them with their families. On a trip to Europe, Barton learned of the Red Cross, and was struck by the parallels between her efforts and those of Dunant. After volunteering with the Red Cross in European wars, she returned home and began organizing the American Red Cross, although the United States had not yet signed the Geneva Convention. She was determined to overcome the political isolation of the era, and she also recognized the toll that natural disasters exacted on U.S. citizens every year. The American Red Cross would not restrict its efforts to wartime.

In the early 1880s, deadly floods and forest fires drew attention to Barton's efforts. Within a few years, the U.S. government signed the Geneva Convention and accepted the American Red Cross organization. Later, Barton would travel again to Europe, where she eventually convinced the Red Cross federations to develop plans for peacetime relief efforts. Barton served as President of the American Red Cross for 23 years, and traveled to battlefields around the world to personally oversee relief efforts.

The American Red Cross is part of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), an umbrella organization that unites nearly 200 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. The national organizations are independent, but the IFRC coordinates their efforts and helps them unite for international relief projects. This federation is focused on disaster relief, rather than the war aid provided by the ICRC.

Next, we'll find out how the American Red Cross is structured.