Remembering the Geneva Convention through the words of Clara Barton

Today’s post comes from Christina James, intern in the National Archives History Office.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Geneva Convention of 1864. At a gathering in Geneva, Switzerland, 16 countries established protocol for treatment of individuals wounded in armed conflicts. Among the points agreed upon by the representatives in attendance were aid to the wounded regardless of their nationality, neutrality of medical workers and hospitals, and the presence of a uniform flag at medical facilities with a matching arm-badge to be worn by medical personnel. The flag and badge were to bear the symbol of a red cross on a white background. Over the following decades, additional conventions were held to agree on further provisions regarding the treatment of war victims. These later conventions reaffirmed the principles established at the first convention in 1864.

Miss Clara Barton, ca. 1860 - ca. 1865 by Mathew Brady (National Archives Identifier 526057)

Miss Clara Barton, ca. 1860 – ca. 1865 by Mathew Brady (National Archives Identifier
526057)

While other nations convened in Geneva, the Civil War raged in the United States. The eventual adoption of the provisions of the Geneva Convention by the United States was in part thanks to the efforts of Clara Barton, a Civil War volunteer battlefield nurse. Throughout the war, Barton went to great lengths to ensure that the soldiers she treated had sufficient food, medical supplies, and clothing, and encouraged others to join her aid efforts.

After the Civil War, Barton learned of the International Committee of the Red Cross, an organization that grew out of the Geneva Convention. Understanding its potential benefits to Americans, Barton sought to convince the United States of the importance of the organization and to adopt the principles for which it stood. In 1881 Clara Barton founded the American National Red Cross. One of the association’s first goals was to secure the ratification of the Geneva Convention by the United States. Congress ratified the treaty of the Geneva Convention in 1882.

Among the National Archives’ holdings is a 12-page petition that Clara Barton wrote to the United States Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations supporting a bill “for the protection of the National and International insignia of the Red Cross, together with the incorporation of its National Association.”

In her letter, Barton discussed the importance of the Red Cross symbol and the need for its protection, as well as the necessity of the incorporation of the American National Red Cross and its work in both wartime and natural disasters.

Clara Barton’s letter demonstrates how highly she regarded the Geneva Convention of 1864. She wrote:

[P]erhaps no more advanced step than this, in the march of civilization and humanity had ever been taken, nor a more unique or touching sight of its kind had been looked upon, than this body of twenty six men representing the Heads of the war-making powers of the world . . . performing journeys of thousands of miles to sit down in calm counsel to try to “think out” if some more humane and reasonable methods might not be found, and agreed upon by the governments of the world for the treatment of the unfortunate and helpless victims of the wars.

This historic document speaks to the importance of the Geneva Convention and its impact both internationally and in the United States. One hundred and fifty years later, the United States and nations around the world still abide by the agreements made at the Geneva Convention. The American Red Cross and International Committee of the Red Cross continue to provide aid and relief in times of war and disaster and are known around the world by the symbol for which they were named—an enduring legacy of the Geneva Convention.

Petition to the Senate Regarding the Incorporation of the Red Cross from Clara Barton. (National Archives Identifier 7542783)

Petition to the Senate Regarding the Incorporation of the Red Cross from Clara Barton, first page. (National Archives Identifier 7542783)

Petition to the Senate Regarding the Incorporation of the Red Cross from Clara Barton, last page. (National Archives Identifier 7542783)

Petition to the Senate Regarding the Incorporation of the Red Cross from Clara Barton, last page. (National Archives Identifier 7542783)

The American accession to the “Convention for the Amelioration of the Wounded in Time of War,” better known as the Geneva Convention, is on display in the Landmark Document Case of the Rubenstein Gallery in the National Archives, Washington, DC, from December 17, 2014 to March 15, 2015.

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