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The Red Cross

March 27, 1888 — International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Albaugh’s Opera House, Washington DC


The organization of the Red Cross is the result of an international treaty known among nations as the “Treaty of Geneva,” and has for its object the amelioration of the condition of that class of persons who, in accordance with the customs of mankind from the earliest history to the present, have been called to maintain the boundaries of nations and even national existence itself, by human warfare.

Whether well or ill, needful or needless, that nations and boundaries be so preserved, is not a question for me here to consider. That they have been, and mainly are so preserved, that no better method is yet consummated, and that, in the progress of humanity, the existing countries of the civilized world have seen fit to enter into an International Treaty for the betterment of the conditions of those subjects or citizens, who, by their laws, are called to the performance of this duty, are facts which I am here to state. This International Treaty of 1864 commences with the neutralizing of all parties in their efforts at relief. It brings to the aid of the medical and hospital departments of armies the direct, organized, and protected help of the people. It goes through the entire category of military medical regime, as practiced up to its date; makes war upon and plucks out its old-time barbarities, its needless restrictions and cruelties, and, finally, in effect, ends by teaching war to make war upon itself.

By its international code all military hospitals under its flag become neutral, and can be neither attacked nor captured. All sick and wounded within them remain unmolested. Surgeons, nurses, chaplains, attendants and all non-combatants at a field, wearing the accredited insignia of the Red Cross, are protected from capture. Badly wounded prisoners lying upon a captured field are delivered up to their own army, if desired. All supplies designed for the use of the sick or wounded of either army, and bearing the sign of the Red Cross, are protected and held sacred to their use. All convoys of wounded or prisoners in exchange are safely protected in transit, and, if attacked from ambush or otherwise harmed, an international treaty is broken. All persons residing in the vicinity of a battle about to take place shall be notified by the generals commanding both armies, and full protection, with a guard, assured each house which shall open its doors to the care of the wounded from either army; thus each house becomes a furnished field hospital and its inmates nurses.

Each nation upon its accession to the treaty establishes a national society or committee, through which it will act internationally in its various relations. This body corporate adopts a constitution, in the formation of which it seeks the best methods for serving humanity in general, together with the interests of its own people, in the direction of its legitimate efforts.

With the exception of our own, no national constitution has covered more than the direct ground of the treaty, viz., the prevention and relief of suffering from war. The framers of the National Constitution of the Red Cross of America foresaw that the great woes of its people would not be confined to human warfare; that the elements raging, unchained, would wage us wars and face us in battles; that as our vast territory became populated, and people, in the place of prairies and forests, should lie in their track, these natural agents might prove scarcely less destructive and more relentless than human enemies; that fire, flood, famine, pestilence, drought, earthquake and tornado would call for the prompt help of the people no less than war, and while organizing for the latter they included also the former. The ratifying congress at Berne accepted us with that digression from the original purport of the treaty, and what we term the “civil branch ” of the Red Cross is known abroad as the “American Amendment.”

With these explanations it remains only to name some of the things accomplished and the changes which have taken place in consequence of this treaty during its life of a short quarter of a century. Previous to the war of the Crimea civil help for military necessities was unknown. Florence Nightingale trod a pathless field. In the wars which followed, till 1866, even this example was not heeded, and the wars of Napoleon III. in Northern Italy were types of military cruelty, medical insufficiency, and needless suffering which shocked the world. Out of the smouldering ashes of these memories rose the clear, steady flame of the Red Cross; so bright and beautiful that it drew the gaze of all mankind; so broad that it reached the farthest bound of the horizon; so peaceful, wise, harmless and fraternal that all nations and sects, the Christian and the Jew, the Protestant and the Catholic, the soldier and the philanthropist, the war-maker and the peace-maker, could meet in its softened rays, and, by its calm, holy light, reveal to each other their difficulties, compare their views, study methods of humanity, and, from time to time, learn from and teach to each other things better than they had known.

Our own terrible war, which freed 4,000,000 slaves, had no ray of this fraternal light. The great commissions rose and performed a work of relief hitherto unknown, but from lack of military recognition their best efforts comparatively failed, and from lack of permanent organization their future possibilities were lost to the world.

With the Franco-German war of 1870 commenced the opportunities for the practical application of the principles of the treaty. Both nations were in the compact. There was perfect accord between the military and the Red Cross Relief. There was neither medical nor hospital work save through and under the treaty of Geneva. The Red Cross brassard flashed on the arm of every agent of relief, from the medical director at the headquarters of the king to the little boy carrying water to his wounded lieutenant; from the noble Empress Augusta and her court, and poor Eugenie, while she had one, to the patient, tired nurse in the lowliest hospital or tent by the wayside.

No record of needless inhumanity or cruelty to wounded or sick stains the annals of that war. I walked its hospitals day and night. I served in its camps, and I marched with its men, and know whereof I speak. The German, the Frenchman, the Italian, the Arab, the Turco and the Zouave were gathered tenderly alike, and lay side by side in the Red Cross palace hospitals of Germany. The royal women, who to-day mourn their own dead, mourned then the dead of friend and foe.

Since that day no war between nations within the treaty has taken place in which the Red Cross did not stand at its post at the field, and the generous gifts of neutral nations have filled its hands.

The treaty has brought the war-making powers to know each other. Four times it has called the heads of thirty to forty nations to meet through appointed delegates, and confer upon national neutrality and relief in war. It has created and established one common sign for all military medical relief the world over, and made all under that sign safe and sacred. It has established one military hospital flag for all nations. It has given to the people the recognized right to reach and succor their wounded at the field. It has rendered impossible any insufficiency of supplies, either medical or nutritive, for wounded or prisoners at any point which human sympathy and power can reach. It has given the best inventions known to science for the proper handling of mutilated persons, whether soldiers or civilians. The most approved portable hospitals in the world are those of the Red Cross. It has frowned upon all old-time modes of cruelty in destructive warfare; poisoned and explosive bullets are no longer popular. Antiseptic dressings and electric lights at battle-fields are established facts, and the ambulance and stretcher-bearers move in the rear ranks of every army. These isolated facts are only the mountain peaks which I point out to you. The great Alpine range humanity and activity below can not be shown in fifteen minutes.

So much for human warfare and the legitimate dispensation of the treaty.

Touching our “American Amendment,” the wars of the elements have not left us quite at leisure. Under our constitution are formed “Associate Societies,” which aid directly in providing the relief which is dispensed. It being the rule to aid only in calamities so large or so severe as to require help from the general public, our societies are less frequently called to act. They are supposed to have reserved funds or material gathered and held for the purpose of supplying relief upon call from the National Association.

The public, in general, to a large extent, is coming to the use of the Red Cross as a medium of conveyance and distribution for its contributions. The National Association, with its headquarters in this city, has a field-agent, who visits, in person, every scene where aid is rendered. Commencing with the ” forest fires” of Michigan in 1881, there has fallen to its hands a share of the relief-work in the overflow of the Mississippi River in 1882; of the Ohio in 1883; of the Louisiana cyclone the same year; the overflow of both the Ohio and Mississippi in 1884; the representation of the United States Government at the International Conference of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1884; the exhibition of “woman’s work” in the Red Cross, both foreign and American, at the Exposition at New Orleans in 1885; the drought in Texas in 1886; the Charleston earthquake in 1886 ; the representation of the United States Government again at the court of their Royal Highnesses, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Baden, at Carlsruhe, Germany, in 1887, and the relief of the sufferers from the Mt. Vernon cyclone, from which the travel dust is still on our garments and our trunks are not yet unpacked.

In the overflow of the rivers in 1884 the Government appropriated $150,000 for distribution through the War Department, and magnificently and faithfully was that distribution made — an honor to any nation.

The Red Cross, with no appropriation and no treasury, received from its societies and the public, and personally distributed in the space of four months, money and material at a moderately estimated value of $175,000 — an honor to any people.

It will, I trust, be borne in mind that this branch of relief work is not recognized by the treaty — that it is our own, the first publication of which, embodying the principles of the present constitution for the ” relief of national calamities,” was issued in pamphlet form, entitled “The Red Cross — What It Is,” to the Congress of 1878, with the valued assistance of its efficient first secretary, Mrs. Hannah McL. Shephard, of this city.

But, says one, what has this war movement, this Red Cross treaty, to do with real progress and the bringing about of that universal peace toward which our eyes and hearts and hopes are turned, and for which we have so long organized, labored, and prayed? It has, my dear friends, the same, in effect, to do with these that suffrage would have to do with woman’s position and advancement; the same that prohibition would have to do with temperance. Wars are largely the result of unbridled passions. That universal treaty, binding every war-making power to wholesome restraints, pledging it to humanity, and holding it responsible to the entire world, is the bit in the mouth, the curb on the neck of the war horse, and while it holds out the measure of oats in the one hand it carries the bridle in the other. It constitutes a peace society which can not be sneered at in counsel, nor ignored in war. It is one of the thresholds to the temple of peace, but even ourselves may be farther from the entrance than we are wont to fondly dream. Wars are organized mobs, they tell us. We are not without that seed in our own fair land to-day.

But, again, what has the Red Cross to do with woman’s work, and why does our Miss Anthony give it place here? Because her judgment is quick and sound, her vision clear and strong and she sees from afar. Miss Anthony was the first woman to lay her hand beside mine in the formation of a Red Cross Society in her native city of Rochester, and that society has stood like a rock through trouble and disaster, responsive to every call. Because there are more women than men in the Red Cross of Europe to-day. Empresses and queens lead its societies and its relief work in war, and while each queenly wife stands with her Red Cross hand on the epauletted shoulder of her war-meditating husband, he will consider well before he declares. This has been and will be again the case. Women have much to do with it, and in the great millennial day, when peace has conquered war, and its standards float out from the shining battlements, both women and the Red Cross will be there.


Source: Report of the International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C., U.S. of America, March 25 to April 1, 1888, (Washington, DC: Rufus H. Darby), 1888, pp. 103-107.