In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed March American Red Cross Month, and Americans have been celebrating the humanitarian relief organization every March since. A volunteer-run not-for-profit, the American Red Cross is the country’s largest supplier of blood and blood products, collecting blood donations from more than four million people each year.
The organization was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton, who was inspired by the International Red Cross which she had learned about while traveling in Europe after the Civil War. Barton had begun her career as a teacher, and eventually founded a school in New Jersey. After the board of directors at her school reduced her formal role in its administration, she took a position as a patent clerk, making her one of the first women to hold a job in the U.S. government. She was working at the patent office when the Civil War began.
Feeling it was her duty, Barton supported the war effort on the Union side, initially gathering medical supplies in Washington—she got permission to distribute bandages and clothing on the front lines in 1862—and then as a nurse and as the person responsible for coordinating the nursing work in the battlefield hospitals of the Army of the James, appointed by General Benjamin Butler.
After the war, Barton ran the Office of Missing Soldiers in Washington, helping families find their loved ones who had fought, or their remains. She also became a lecturer, talking about her war experiences around the U.S. and Europe. In Geneva, Barton learned about a European organization, the Red Cross, devoted to providing humanitarian aid in wartime.
Returning to the U.S. in 1873, she attempted to start a similar organization here, but ran into opposition from people who felt Americans had tired of war, and so such an organization would never be needed. After eight years, she was able to convince people, including President Chester A. Arthur, that the American Red Cross could do more than just wartime work, and indeed, most of it’s efforts to this day are in disaster relief.