In the latter half of the nineteenth century, international law and various institutions addressed the issue of humanitarian relief to those involved in war. In Europe, a movement emerged to improve treatment of the wounded in the wake of the Crimean and Austro-Italian wars. Swiss philanthropist Henry Dunant inspired the founding of the Red Cross after witnessing the hardships faced by the wounded and medical personnel at the Battle of Solferino. Within the space of two years, support for his idea led to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which elaborated the principle that both the injured and medical personnel should be treated as neutrals during war. Later Geneva conventions and protocols extended these provisions to war at sea, then to prisoners of war, and later to protection of civilians in enemy and occupied territories, with an emphasis on the needs of refugees and displaced persons. But although it had a tradition of neutrality, the United States was slow to join this international movement because of America's tradition of avoiding noncommercial treaties.
When these international developments began, the United States was in the midst of a destructive Civil War. In America's early wars, care of wounded soldiers was provided by family members and limited numbers of military medical personnel. Local communities, religious groups, and women's groups sometimes organized relief efforts to get supplies and medical care to their loved ones.
The Civil War, with wider consequences than previous calamities requiring American assistance, witnessed even greater voluntary mobilization. Women of high social prestige in both Union and Confederacy established organizations like the Women's Central Association of Relief in New York to help provide clothing and other supplies. The growing movement for an expanded role for women in nursing during war as well as desperate need led other women to volunteer for a more direct role in the relief of suffering. This voluntary relief movement had lasting importance, since women tapped into popular conceptions of gender roles, arguing more and more successfully that women brought uniquely feminine compassion to assist the wounded. Professional standards for nursing, a gendered profession, would expand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ladies' Soldiers Aid Societies provided food and other services at camps behind the front lines.
The mobilization of relief during the Civil War set new precedents in organization. In addition to local efforts, the United States Sanitary Commission, a voluntary yet governmentapproved organization, was established with the aim of coordinating the activities of the local groups. The Sanitary Commission organized the collection and delivery of supplies and appealed for funds, raising $5 million by the end of the war.
The Civil War also provided experience in dealing with refugees. Inspired to action first by the needs of "contrabands"—slaves fleeing the ravages of war who went behind Union lines—sympathetic individuals founded voluntary organizations called freedmen's aid societies to provide food and clothing to contraband camps. Soon, Congress entered into relief and refugee efforts, creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, established in March 1865 to provide relief assistance to southerners, black and white. The Freedman's Bureau, as it evolved, also came to provide rehabilitation or reconstruction, making efforts not only to feed and clothe refugees but also to provide freedmen with education and assistance in negotiating job contracts and in leasing or purchasing land. The issue of the constitutional right of the federal government to engage in these kinds of activities led to fierce struggles over the Freedman's Bureau and contributed to its eventual demise. The pattern of dealing with emergency needs to relieve human suffering, followed by attempts to create conditions in which the victims of disaster could build or rebuild institutions and sustainable economic activity, would be repeated in the twentieth century.
Civil War experiences raised hopes for U.S. approval of the Geneva Convention of 1864. Although the United States did not participate officially in the 1864 conference, Charles S. Bowles, a member of the Sanitary Commission, attended the convention as an American observer and reported on the commission's experience. Congress was reluctant to support an international treaty that seemed to undermine the American principle of nonentanglement with other nations. Secretary of State William Seward refused to consider the treaty, arguing that it was political and would violate the principle of U.S. neutrality. Henry W. Bellows, who had headed the Sanitary Commission, Bowles, and other members of the commission created the American Association for the Relief of Misery on the Battlefield in 1866, lobbying futilely for Congress to ratify the Geneva Convention. Seward and, later, Secretary of State Hamilton Fish continued to reject U.S. participation in the treaty.
Another veteran of Civil War relief efforts was ultimately more successful in convincing American statesmen to support the Geneva Convention. In 1870 Clara Barton, who had gained pubic attention during the Civil War for her relief activities, met members of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. Inspired, she worked with the national organizations of the Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War and later during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. She tirelessly argued for a Red Cross in the United States, and wrote a pamphlet, The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention: What It Is (1878). In it she emphasized not only the potential for Red Cross activities in war, but the role it could play in peacetime in the United States to provide relief in the wake of disasters and emergencies. Recent devastating fires in Chicago and Boston as well as floods, industrial accidents, outbreaks of disease, and other emergencies required organized action and Americans in growing numbers supported the Red Cross largely because of its potential to help at home. Barton also petitioned Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and Chester A. Arthur to promote the ratification of the Geneva treaty. Barton's success came all at once. She finally succeeded in establishing an American Red Cross (ARC) in 1881 and in 1882, with the support of Secretary of State James G. Blaine, the United States Congress ratified the Geneva treaty.
In its early years the ARC was mostly involved in disaster relief at home rather than relief to victims of war, but its future role in world affairs would be extensive. Although a latecomer to the League of the Red Cross, the name of the federation to which national organizations belong, the ARC had some impact on the international movement. Henry Dunant had suggested the Red Cross should also assist in disaster relief, and the International Committee of the Red Cross considered such activities as a part of their role. The adoption by the ARC in 1884 of an explicit article calling for relief of suffering in times of peace was known as the American Amendment.