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The Red Cross and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross (Source: National Park Service)

Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross (Source: National Park Service)

August 8, 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the International Red Cross. While Clara Barton worked tirelessly on behalf of the Union injured on Civil War battlefields, it was a Swiss citizen whose observations of an Italian battlefield motivated him to lead the efforts to establish the Red Cross.

In 1859, Dr. Henry Dunant witnessed the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino, where more than 45,000 soldiers lay dead or wounded on the battlefield. In 1862, he published Memory of Solferino, in which he proposed to set up volunteer groups in every country to take care of casualties in wartime and to persuade governments to agree to protect first aid volunteers and wounded on the battlefield. Thus, the Red Cross was initially founded to ameliorate conditions in times of war.

In 1864, the First Geneva Convention adopted an emblem that reversed the colors of the Swiss flag. During its war with Russia 22 years later, the Ottoman Empire substituted the crescent for the cross, which was offensive to Muslim religious beliefs.

Clara Barton led the effort to establish the American Red Cross in 1881. The charity was largely identified with her during her lifetime. The American Red Cross immediately went to work leading efforts to aid victims of natural catastrophes, beginning with a Michigan forest fire in 1881; helping Ohio River and Mississippi River flood victims in 1884; leading 50 volunteers to help the victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889. The American Red Cross elected her “president for life” in 1901. She resigned three years later at the age of 82 in response to criticism about her management style, abilities, and age.

The American Red Cross received its first congressional charter in 1900, and its second in 1905, one year after Barton’s resignation.

On Thursday, April 19, 1906, disaster met opportunity. One day after the great earthquake, while fires raged across San Francisco, President Theodore Roosevelt sent a telegram to Dr. Edward Devine, the General Secretary of the Charity Organization of New York. Roosevelt requested that Devine represent the Red Cross in the San Francisco relief operation. After Devine accepted the appointment, Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring that “the out-pouring of the nation’s aid should as far as possible be entrusted to the American National Red Cross, the national organization best fitted to undertake such relief work.”

By that proclamation, Roosevelt established a practice that would be followed by his successors, recognizing the American Red Cross as the leader of emergency relief in times of disaster. If the Red Cross lost one identity with the departure of Clara Barton, it forged its own two years later and regained its moral force with the Chief Executive’s imprimatur.


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July 31, 2014 · 11:19 pm

Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1869 Inauguration

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States (Source:


The theme song from the 1930 movie “Chasing Rainbows” was the campaign song for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s successful 1932 Presidential campaign and would become the unofficial campaign song of the Democratic Party for years to come. But the song’s spirit aptly describes the atmosphere of Ulysses S. Grant’s first inauguration.

Grant’s opponent, former New York Governor Horatio Seymour, had waged an ugly, racist campaign. During the months between his nomination in May and his election in November, Grant had spent most of his time in his hometown of Galena, Illinois, and the rest of his time exploring America’s Great Plains. As was customary in most Presidential campaigns of the nineteenth century, Grant had left the public speaking to others.

The town’s citizens were in a celebratory mood. They had endured four years of war and almost four years with President Andrew Johnson and Congress at each other’s throat, culminating in Johnson’s narrow escape from conviction at his impeachment trial the past spring.

 Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies' Library)

Julia Boggs Dent Grant (Source: National First Ladies’ Library)

Although the air was cool and misty on Thursday morning, March 4, 1869, eager onlookers crowded the streets of the nation’s capital. All of them wanted a glimpse of the President-elect, the man who had brought an end to the Civil War. Some in the crowd wanted to see the First Lady, Julia Dent Grant, bringing their spyglasses to determine if there was any truth to the rumor that her brown eyes peered in two different directions.

Grant had won the election in an electoral landslide. Within the next few months, work crews two thousand miles to the west would complete the wonder of the age, the transcontinental railroad. Land-hungry men, North and South, were filling America’s vast territories. Scandals about Congressional bribes and generous payments to railroad companies would come, but on inauguration day citizens took a deep breath and celebrated the war hero who promised to bring peace to a recently reunited nation.




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May 9, 2014 · 7:04 pm