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From the Archives…

Supporting the Troops: Red Cross and the Spanish American War

February 15 marks 115 years since the USS Maine exploded in Cuba’s Havana Harbor. The explosion resulted in more than 200 deaths and served as a catalyst for the Spanish American War of 1898. It was also the first time the American Red Cross responded to a military event.

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Wreckage of the USS Maine, 1898, U.S. Bureau of Ships, National Archives

The U.S. government signed the 1864 Geneva Convention in 1882, providing the mandate for the Red Cross to support the military. So in 1898 the young Red Cross set out to assist the troops who went off to fight the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines.  Clara Barton recruited nurses to serve with the troops, despite the Army surgeon general’s reluctance to allow women to care for the wounded. Barton soon overcame the obstacles.

Secretary of War R.A. Alger sent her a letter on June 6, 1898, telling her that the “tender of services of the American National Red Cross . . . for medical and hospital work as auxiliary to the hospital service of the Army of the United States, is accepted” and adding that her workers would be “subject to orders according to the rules and discipline of war, as provided by the 63 Articles of War.” By 1899, Barton had recruited some 700 nurses.

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Red Cross nurses en route to Cuba in 1898.

Barton was disheartened to see that camp conditions had not changed significantly since the Civil War, including treatment of the wounded. The soldiers wore winter weather uniforms in the tropical summer heat and countless numbers fell ill to yellow fever, typhoid fever, and dysentery. Medical officers credited the Red Cross with helping them sustain their operations under very difficult circumstances.

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Clara Barton (seated at center in dark clothes) waits with her entourage for U.S. Navy permission to sail the State of Texas to blockaded Cuba, where war raged. The ship departed on June 10, 1898.

One hundred and fifteen years later, the American Red Cross has continued the proud tradition of providing service to the U.S. military and their families at home and abroad.

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