By Sherri Goudy
Imagine you’re a solider fighting for your country. A battle has just ended and you’ve been injured. Your arm is bleeding. You’re hungry. It’s raining and your socks are wet. You don’t have another pair. As you sit on a tree stump under a makeshift canopy made from your jacket, you see a woman coming towards you dressed in white, with a dark cloak wrapped around her shoulders. She asks you to show her your injuries and proceeds to bandage your arm. She has a ration pack and you’re so hungry you immediately tear it open and devour its contents. She also has a package for you with socks and a sweater, soap and toothpaste, and even a pack of cigarettes. Would you assume this woman was a nurse? Or perhaps even an angel, sent to care and comfort you in the hell of your present location.
During the Civil War one such woman was nicknamed the “Angel of the Battlefield” for this very reason. Clara Barton was a former school teacher and clerk for the US Patent office when she decided to collect and distribute supplies to soldiers during the Civil War, as well as providing nurses aid on the battlefield. Her experience led her to advocate for war-injured soldiers through the ratification of the Geneva Convention. She is most famous for founding the American Red Cross in 1881. It was one of the first humanitarian organizations in the US, and the only one congressionally mandated to provide aid to victims of disasters and war. But it wasn’t until World War I when the Red Cross began its transformation from a small organization with limited staff and insufficient funds into a massive, globally influential institution.
With the outbreak of war, the Red Cross expanded in many ways. Its numbers grew from 107 local chapters with 17,000 members in 1914 to 3,864 local chapters with 31 million members in 1918. During World War I, the public contributed $400 million in funds and materials to support Red Cross Programs. And the organization recruited 20,000 registered nurses to serve the military during the war, and additional nurses came forward in 1918 at the outbreak of the influenza epidemic.
In Clark County, women became a part of the Red Cross and its campaign for action from Wilson’s declaration of war. In early April, the headline read “Springfield Girl is Now Red Cross Nurse.”
Part of the Red Cross campaign was to collect bandages and surgical dressings for wounded soldiers overseas. In Springfield, 77 Clark County citizens, mainly women enrolled in a surgical dressing class to bolster supplies for the Red Cross. The classes were organized by the local chapter of the National League of Women Services.
In order to contribute to the fundraising efforts for the Red Cross, Springfield was divided into 4 districts “to facilitate the work of the campaigners.” The newspaper provided a map for readers to see where their contributions would be counted. It was set up like a competition among the quadrants as to who could get the most funds.
Ads flooded the newspapers, urging citizens of all ages to be a part of the Red Cross and its campaign to send aid overseas. This particular ad pulls at the heartstrings of children, pleading with them to help the boys and girls overseas who don’t have enough to eat and whose papas are fighting “in an awful war” and that “we are in that war too.”
Full page ads urged women to join the Red Cross as nurses, and citizens to join as members to support the war effort.
The ad campaign was successful and by mid-June, the goal of 30,000 Red Cross members was expected to be exceeded.
The headlines for June 21, 1917 read “Six Donations of $5,000 Each received by Red Cross” and “Thirty Thousand Dollars Netted in Hour Thursday.” The central district for the Red Cross campaign for memberships provided a photo of the young girls who were soliciting for the Red Cross, wearing their white uniforms and recognizable white cap with the cross on it.
In preparation for the cold months, the Red Cross accepted donations of knitted garments for soldiers. On August 26, 1917, the Springfield newspaper published an article stating that “it is necessary that the Red Cross have one thousand sets of knitted articles.”
In less than 4 months, Springfield and its surrounding rural towns were exceeding expectations with the number of members and contributions to the Red Cross.
In the first months of the war, the Red Cross grew exponentially. The membership expansion, nurses who joined, knitting goods, supplies collected, and every citizen young or old, regardless of background contributed to this growth, and were led by the women of Springfield and women across the country. For the first time, women had an incredible opportunity to show their patriotism in the public sphere and were recognized for it.
Next time, we will discuss other ways women served their country by joining the military and work force.
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