A Humanitarian Mission in 1896 and Its Enduring Mark
How Clara Barton First Made Civilian Protection a Core Mission under International Humanitarian Law
Originally published June 2015 in the Surgeon’s Call, Volume 20, No. 1
Clara Barton stands alone in one unique and vital respect. She was extraordinary among her contemporaries for the range, reach, and enduring impact of her work. Her achievements in humanitarian action and idea leadership eclipse those of almost anyone else in her time or since. However, it could also be conceded that, with the arguable exception of her leadership in the Missing Soldiers Office, most of her work before 1896, though exceptional and pioneering, was not unique. She was not the only Civil War-era medical volunteer aiding wounded combatants, not the only founder of a national red cross society, and not the first to lead organized peacetime disaster relief efforts. Clara Barton was, though, the first modern humanitarian to lead relief efforts for civilians enduring the ravages of war and persecution.
In aiding afflicted communities, she pioneered humanitarian methods that are still essential (and challenging to apply) two centuries after. We assume twenty-first century states, international organizations, and volunteer non-governmental organizations make implementing these methods one of their urgent tasks. That wasn’t so in the mid to late nineteenth century, when modern international humanitarian law and practice was in its formative stages. Clara Barton didn’t take such initiative just once.
She took on this mission three times, in separate parts of the world. No one else in her time came close. Modern protection for communities threatened by war or persecution begins with her, and this story should be better known. The prologue opens in Switzerland and France soon after the American Civil War, and then moves to ravaged Armenian regions in the Ottoman Empire almost 30 years later.
This underappreciated aspect of her work began with a visit to Geneva in 1869, where the early leaders of the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded (famously known today as the International Committee of the Red Cross) initiated dialogue with her on the work of the first National Red Cross Societies and the importance of the Geneva Convention of 1864. These national societies and the 1864 convention had the purpose of caring for wounded and sick members of armies in wartime. Would she introduce this work in her own country? Before taking on that mission, she abruptly took on a different assignment, one of a character that the International Committee did not specifically have in mind.[i]
Barton was still in Europe when the Franco-Prussian War began, and from 1870-1871 committed herself to organizing and leading relief efforts for French civilians.[ii] This important and exhausting work might have marked an interesting historic first–the first organized modern relief for civilians in wartime–but little more, because for decades afterward Barton’s work took her in different directions, and no one else was interested in the precedent she had set for wartime relief. She is celebrated for leading efforts to secure U.S. ratification of the Geneva Convention in 1882, founding the American Red Cross, organizing and leading the first sustained national program of peacetime disaster relief in the 1880s and 1890s, and successfully promoting peacetime disaster relief as an important mission to be taken on by other red cross societies. And so, her work in France faded to the background as newer challenges and achievements followed.
Few thought that civilians would bear the brunt of much suffering in modern war. However, reality proved differently and not only in the Franco-Prussian War. In 1875 both Christian and Moslem refugees of Ottoman oppression poured into Montenegro and the Red Cross Society of Montenegro was formed for their relief.[iii] The International Committee furnished support to those efforts and again, in 1878, for Ottoman citizens fleeing the advance of Russian forces.[iv] However, wartime civilian relief remained anomalous in red cross work. No effort was made to adopt this as a core mission or to change the Geneva Convention to empower such work.
Such was still the case on December 2, 1895. Clara Barton was approaching her 74th birthday and, presumably, the end of her career; and on this date President Cleveland presented his annual message to Congress. His report on foreign relations included this update: “Occurrences in Turkey have continued to excite concern. The reported massacres of Christians in Armenia and the development there and in other districts of a spirit of fanatic hostility to Christian influences naturally excited apprehension for the safety of the devoted men and women who, as dependents of the foreign missionary societies in the United States, reside in Turkey under the guarantee of law and usage and in the legitimate performance of their educational and religious missions.”[v] President Cleveland noted that no harm had come to U.S. citizens thus far, though significant damage had been done to their property. He also pointedly took note that European powers had the responsibility to “interfere,” if necessary, on behalf of endangered Christians.[vi]
Political tensions had been building in the Ottoman government and its Armenian provinces since the early 1890s. The Ottoman leadership would tolerate no political protest by Armenians who were demanding relief from impossible tax burdens. Systematic massacres of Armenian communities began in 1894. Over the next two years this slaughter spread to Armenian communities throughout the Anatolian Peninsula.[vii] By late 1896, the gravity of this crisis gripped the attention of political and community leaders in the United States. Perhaps uniquely for a woman in that day, Clara Barton was seen as the natural leader for an American relief effort. She was approached to lead an expedition into the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire.[viii]
She was persuaded, and left from New York in January 1896 on a journey that took her first to England, then Geneva, and ultimately to Constantinople to begin her humanitarian work. She was accompanied by four colleagues also representing the American Red Cross, Dr. Julian Hubbell, George Pullman, Lucy Graves, and Ernest Mason.[ix] Her mission was to convert cash donations into urgently needed relief for the Armenian people. Her challenge was to maintain humanitarian neutrality, neither siding with the cheering crowd who saw her off in New York and other American supporters of the Armenian people, nor demonstrating animus to the Ottoman authorities, whose approval and support was indispensable for her mission to succeed. Such balancing remains a challenging and sometimes emotionally trying task for humanitarian workers in the twenty-first century.
An early warning of the challenges ahead awaited them on arrival in England. Barton later reported: “A week at sea, to be met at midnight in Southampton, by messenger down from London, to say that the prohibition was sustained, the Red Cross was forbidden, but that such persons as our Minister, Mr. Terrell, would appoint, would be received. Here was another delicate uncertainty which could not be committed to Ottoman telegraph; and Dr. Hubbell was dispatched alone to Constantinople (while we waited in London) to learn from Mr. Terrell his attitude toward ourselves and our mission. Under favorable responses we proceeded, and reached Constantinople on February 15th; met with a cordial reception from all our own government officials, and located pro tem at Pera Palace Hotel; it being so recently after the Stamboul massacres that no less public place was deemed safe.”[x] (Mr. Terrell was U.S. Minister Alexander Terrell, the envoy representing the United States in Turkey.)[xi]
She and Terrell secured a high stakes meeting with the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs. Her report of the meeting is a primer for anyone who may have to conduct humanitarian diplomacy today. She described the nature of their intended work, and hinted at why it was in the interest of the Ottoman government to grant her request. She said that her agents in the field “would embrace plows, hoes, spades, seed-corn, wheat, and later, sickles, scythes, etc. for harvesting, with which to save the miles of autumn grain which we had heard of as growing on the great plains already in the ground before the trouble; also to provide for them such cattle and other animals as it would be possible to purchase or to get back; that if some such thing were not done before another winter, unless we had been greatly misinformed, the suffering there would shock the entire civilized world.”[xii] She stated that “humanity alone would be their guide,” that no reporters had accompanied her, that all communications would go through the Ottoman telegraph system, and that all communications would be marked by “truth, fairness, and integrity.”[xiii]
Barton’s approach, coming at the dawn of modern humanitarian practice, and anticipating practice to follow into our own time, won the approval of the Foreign Minister and her mission began in the field. She directed operations from Constantinople, utilizing the Ottoman telegraph system to communicate with her teams in the field. Beginning in March and through that summer, four red cross expeditions set out to relieve Armenian communities ravaged by recent massacres, and not free from like dangers ahead.
These expeditions, led by Hubbell and her other trusted agents, Edward Wister and Charles Wood (both of Philadelphia), and expatriate American physician Ira Harris, whose home was in Tripoli, all delivered a range of relief like that provided by modern humanitarian providers. In cooperation with U.S. and European consular officers, U.S. missionaries, and Armenian and non-Armenian colleagues and staff, they provided medical support to quell epidemics, provided food, and helped rebuild food security by purchasing and delivering the agricultural implements and livestock that Barton had promised. They also faced threats all too familiar among humanitarian workers today.[xiv]
The expeditions encountered destruction everywhere and, sometimes, threats of fresh violence to themselves, as well as the Armenian people. Mr. Wood’s report captured the environment. “Approaching Killis, rumors came to us of troubles in that city, and when we reached there, openly menaced and hooted at by the rabble, we found the ill news was only too true. An uprising had taken place in the city, many people were slain, and shops and houses had been plundered.”[xv]Sometimes, like today, moral ambiguity surfaced in these violent settings.
The same government that fomented and inflicted violence also ensured the protection of these expeditions and helped to ensure their success. Dr. Hubbell summed up the critical role played by Ottoman authorities. “To the Turkish officials everywhere we are grateful for their careful supervision of our personal safety, and for the general personal freedom allowed ourselves wherever we worked. To the officers and guards who always accompanied us in our journeys through cold and heat, on the road by night or day, over the desolate plain or mountain trail, for bringing us safely through from sea to sea without a scratch or harm of any kind, for all this we are most assuredly grateful, and oft recall the cheerful vigilant service and special courtesies we enjoyed at their hands which could only be prompted by the most friendly feelings and consideration.”[xvi]
On August 9, 1896, Clara Barton and her team set sail for Europe. She knew that the work they had accomplished did not mark the end to dangers facing the Armenian people. Looking ahead, she warned that further assistance was needed. “That even now it is cold in their mountain recesses, the frosts are whitening the rocky crests, trodden by their wandering feet, and long before Christmas the friendly snow will have commenced to cover their graves.”[xvii]
Her concerns were well founded. The massacres continued until the end of the year.[xviii] Even worse followed a generation after in the same communities where her team had worked–the Armenian genocide of 1915. Clara Barton pioneered wartime civilian relief at the dawn of modern humanitarian practice. Her methods, and the insights that she drew from her work, remain timely for humanitarian service in violent settings today. The grim events that followed her 1896 mission remind us that such work must continue wherever needed.
President Cleveland delivered his next message to Congress on December 7, 1896. By then, the plight of the Armenian people had moved to the top of his foreign policy concerns. Following closely was his concern for the plight of the Cuban people in the ongoing rebellion against Spain.[xix] Little more than a year after, Ms. Barton was on her way to Cuba to provide aid. Her work as a pioneer in wartime civilian relief was not over yet.
On September 16, 2012, a young Armenian broadcast journalist interviewed the author at the Antietam National Battlefield. He wanted to know more about Barton’s work. When the interview was over, I asked why he had traveled all the way to the U.S. to cover her story. He explained that Clara Barton is held in very high esteem by the Armenian people. They still remember her work with them in 1896.
[i]Bossier, Pierre. From Solferino to Tsushima: History of the International Committee of the Red Cross, (Henry Dunant Institute, Geneva, 1985), p.256.
[ii]Ibid., p. 257.
[iii]Ibid., p. 300.
[iv]Ibid., pp. 311-312.
[v]Paper Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, with the Annual Message of the President, Transmitted to Congress December 2, 1895. (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1895), p. XXXIV .http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/FRUS.FRUS1895p1. Last accessed October 26, 2015.
[vi]Ibid., pp. XXXV-XXXVI.
[vii]Balakian, Peter, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. (Perennial, 2004), pp. 54-62.
[viii]Ibid., p. 71, 74.
[ix]Ibid., p. 77.
[x]Report American Relief Expedition To Asia Minor Under The Red Cross, Washington, D.C. 1896. (The Journal Publishing Company, Meridian, Conn.), see the report by Clara Barton, pp. 6-7, that is included within the overall report by multiple authors.
[xi]Ibid., vii, Balakian, at 77-78.
[xii]Ibid., x, Report, at p 9.
[xiii]Ibid., p. 9.
[xiv]Ibid., reports by Dr. Hubbell, pp. 59-73, Dr. Hintlian, pp. 73-74, Wistar, pp. 75-81, Wood, pp. 83-91, and Dr. Harris, pp. 92-96.
[xv]Ibid., p. 84.
[xvi]Ibid., p. 72.
[xvii]Ibid., p. 44.
[xviii]Ibid., ii, Balakian, at 110.
[xix]Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, with The Annual Message Of The President, Transmitted To Congress December 7, 1896. (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1897) pp. XXIX-XXXVI.