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Clara Barton embarks on a risky river quest during the worst flood of the 19th Century.

IN FEBRUARY 1884, torrential rain and unseasonably warm temperatures brought the icy waters of the Ohio River to a deadly roil. The resulting flood inundated villages, towns and cities along the nearly 1,000-mile-long Ohio Valley, leaving tens of thousands

of people without food, heat or shelter. Downstream, the Ohio’s surging waters flowed into the Mississippi River and caused it to crash through its levees. Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross three years earlier, jumped into action. Barton had seen plenty of wartime devastation. She earned the sobriquet “Angel of the Battlefield” as a combat nurse during the Civil War, and began working with the International Red Cross when the Franco-Prussian War erupted in 1870. Now she saw an opportunity to expand the American Red Cross mission into largely uncharted territory: providing aid during a natural catastrophe. In an excerpt on the following pages, taken from her memoir, The Red Cross in Peace and War (1898), Barton describes the unprecedented, four-month relief effort during the Great Flood of 1884 and the hazards she and volunteers faced traveling 8,000 miles on the rivers, between Cincinnati and New Orleans, to distribute $175,000 in charitable supplies to those affected by the disaster.



THE SURGING RIVER had climbed up the bluffs in Cincinnati like a devouring monster and possessed the town. Large steamers could have plied along its business streets; ordinary avocations were abandoned. Bankers and merchants stood in relief houses and fed the hungry populace, and men and women were out in boats passing baskets of food to pale, trembling hands stretched out to reach it from third-story windows of the stately blocks and warehouses of that beautiful city. Sometimes the water soaked away the foundations and the structure fell with a crash and was lost in the floods below.

It had not been my intention to remain at the scene of disaster, but rather to see, investigate, establish an agency and return to national headquarters at Washington. But I might also say, in military parlance, that I was “surprised and captured.” The government had placed its military boats upon the river to rescue the people and issue rations. But they provided neither fuel nor clothing. A cyclone struck the lower half of the river with the water at its greatest height and whole villages were swept away in a night. The inhabitants escaped in boats, naked and homeless. Hail fell to the depth of several inches and the entire country was encased in sleet and ice. The people were more likely to freeze than starve and against this there was no provision.

We quickly removed our headquarters from Cincinnati to Evansville, 300 miles below and at the head of the recent scene of disaster. A new staunch steamer of four hundred tons was immediately chartered and laden with clothing and coal; the Red Cross flag was hoisted and, amid surging waters and crashing ice, the clear-toned bell and shrill whistle of the “Josh V. Throop” announced to the generous inhabitants of a noble city that from the wharves of Evansville the Red Cross was putting out the first relief boat that ever floated on American waters.

The destroyed villages and hamlets lay thick on either bank, and the steamer wove its course diagonally and steamed away quickly and quietly, leaving an astonished few, sometimes a multitude to gaze after and wonder who she was, whence she came, what that strange flag meant, and most of all, to thank God with tears and prayers for what she brought. In this manner the Red Cross proceeded to Cairo, a distance of 400 miles, where the Ohio joins the Mississippi River. We revisited and resupplied the destitute points on our return to Evansville.

At this moment, and most unexpectedly, commenced the great rise of the Mississippi River, and a second cry went out for instant help. The strongest levees were giving way under the sudden pressure, and even the inundation of the city of New Orleans was threatened. Again the government appropriated money, the War Department sent out its rescue and ration boats and the Red Cross prepared for its supplemental work.

In an overflow of the Mississippi, the valley is inundated at times 30 miles in width, thus rendering it impossible to get animals to a place of safety. Great numbers drown, and the remainder, in a prolonged overflow, largely starves. The Red Cross prepared to go to the relief of the starving animals of the Mississippi Valley. The steamer “Throop” was left at Evansville, and the “Mattie Bell,” chartered at St. Louis, was laden with corn, oats, hay, meal and salt for cattle; clothing and cooking utensils for the destitute people; tea, coffee, rice, sugar and medicine for the sick.

We soon found that horses, mules, cows, sheep and pigs had been hastily gotten upon floating rafts and platforms of logs raised above the water, or had taken refuge, as many as could, on the narrow strips of land, known as broken levees, say eight to twelve feet in width, just peering above the water; and here they stood often crowded beyond the possibility of lying down, with no morsel of food save the wee green leaves and tips of the willow branches and gray moss which their pitying owners, largely poor negroes, could gather in skiffs and bring to them.

Day by day they stood and wasted, starved, and their bodies floated down the stream, food for the birds of prey hovering above. Week after week, hour after hour, the mighty river, pouring through its monster crevasses, spread wider and wider every hour. We left our steamer at times and were rowed out in little boats for miles alongside of the levees, and went among the cattle. Some waded out into the water and swam delusively upon the surface. Some, unable to stand, lay stretched at length with head and horns dabbling in the mud, fearlessly turning great pitiful eyes upon us as we approached. Others, reeling, followed us tamely about, as if beseeching us to feed them.



AS WE GOT LOWER down the Mississippi and more tributaries were pouring into the mighty volume that seethed beneath us, the danger became more imminent. Running after dark was out of the question, and timely orders were given one afternoon to tie up for the night; but our captain, anxious to make a headland a few miles further on, begged permission to run a little later. His request was reluctantly granted, and as we steamed on a fog came up and night set in, with us still afloat. In less than a half hour [a] stranger rushed to me: “We are in a crevasse! We must pull out or we are lost! I have warned the engineer and captain.”

The forward rush of the boat ceased. She stood still, pulled first one way then the other, shivered and struggled amid the shrieks of the reversed engine, while we waited, thoroughly aware of the situation and the doom awaiting us all, depending on the power and strength of one mute body of steel and one firm hand at the helm. At length the struggling ceased; the engines had triumphed over the current. We commenced to move slowly backward, and with a grateful awe in our hearts we found a place of safety for the night.

One day as we were near the left bank of the river we saw a small herd of cattle wading out far into the water for what they could reach. A few cabins stood back of them. It proved to be a little neighborhood of negroes with no white “boss,” as they say, who had their own mules and cows and were farming independently. But the food and feed were gone. The government boats had passed without seeing them, and no help had come. They had their little church; and their elder, a good, honest-faced man, who led them onto the boat, told the story of their sufferings and danger. We selected two men and two women, formed them into a committee of distribution and wrote out formal directions and authority for them. But before presenting it to them to sign, I asked them seriously: If we left these supplies with them, could they share them honestly with each other and not quarrel over them?

They were silent a moment. Then the tallest of the women rose up, and with commanding gesture said: “Miss, dese tings is from de Lord; dey is not from you, caze you is from Him. He sent you to bring dem. We would not dare to quarrel ober dem things, we would not dare not to be honest wid ’em.”

I presented the paper with no further pledge. It was signed with one name and three marks. The supplies were put off on the only little spot of land that could be reached. The negroes left the boat and stood beside the pile, which seemed a little mountain in the level space of waters. We raised steam and prepared to put off, expecting as we did so some demonstration, some shout of farewell from our newfound friends on shore and held our handkerchiefs ready to wave in reply. But not a sound—and as we “rounded to” and looked back, the entire group had knelt beside the bags of grain and food, and nor a head or hand was raised to bid us speed. In tearful silence we bowed our heads as well and went our way.


Originally published in the April 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.