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The History of First Aid in the Army


Post Civil War Era

From 1865 to 1898, America was at peace, which kept advances in battlefield medicine relatively minor. There were, however, several significant events during this time that helped contribute to the Army's first aid system:

  • The American Red Cross was founded in Washington, D.C. by Clara Barton on May 21, 1881. It was an organization that would greatly help America's troops starting with the Spanish American war in 1898.
  • In 1882, the United States ratified the first Geneva Convention, which mandated the obligation to extend care without discrimination to wounded and sick military personnel. It also established that there should be respect for medical personnel transports and equipment marked with the sign of the red cross on a white background.
  • On Nov. 20, 1886, General Order No. 86 was issued from the War Department that introduced first aid to all Army soldiers through a series of lectures and pamphlets.
  • Congress passed the law that officially formed the Hospital Corps on March 1, 1887, which stated that the medical personnel in the Army "shall be regularly enlisted in the military service" and that "said Corps shall be permanently attached to the Medical Department, and shall not be included in the effective strength of the Army nor counted as a part of the enlisted force provided by law." The law also established new chevrons (insignia) combined with red crosses to designate members of the Corps.

While these were certainly positive advancements, when war with Spain broke out in 1898, many of Letterman's Civil War reforms were forgotten, and the result was that the military was again unprepared to care for its wounded.

To help supplement medical personnel, George M. Sternberg, the Army's surgeon general at the time, contracted trained nurses from the Daughters of the American Revolution. As a result, more than 1,500 female nurses served in the field in the U.S., Cuba and the Philippines, as well as on the Army hospital ship Relief [source: Greenwood]. These were supplemented by approximately 700 additional nurses from the Red Cross, marking the organization's first war-related mission [source: American Red Cross].

Sternberg additionally ordered the distribution of first aid packets to the troops that contained gauze for controlling bleeding in the field. They proved fairly successful, especially since the size of bullets were now smaller than in previous wars, and the puncture wounds they caused could be stopped up with gauze.


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