From the Intercross Archives: The Battles of Gettysburg & Solferino

Written by the ICRC DC'S Communications Coordinator, Anna Nelson in June 2013 - Gettysburg & Solferino: Catalysts for Change



Standing on-line at the grocery store in Washington DC recently, I was intrigued to find, among the tabloids, celebrity news, home improvement guides, and food-lover magazines, a new edition of National Geographic chronicling the US Civil War.

A grainy, black and white image of a Confederate infantryman with a musket, a revolver, and a fixed stare graces the cover of the special summer 2013 issue, which explores some of the social, medical, and technological advances spurred by the “conflict that changed America.”

The magazine's lead article starts with the bloody Battle of Gettysburg, which took place in early July 1863. During three days of fierce fighting, an estimated 45,000 soldiers were killed, resulting in the triumph of Union forces over Confederate troops.

It is widely seen as a pivotal moment in the US Civil War, and as the article’s author, Joel K Bourne Jr., writes, an event, which “capped a year that would become a turning point for the nation, though few could guess it at the time.”

Bourne Jr. points to innovations such as the portable printing press and the telegraph, and developments like the start of the Transcontinental Railway and the birth of submersible boats, as examples of how the Civil War was a "catalyst that propelled the US into the modern era.”

There was plenty of social innovation, too, the magazine says – from the creation of large military hospitals to the origins of America’s public higher education system.

Timothy Francis, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command at the Washington Navy Yard, is quoted byNational Geographic as saying, “From a technological perspective, the Union learned that innovation and mass production were essential. That influenced how we fought wars for the next 150 years.”


As I read the issue, it got me thinking about another gruesome clash – one that many Americans, and indeed a lot of non-Europeans, have probably never heard of: the Battle of Solferino, which took place on June 24th 1859.

It, too, was bloody, militarily decisive, and ushered in vast change. In fact, it is at the origins of the Red Cross and contemporary international humanitarian law (IHL), which places limits on how wars are waged. (IHL is often referred to as the “Law of Armed Conflict” in the US.)

The battle itself took place in northern Italy and pitted allied French and Sardinian troops against Austrian forces in a struggle over Italian unity. (The alliance won.) “It was the most horrific bloodbath Europe had known since Waterloo,” writes Francois Bugnion, a former ICRC delegate and well-known historian, who has penned more than 50 books and articles on IHL and the history of the Red Cross.

In ten short hours of fierce fighting in Solferino, more than 6,000 soldiers were killed and around 40,000 wounded as they shot, trampled, bayoneted, and slit each other's throats. “The medical services of the Franco-Sardinian armies were totally overwhelmed,” says Bugnion. “The French army had more veterinary surgeons than doctors. Transport was woefully inadequate.”

Their suffering was witnessed by a Swiss businessman named Henry Dunant, who happened upon the aftermath of the violence and wound up providing care and assistance to thousands of injured soldiers – no matter what side they had fought on. (Interestingly, it is believed that only one civilian was killed during the Battle of Solferino and historians say there was only one civilian casualty at Gettysburg. That's in stark contrast to the alarming toll armed conflicts take on civilians today.)

With the support of local women volunteers, Dunant nursed the men's wounds, gave them food and water, helped evacuate the injured, and wrote letters from the dying to their loved ones. He also appealed to well-heeled friends and associates in Geneva for funds and supplies.

Upon returning to Switzerland and haunted by what he had seen, Dunant wrote a graphic account, called “A Memory of Solferino,” which became a bestseller in its day. More importantly, it laid the foundations for the Geneva Conventions, which form the backbone of IHL.

But he didn't stop there. Dunant also put forward the idea of a neutral and impartial organization to protect and assist the war wounded, along with voluntary relief societies to care for the injured.

It was his vision that led to the creation of the ICRC and, eventually, the establishment of the world's largest humanitarian network: the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which includes, for example, the American and Canadian Red Crosses – along with 187 other National Societies.

In 1901, Dunant was awarded the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize for what was described as the "supreme humanitarian achievement of the 19th century."


Mulling all of this over, it occurred to me that in much the same way that National Geographic describes the US Civil War as having "changed America" by spurring advances in communication, transportation, technology, weaponry, and health care, it could be argued that the lesser-known Battle of Solferino changed the whole world, by laying the foundations for modern humanitarian action and the rules of war. 

Of course, it's impossible to gauge just how great an impact this event or Dunant's thinking have had on humanity over the past 15 decades, but as Nelson Mandela once said about us, "What matters is not only the good the ICRC brings, but the evil it prevents."

On days like today and anniversaries like these, I couldn't agree more.