Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton (December 25, 1821 – April 12, 1912) was a pioneering nurse who founded the American Red Cross. She worked as a hospital nurse in the American Civil War, and as a teacher and patent clerk. Barton is noteworthy for doing humanitarian work at a time when relatively few women worked outside the home. She had a relationship with John J. Elwell, but never married.
Barton’s father was Captain Stephen Barton, a member of the local militia and a selectman. Barton’s mother was Sarah Stone Barton, a homemaker.
When she was three years old, Clara was sent to school with her brother Stephen where she excelled in reading and spelling. At school, she became close friends with Nancy Fitts; this is the only known friend Clara Barton had as a child due to her extreme timidness. Her parents tried to help cure her of this shyness by sending her to Col. Stones High School, but their strategy turned out to be a disaster. Clara became more timid and depressed and would not eat. She was immediately removed from the school and brought back home to regain her health.
Upon her return, her family relocated to help a family member, as the nephew of Captain Stephen Barton had died and left his wife with four children and a farm. The house that the Barton family was to live in needed to be painted and repaired.Clara was persistent in offering her assistance, for which the painter was very grateful. After the work was done, Clara felt at a loss because she had nothing else to do to help and not feel like a burden to her family. She began to play with her male cousins, and to their surprise, she was good at keeping up with such tasks as horseback riding. It was not until after she had injured herself that Clara’s mother began to question her playing with the boys. Clara’s mother wanted her to become acquainted with her feminine side. She invited one of Clara’s female cousins over to help develop her femininity. Upon learning from her cousin, she gained proper social skills as well.
She was just ten when she assigned herself the task of nursing her brother David back to health after he fell from the roof of a barn and received a severe injury. She learned how to distribute the prescribed medication to her brother, as well as how to place leeches on his body to bleed him. (This was a regular treatment during this time.) She continued to care for David long after doctors had given up. Her brother made a full recovery.
Clara Barton became an educator in 1838 for 12 years in schools in Canada and West Georgia. Barton fared well as a teacher and knew how to handle rambunctious children, particularly the boys, since as a child she enjoyed her male cousins’ and brothers’ company. She learned how to act like them, making it easier for her to relate to and control the boys in her classroom since they respected her. In 1850, Barton decided to further her education by pursuing writing and languages at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York. Following these studies, Barton opened a free school in Bordentown, New Jersey, the first free public school to be opened in the state. The attendance under her leadership grew to 603 in one year, but instead of hiring Barton to head the school, the board hired a man. Frustrated, in 1855 she moved to Washington D.C. and began work as a clerk in the US Patent Office; this was the first time a woman had received a substantial clerkship in the federal government and at a salary equal to a man’s salary. Subsequently, under political opposition to women working in government offices, her position was reduced to that of copyist, and in 1856, under the administration of James Buchanan, eliminated entirely. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, having lived with relatives and friends in Massachusetts for three years, she returned to the patent office in the autumn of 1861, now as temporary copyist, in the hope she could make way for more women in government service.
Before her father died, Clara Barton was able to talk to him about the war effort. Her father convinced her that it was her duty as a Christian to help the soldiers. In the April following his death, Barton returned to Washington to gather medical supplies. Ladies’ Aid societies helped in sending bandages, food, and clothing that would later be distributed during the Civil War. In the August of 1862, Barton finally gained permission from Quartermaster Daniel Rucker to work on the front lines. She gained support from other people who believed in her cause. These people became her patrons, her most supportive being Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.
She worked to distribute stores, clean field hospitals, apply dressings, and serve food to wounded soldiers in close proximity to several battles, including Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.
In 1863 she began a romantic relationship with a married officer, Colonel John J. Elwell.
In 1864 she was appointed by Union General Benjamin Butler as the “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James. Among her more harrowing experiences was an incident in which a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress without striking her and killed a man to whom she was tending. She is known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
After the war, she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers, at 437 ½ Seventh Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. in the Gallery Place neighborhood. The office’s purpose was to find or identify soldiers killed or missing in action. Barton and her assistants wrote 41,855 replies to inquiries and helped locate more than twenty-two thousand missing men. She traveled to the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia to help identify the dead and missing and install grave markers for thirteen thousand graves, and Congress eventually appropriated $15,000 toward her project.
Barton then achieved widespread recognition by delivering lectures around the country about her war experiences from 1865-1868. During this time she met Susan B. Anthony and began a long association with the woman’s suffrage movement. She also became acquainted with Frederick Douglass and became an activist for civil rights.
Detail of Clara Barton monument at Antietam National Battlefield, with red cross formed of a brick from the home where she was born.
After her country wide tour she was both mentally and physically exhausted and under doctor’s orders to go somewhere that would take her far from her current work. She closed the Missing Soldiers Office in 1868 and traveled to Europe. In 1869, during her trip to Geneva, Switzerland, Barton was introduced to the Red Cross and Dr. Appia; who later would invite her to be the representative for the American branch of the Red Cross and even help her find financial beneficiaries for the start of the American Red Cross. She was also introduced to Henry Dunant’s book A Memory of Solferino, which called for the formation of national societies to provide relief voluntarily on a neutral basis.
At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, she assisted the Grand Duchess of Baden in the preparation of military hospitals, and gave the Red Cross society much aid during the war. At the joint request of the German authorities and the Strasbourg Comité de Secours, she superintended the supplying of work to the poor of Strasbourg in 1871, after the Siege of Paris, and in 1871 had charge of the public distribution of supplies to the destitute people of Paris. At the close of the war, she received honorable decorations of the Golden Cross of Baden and the Prussian Iron Cross.
When Barton returned to the United States, she inaugurated a movement to gain recognition for the International Committee of the Red Cross by the United States government. In 1873, she began work on this project. In 1878, she met with President Rutherford B. Hayes, who expressed the opinion of most Americans at that time which was the U.S. would never again face a calamity like the Civil War. Barton finally succeeded during the administration of President Chester Arthur, using the argument that the new American Red Cross could respond to crises other than war such as natural disasters like earthquakes, forest fires, and hurricanes.
Barton became President of the American branch of the society, which held its first official meeting at her I Street apartment in Washington, DC, May 21, 1881. The first local society was founded August 22, 1882 in Dansville, Livingston County, New York, where she maintained a country home.
Clara Barton was honored with a U.S. commemorative stamp, issued in 1948
The society’s role changed with the advent of the Spanish–American War during which it aided refugees and prisoners of the civil war. Domestically in 1884 she helped in the floods on the Ohio river, provided Texas with food and supplies during the famine of 1887 and took workers to Illinois in 1888 after a tornado and that same year to Florida for the yellow fever epidemic. Within days after the Johnstown Flood in 1889, she led her delegation of 50 doctors and nurses in response. In 1897, responding to the humanitarian crisis in the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the Hamidian Massacres, Barton sailed to Constantinople and after long negotiations with Abdul Hamid II, opened the first American International Red Cross headquarters in the heart of Turkey. Barton herself traveled along with five other Red Cross expeditions to the Armenian provinces in the spring of 1896, providing relief and humanitarian aid. Barton also worked in hospitals in Cuba in 1898 at the age of seventy-seven. Barton’s last field operation as President of the American Red Cross was helping victims of the Galveston hurricane in 1900. The operation established an orphanage for children.
As criticism arose of her mixing professional and personal resources, Barton was forced to resign as president of the American Red Cross in 1904, at the age of 83. She had been forced out of office by a new generation of all-male scientific experts who reflected the realistic efficiency of the Progressive Era rather than her idealistic humanitarianism. After resigning, Barton founded the National First Aid Society.She continued to live in her Glen Echo, Maryland home which also served as the Red Cross Headquarters upon her arrival to the house in 1897. Barton published her autobiography in 1907, titled The Story of My Childhood. On April 12, 1912 at the age of 90 she died in her home. The cause of death was tuberculosis.