"I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it."
Clara Barton's experiences as a battlefield nurse during the Civil War later inspired her to establish the American Red Cross. She was born on December 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, and died on April 12, 1912, in Glen Echo, Maryland.
For the last forty years or so of her life, Clara Barton was a name known to all--a name that was "associated in the public mind with goodness and mercy," as a writer for the New York Times observed in an editorial written at the time of her death. It was her tireless devotion to the wounded on some of the bloodiest battlefields of the Civil War that first earned Barton the enduring affection and gratitude of her fellow citizens. But it was her pioneering work among the victims of natural disaster that won her international acclaim as the founder of the American Red Cross.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born into a middle-class Massachusetts family on Christmas Day of 1821. Her father, Stephen Barton, was a successful farmer and businessman, a representative to the state legislature, and a noted humanitarian who doted on the youngest of his five children and left an indelible impression on her character. Clara's mother, Sarah (Sally) Stone, was distant and somewhat eccentric, with an iron will and a fiery temper.
Barton grew up eager to be of service to others. She opted for teaching, one of the few professions open to women in her day. Popular and effective with her students, she taught for more than a dozen years, first in her hometown and then in Bordentown, New Jersey. There she clashed with a principal who was jealous of her success and took every opportunity to make her life miserable. In early 1854, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, she quit her job and moved to Washington, D.C. With the help of a relative who had served in Congress, Barton found work copying secret papers for the U.S. Patent Office, thus becoming the first woman clerk in the federal government. In 1857, however, she was forced to resign from her position when her strong anti-slavery stance put her at odds with the new pro-slavery president, James Buchanan. Returning to Massachusetts, Barton continued to do copy work for the patent office by mail. She was called back to her old job in Washington following Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860.
When the Civil War broke out in April, 1861, Barton was shocked to discover that virtually no preparations had been made to care for the wounded, many of whom bled to death, starved, or developed infections and gangrene before they could be transported to hospitals. At first, Barton opened up her own apartment to as many of them as she could and cared for them herself. She then sought permission to go directly into the field, a request that met with overwhelming resistance from those who felt women lacked courage and stamina and would just "get in the way." She persisted, however, and in mid-1862 at last received official permission to serve as a battlefield nurse.
The next three years saw Clara Barton destroy forever the notion that female nurses had no business on the front lines. Working primarily in Virginia and Maryland, she fed, clothed, and bandaged "her boys" with supplies she gathered and organized into wagon trains that followed troops of the Union Army into battle. This earned her the nickname "Angel of the Battlefield" for her compassion and unflinching bravery. "I saw many things that I did not wish to see and I pray God I may never see again," Barton later wrote of the especially gruesome aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. Yet she never hesitated to go where she was needed, declaring that "while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them." They in turn adored her, and even those she met who never benefitted directly from her care granted her their respect and protection.
As the war drew to a close, Barton's attention shifted to the problem of tracking down missing men. Soliciting help from veterans through newspaper ads, she managed to collect information on more than twenty-two thousand soldiers. When she learned of the infamous Andersonville prison camp in Georgia, where thirteen thousand Union prisoners died and were buried in unmarked graves, she led the effort to have the camp turned into a national cemetery. Barton supervised all the work herself, seeing to it that the bodies were reinterred in deeper graves and that each received a marker.
To raise money for her projects, Barton traveled extensively from 1866 to 1868, lecturing about her life and work during the war. By the end of 1868, emotional and physical strain again left her close to a nervous breakdown. On the advice of her doctor, Barton agreed to go abroad and take a long rest. Her inactivity was rather shortlived, however; while visiting Switzerland in late 1869, she met Dr. Louis Appia, a physician who asked for her help in convincing the U.S. government to ratify the Treaty of Geneva, which as one of its many provisions called for the creation of an international relief organization known as the Red Cross. Barton promised to do whatever she could as soon as she felt ready to work again.
Within just a few months, her rest came to an end when she agreed to help organize Red Cross relief efforts in response to the Franco-Prussian War. She was greatly impressed by what she witnessed at the aid stations on the front lines. After the war ended, Barton stayed to oversee rebuilding efforts. Wherever she went, she stressed the importance of people helping themselves and not relying strictly on handouts, a policy she believed would restore their dignity as well as their material comfort. This later became one of the guiding principles of the American Red Cross.
In 1873, Barton came down with rheumatic fever and returned to the United States to convalesce. As she slowly regained her health and considered how she might be of service again, Barton recalled her promise to the International Red Cross. Contacting Dr. Appia, she asked his permission to establish an American chapter. He responded by naming her the group's U.S. representative. Barton then began campaigning for ratification of the Treaty of Geneva, which American officials opposed because they felt that the United States should not be involved in the affairs of other countries. Barton disagreed but realized she would have to try another tactic to win approval for the treaty and, by extension, the Red Cross. So she began to promote it as a peacetime relief organization that would respond to natural disasters such as floods, fires, or earthquakes.
In May, 1881, Barton established the first American Red Cross chapters and was elected president of the organization. That fall, volunteers faced their first major test when a forest fire in northern Michigan left thousands injured and homeless. The Red Cross solicited donations nationwide and sent in relief workers, gaining valuable publicity and good will for its efforts. The following spring, in March, 1882, Congress at last ratified the Treaty of Geneva, thanks in large part to Barton's perseverance and her demonstration of how useful the Red Cross could be.
Beginning in 1883, Barton devoted herself completely to the Red Cross, serving not only as its chief administrator but also as a participant in relief operations throughout the country. In 1884, she sailed to Europe as the U.S. delegate to the Red Cross conference in Geneva--the only woman present in that capacity. Over the objections of some key members who did not want the Red Cross to stray from its original purpose of providing only wartime relief, Barton's idea of offering help to victims of natural disasters was officially adopted into the group's charter as the "American Amendment."
Barton served as president of the Red Cross for more than twenty years, overseeing day-to-day operations and raising funds. She continued to perform relief work herself--sometimes staying at a particular disaster site for months at a time--until she was well into her seventies. Her true strengths however were in promoting the organization and hiring talented people to staff it and run the various programs. In her spare time, Barton also lectured, lobbied for women's rights, and wrote a book about the Red Cross. During the 1890s, she also introduced the concept of foreign aid to the American public by spearheading relief efforts directed overseas following a famine in Russia and a massacre in Armenia.
Beginning around 1900, however, power struggles within the Red Cross led to a decline in Barton's influence. Devastated by accusations that she was a poor administrator and had misappropriated funds, she at one point considered leaving the United States and moving to Europe. The squabbling continued even after the charges against her were dropped for lack of evidence, and in 1904, a tired and heartbroken Barton resigned from her lifetime appointment as president of the American Red Cross. She died of pneumonia on April 12, 1912, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland. In attendance at services there and in her native North Oxford, Massachusetts, was a gray-haired contingent of "her boys" from the Civil War, whose loyalty to the "Angel of the Battlefield" had never wavered.
- Barton, Clara, The Story of My Childhood, Arno, 1980.
- Boylston, Helen Dore, Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross, Random House, 1955.
- Hamilton, Leni, Clara Barton, Chelsea House, 1988.
- Pryor, Elizabeth Brown, Clara Barton, Professional Angel, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987 (opening quote).
- Ross, Ishbel, Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton, Harper, 1956.
- New York Times, "Clara Barton Dead in Her Ninetieth Year," April 13, 1919, pp. 12-13.