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Clara Barton
Historic World Leaders. 1994.
Born: December 25, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, United States
Died: April 12, 1912 in Glen Echo, Maryland, United States
Other Names: Barton, Clarissa Harlowe; Barton, Clara Harlowe
Nationality: American
Occupation: Nurse
Updated:Jan. 1, 1994
Full Text: 

American humanitarian, who cared for the wounded on the Civil War battlefields and founded the American Red Cross.

  • 1839-54 Taught school in Massachusetts and New Jersey
  • 1854 Copyist in Patent Office, Washington, D.C.
  • 1861-65 Relief work in the Civil War battlefields
  • 1865 Identification of Civil War dead
  • 1866-68 Lecture circuit
  • Late 1860s Sojourned in Europe
  • 1870 Joined Red Cross workers during Franco-Prussian War
  • 1877 Envisioned an American Red Cross
  • 1882 Treaty of Geneva ratified by Congress; president of American Red Cross
  • 1904 Resigned from American Red Cross

Known as the "Angel of the Battlefield," Clara Barton was an American heroine best remembered as the founder of an organization that would far outlive her--the American Red Cross.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in a farmhouse in the small Massachusetts town of North Oxford. Clarissa (shortened to "Clara") was the last child in a family of three girls and two boys. Barton later recalled her middle-class background as a "humble life" in "small environments." Her brothers taught her to drive nails, tie knots, and ride a pony bareback. Her mother and sisters taught her to sew, cook, make soap, and tend the garden, activities that were suspended every Sunday when the family piled into the pews of the Old Oxford Universalist Church. Her soldier father's teaching underscored his belief that "next to Heaven our highest duty was to... serve our country and... support its laws." Her school days, begun at age three, would be remembered for teachers and curriculum, rather than for frolic and fellowship. Barton was a timid, self-effacing student, due possibly to a slight lisp and her own temperament, pitched between a "calm, sound, reasonable" father and a feisty, fiery-tempered mother. Yet, her extraordinary intelligence, she discovered, could gain her the attention needed to diminish her own sense of being burdensome.

The values of hard work were wed to her character at any early age within an industrious farm family. Barton began to define her self-worth through her service to others. During a barn raising, her brother David fell from a timber and suffered a persistent headache and slight fever. The recommended treatment of cupping and leeching was prescribed. Nursing him, Barton's hands became schooled to "handling the great loathsome crawling leeches which were at first so many snakes." After almost two years and little relief, a young physician suggested the "steam cure." A secondary prescription of rest, healthful foods, and banishment of leeches exacted a cure, and Barton's nursing once again gave way to normal family activity, as she helped her older sister Sally with her children in endless family chores and for a time enjoyed working in her brothers' mill. She began to tutor North Oxford's poor children, while helping their mothers cope with the uncertainties of poverty. During a smallpox epidemic, Barton held the hands of the stricken, cooled their foreheads, and delivered food.

During the 19th century, teaching was one of few respectable occupations available for young women. Barton began teaching in 1839 when she opened the doors to 40 curious students, filling rows of shabby desks in an otherwise barren stone building. With a seemingly natural ability for teaching, she was soon in great demand from the surrounding villages. By the next summer, she tested her talents with 50 reputedly boisterous children and managed to discipline them. But when the challenge of controlling a classroom gave way to what she considered cycles of teaching interspersed with months of aimless, unstimulating leisure, Barton saw countless years of dull routine in her future. To break the cycle, she determined to continue her own education at Clinton Liberal Institute in New York, almost 200 miles from home.

A classmate at the institute recalled her as "a rather thick-set girl, with head bent a little forward, looking up with small black eyes, through heavy, low eyebrows." Despite this not altogether flattering assessment, Barton attracted several suitors during her Clinton years. Much of her time, however, was devoted to study, and books became her constant companions. After graduation, she again resumed her teaching duties in the first public school in New Jersey. But in 1854, she resigned from the profession altogether. Battles with chronic depression and suicidal contemplations accompanied the specter of an unchanging, unfulfilling life. To effect some sort of change, she headed for Washington D.C., to work as a copyist in the Patent Office.

For a time, Barton's days in Washington were mundane. But by 1861, the political climate in Washington reached a fever pitch. On April 12, Fort Sumter was fired on by southern Rebels. Seventy-five thousand volunteers were called into immediate action to protect the capital. As each train pulled into the station, carrying new troops from Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York, Barton's exhilaration rose, as did her determination to become part of the fervor. Beginning by bringing delicacies from home for the men, like pies, cakes, and jellies, she soon became identified with the philanthropic work for the troops. Goods began arriving at Barton's home for distribution, forcing her to move into larger quarters to contain all the contributions. After the day's work in the Patent Office, she headed for the encampments with her supplies.

Barton Tends the Wounded on the Battlefield

But once the fighting began, her endless pleas for a pass to the front lines fell on deaf ears. After all, no woman had ever been allowed near the battlefield. But Persistence paid off and a p ass was finally issued. Barton's first experience with battle came at Cedar Mountain, near Culpeper, Virginia, where she appeared like a mirage with a four-mule team pulling a wagon of supplies. She also worked tirelessly under fire at both Antietam and Fredericksburg. Her supply trains of bandages, brandy, wine, soups, and jellies were welcome sights. In her dark hoopless skirt, plaid jacket, and kerchief to keep tidy her brown hair, Barton cooked for, fed, and bandaged the wounded while bullets pierced the air around her; twice, shell fragments ripped through her clothing.

Bodies of men, some without arms and legs, lay in blood and filth on bare hospital floors, while Barton worked to keep alive as many as possible before they reached doctors and surgeons. Still, the mortality rates were staggering. One Union surgeon recounted operations performed "in old bloodstained and often pus-stained coats... with undisinfected hands. We used undisinfected instruments... and marine sponges which had been used in prior pus cases and only washed in tap water." Quinine and morphia were the only drugs available. Consequently, abdominal wounds recorded at a 90% mortality rate; all other wounds, 62%.

At the end of the Civil War in the spring of 1865, Barton won President Abraham Lincoln's approval to work with prisoners of war and to formulate a system for identifying the dead. Over half of the Union men killed were unidentified; more than 190,000 graves were unmarked. Undertaking the formidable task, Barton conceived a method of identification. She also traveled into remote Georgia to visit Andersonville prison to identify graves of prisoners (subsequently, Andersonville was dedicated a national cemetery). When the project ended, Barton had identified 22,000 men, less than 10% of the missing. Wrote one grateful man: "If to enjoy the gratitude of a single heart be a pleasure, to enjoy the benediction of a grateful world must be sweet."

Between 1866 and 1868, Barton conceived a number of lectures entitled "Work and Incidents of Army Life," which she delivered to enthusiastic audiences in various halls and schoolrooms across the North and West. Her partisan lectures, sentimental to the Union cause, were well received, and for the first time in her life she was financially secure. During one of her tours, she encountered feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who were also engaged on the lecture circuit.

It was Barton's wartime service which gave rise to her own feminist principles. During a lecture to a group of veterans, she implored: "Soldiers! I have worked for you-and I ask of you, now, one and all, that you consider the wants of my people... God only knows women were your friends in time of peril- and you should be hers now." For over 40 years, Barton worked for the women's movement without allying herself too closely and never allowing her name to be used as an officer of the organization. Rather than focus only on women's right to vote, she was concerned with the advancement of women in all areas of life.

During the late 1860s, Barton sojourned in Europe to manage a recurring attack of nervous prostration. In Geneva, Switzerland, she was approached by a delegation and queried as to the absence of a Red Cross chapter in the United States. Barton, astonished, had never heard of the organization initiated by the young Swiss Jean Henri Dunant with his work Un Souvenir de Salferino. Thirty-two nations held membership under the neutral flag of the Red Cross, but the United States was not among them. The directive of the Red Cross was to provide for the neutrality of those dispensing medical services for the humane treatment of wounded.

For the most part, Barton shelved these matters while continuing her European trip. But on July 18, 1870, France declared war on Prussia and its German allies. Buoyed by the prospect of going to the front to be of assistance, Barton joined the Red Cross workers. According to Pryor's Clara Barton, Professional Angel, she was amazed to find in the storehouses:

A larger supply than I had ever seen at any one time, in readiness for the field at our own sanitary commission rooms in Washington, even in the fourth year of the war... and trained authorized, education nurses stood awaiting their appointment, each with this badge upon the arm or breast, and every box, barrel or package with a broad, bright scarlet cross which rendered it as sacred and safe from molestation... as the bread and wine before the altar.

For a time, she worked side by side with the Grand Duchess Louise, daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I, in a Red Cross Hospital in Baden, Germany. Yet, by the end of 1871, Barton was experiencing yet another bout of depression and severe back pain. Her symptoms, by now, were predictable: loss of sight, including severe sensitivity to light; anxiety; loss of voice; and an almost paralyzed state of mind.

With the news that her sister was ill with stomach cancer, in 1873 Barton returned home. Days after Sally's death in May of the following year, Barton suffered a nervous breakdown and remained an invalid for two years. Several medical men were consulted to treat her variety of symptoms. By 1876, she signed herself into a sanitarium in Dansville, New York, where an emphasis was placed on "psychohygiene," a combination of cheerful atmosphere, healthful foods, exercise and intellectual stimulation. In time, Barton regained her strength. Her health restored, she turned her attention to forming an American Red Cross Society to help those engaged in the war between Russia and Turkey in 1877.

She Promotes the Red Cross in America

In May of that year, she wrote a letter to Louis Appia in Geneva, Switzerland, requesting permission to promote the Red Cross in the United States. Barton was then appointed the Red Cross representative to Washington. Her initial mandates were to create publicity, gain government support, establish a national organization, and collect money. She traveled to Washington, D.C., to present the ideas to President Hayes and promote the recognition of the Treaty of Geneva in the United States, but working through the bureaucratic maze did not prove easy. She spent several months engaging in talks with senators and congressmen and on occasion reduced her audience to tears with her highly charged, emotional talks. She also prepared a brochure, "The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention: What It Is," to promote the concept and enlisted a young enthusiast, Julian B. Hubbell, to study medicine and later head the field work.

In addition to the Red Cross's wartime responsibilities, Barton expanded the organization's scope to include such calamities as plagues, cholera, yellow fever, fires, floods, railway disasters, and mining catastrophes. By attributing the agency with immediate applications, she hoped to win over political support for its adoption.

Frequently, Barton's work promoting the Red Cross was interspersed with feminist activities. She attended the National Suffrage Convention of 1878, but remained somewhat aloof in order that her feminist ideals not reflect upon her primary agenda of adopting the Red Cross in the United States. Playing the political game, Barton actively courted any agency which might facilitate the adoption. The Associated Press, for instance, proved instrumental in meeting her first mandate: publicity. Another important influence was the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an association of Union army veterans. Barton enlisted prominent GAR members to endorse the Treaty of Geneva and hoped to further her cause by supporting Republican presidential hopeful James A. Garfield. Soon after Garfield's inauguration, she was cordially received and promised as much assistance as possible.

But Garfield was assassinated in 1881, and when all of the activities of his administration came to a halt, it was a personal blow for Barton, who was further hindered by the growth of a number of rival relief groups. Good news finally came in late December when Garfield's successor President Chester Alan Arthur in his message of "That humane and commendable engagement" -the Treaty of Geneva. With its ratification on March 16, 1882, Barton's five-year struggle ended.

Her attention logically turned to both her own future of the fledgling agency she'd formed. She served as president during the early years of the organization. Then, in May of 1883, she accepted the position of superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women. The American Red Cross suffered in her absence. During February 1884, the Ohio River flooded its banks, leaving Cincinnati under 71 feet of water. Traveling to the stricken area to assess the amount of relief necessary, Barton rented a large steamer, the Josh V. Throop, and hired a crew to load and unload the cargo which was thrown overboard for those in need at precarious landings along the way. According to Pryor, one victim of the flood observed:

At noon we were in the blackness of despair-the whole village in the power of the demon of waters-hemmed in by sleet and ice, without fire enough to cook its little food. When the bell struck nine that night, there were seventy-five families on their knees before their blazing grates, thanking God for fire and light, and praying blessings on the phantom ship with the unknown device that had come as silently as the snow, they knew not whence, gone, they knew not whither.

As the word of the Red Cross spread, contributions poured in. In September of 1884, during the Third International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva, an amendment to extend its duties to engage in peacetime humanitarian work, much as Barton was already doing in the States, was adopted. Indeed, it came to be known as the "American Amendment."

During the first two decades, Barton's disaster relief work with the Red Cross included a Michigan forest fire, the Mississippi and Ohio River floods, a Texas drought, a tornado in Illinois, a yellow-fever epidemic in Florida, the Johnstown flood, Russian famine sufferers, a hurricane which devastated the Sea Islands off the Georgian coast, aid to Americans, a Galveston tidal wave, and the Spanish-American War. After setting up camp and offering help during the initial crisis, she resolved "not [to] leave a race of beggars but teach them the manliness of self-support and methods of self-dependence."

Unsurprisingly, as the scope of the Red Cross grew, so did the frustrations and problems. Most complaints centered around the organization's lack of accountability. There were, for instance, no reports between 1882 and 1893. A greater systematization of the Red Cross was called for. "It has been of great service to suffering humanity," declared Sophia Wells Royce Williams in Review of Reviews:

But when one asks for detailed reports, for itemized statements of disbursements, for a careful recapitulation of its labors, its achievements, its failures, its experience and teaching and lesson of its work-these things either do not exist or are not furnished... This national body ought to have a national organization, a national board, and reports which would stand as model and guide for all relief work, the country over.

Amid much controversy and bitterness, Barton resigned her post on May 4, 1904. After only a few weeks, the organization had drifted beyond her control; on January 5, 1905, the American Red Cross was transformed from an individual's leadership to a government-directed and controlled enterprise. Barton returned to her beloved home in Glen Echo and spent her remaining years in the company of good friends. Her A Story of the Red Cross was published in 1905 and Story of My Childhood in 1907. She died April 12, 1912.


Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton in North Oxford, Massachusetts, on December 25, 1821; died in Glen Echo, Maryland, on April 12, 1912; buried in the family plot at North Oxford, Massachusetts; daughter of Captain Stephen and Sarah (Stone) Barton. Education: Attended rural schools in North Oxford, Massachusetts; attended Liberal Institute at Clinton, New York.



  • Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton, Professional Angel. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
  • Stoddard, Hope,. Famous American Women. Crowell, 1970.

Further Reading:

  • Barton, Clara. Story of My Childhood. 1907, reprinted by Arno Press, 1980.
  • ----.A Story of the Red Cross. Appleton, 1904.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Clara Barton." Historic World Leaders, edited by Anne Commire, Gale, 1994. Biography In Context, Accessed 20 Nov. 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|K1616000025