Clara Barton (1821–1912)
FOUNDER OF THE AMERICAN RED CROSS
Responsibility. With her indomitable will, limitless energy, and sense of mission, Clara Barton was ideally suited to work on the battlefront during the Civil War and in disaster relief as the head of the American Red Cross, whose founding was largely a personal achievement. Born on Christmas Day 1821 to prosperous farmers Stephen Barton and Sarah Stone Barton in Oxford, Massachusetts, Clarissa Harlowe Barton was a shy and sensitive child with a quick temper. Born ten years later than her youngest sibling, Clara grew up with no playmates but with a good education. Her mother, troubled by Clara's shyness, consulted phrenologist Lorenzo Fowler, who offered the advice, “Throw responsibility upon her. … As soon as her age will permit, give her a school to teach.” So, at age fifteen, Clara Barton began a career as a teacher.
Teacher. Despite her youth and inexperience, she was immediately successful and gained self-confidence as well as initiative. After running several district schools, she moved to North Oxford and for ten years oversaw the education of local children and workers of a mill owned by her brothers. After completing a course at the Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, she accepted a teaching position in Bordentown, New Jersey, where she displayed the qualities that would make her both a powerful and controversial figure. At the time, free public schools were a rarity, and Barton offered to serve three months without pay if the town would make the school free for all the town's children. Overcoming powerful opposition, she personally persuaded the town's leaders to support her experiment. It was such a success that a larger schoolhouse had to be built and an assistant teacher hired. But when opposition to a woman heading so large a school caused the town to appoint a male principal, Barton resigned rather than accept a subordinate role, thus ending her eighteen-year career in education.
An Angel. In 1854 Barton moved to Washington, finding employment as a clerk in the Patent Office. In 1861 she began her war service by supplying the needs of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, which en route to Washington had had to fight its way through Baltimore (many of whose residents sympathized with the South) and whose soldiers had lost much of their baggage. Moved by stories of soldiers’ suffering during the Battle of Bull Run, she took the initiative to advertise in the Worcester Spy for supplies for the wounded. As donated provisions accumulated, she established a distributing agency. During the remainder of the war she displayed great courage and perseverance in getting supplies to the front. The horrors of battle did not faze her. Thousands of soldiers remembered fondly this slight, seemingly frail woman ministering to the wounded during battle, applying to her the sobriquet “Angel of the Battlefield.” Rather than as a field nurse, her greatest service was in securing provisions for the relief of suffering and in getting them to where they were needed promptly.
Mission. Her health failing, Barton went abroad in 1869, but soon found herself in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War. It was here that she began her association with the International Red Cross, which had been established in 1864, distributing relief in the French cities of Strasbourg, Paris, Lyons, Belfort, and Montpellier. Honored with the Iron Cross of Merit by the emperor of Germany, she returned home in 1873 determined to establish an American Red Cross. She initiated a crusade almost single-handedly and began an educational campaign, personally visiting the secretaries of state and war as well as influential congressmen and publishing a pamphlet titled “The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention, What Is It?” (1878). In 1881 she persuaded President James Garfield to adopt the treaty bringing the United States into the International Red Cross. After Garfield was assassinated, President Chester A. Arthur secured Senate confirmation of the treaty. In March 1882, after a four-year struggle, the American Red Cross became a reality, almost entirely due to Barton's efforts.
American Red Cross. For the next twenty-three years she directed the activities of the organization, personally supervising its relief work during the various natural disasters of the period and during the Spanish-American War. She ran the Red Cross largely as her personal fiefdom, which was both its strength and its weakness: its strength because of the energy and zeal with which she directed the organization, and its weakness because her domineering role inhibited its growth and failed to inspire public confidence. While she was perfectly suited for the relief work itself, she was not as well qualified to run a large, bureaucratic organization. Her unwillingness to delegate responsibility and her arbitrary governance (she often acted without consulting the Red Cross's executive committee) offended members and potential supporters. Public confidence waned as the organization's accounting practices came under question, finally resulting in a congressional investigation. After a bitter fight she resigned the presidency, making possible a thorough reorganization of the society. Embittered by the affair, she briefly entertained the idea of going to Mexico to establish a Red Cross there but was finally dissuaded. She spent her remaining years at her home just outside Washington and died on Good Friday, 12 April 1912.
David H. Burton, Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity (Westport, Conn. & London: Greenwood Press, 1995);
Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Clara Barton: Professional Angel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987);
Ishbel Ross, Angel of the Battlefield (New York: Harper, 1956).