Clara Barton is one of those names most of us know, but many of us don’t know much about her. Maybe we know that Barton was a nurse during the American Civil War, or that she went on to found the American Red Cross. But the immensity of her impact and the incredible woman behind it remains mostly a mystery.
For instance, did you know:
- Clara started her career as a teacher. She even established two schools.
- She was one of the first women to work for the federal government in a federal government building.
- She was one of the first women to serve as a battlefield nurse in America.
- After the Civil War, tens of thousands of soldiers were missing. Clara took it upon herself to find them.
- Clara Barton is not only the reason we have an American Red Cross. She’s the reason the Red Cross responds to natural disasters and the reason America ratified the Geneva Convention.
Clara Barton was born December 25, 1821, in Massachusetts. After finishing school herself, she began teaching. Clara went on to establish two schools: one for the children of workers at her brother’s mill and the first free public school in Bordentown, New Jersey. The school in Bordentown was so successful that the powers-that-be felt it was necessary to hire a male principal to run the school. Clara was indignant, exclaiming, “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.” She left Bordentown, left teaching, and embarked on career number two: working in the United States Patent Office.
Clara began working at the Patent Office in 1854. She was one of the first women to work for the federal government in a federal government building … and it wasn’t easy. Some of her male colleagues teased her, cat-calling her, spreading scandalous rumors about her personal life, and trying to get her fired. In spite of all this, Clara persevered.
However when James Buchanan became president, he demanded loyalty and fired his opponent’s outspoken supporters, including Clara. Barton returned home and essentially waited out Buchanan’s presidency. When Abraham Lincoln was elected, she returned to Washington, DC and to the Patent Office. Then the war broke out—the American Civil War. Clara was staunchly loyal to Union, motivated by the love of her country more than anything else.
However, for Clara, the war soon became personal. Troops were pouring into Washington, DC, preparing to defend their nation’s capital. One regiment, the 6th Massachusetts Infantry, was attacked by Confederate sympathizers on their way to Washington. When the wounded troops finally arrived in DC, Clara discovered that they were her old friends, schoolmates, and students from Massachusetts. Clara couldn’t sit idly by while “her boys” suffered and went to war.
“I only wish I could work to some purpose,” Barton wrote in a letter to a friend, “I have no right to these easy comfortable days and our poor men suffering and dying thirsting … My lot is too easy and I am sorry for it.” Determined to do something to help, Barton began collecting supplies to send the troops, collecting donations from her friends in the North. By the time she gathered the resolve and permission to go to the battlefield and deliver the supplies herself, she had amassed three warehouses full.
At first, Clara delivered her supplies to field hospitals, where she helped nurse wounded men before they were evacuated to general hospitals. Clara would work for days on end, barely stopping to rest, never sleeping; then collapse with exhaustion when she returned home. After sleeping for a few days straight, Clara would begin gathering supplies and start the process all over again.
The Battle of Antietam was the first time Clara Barton was not in a field hospital, but on the battlefield. Clara was so close to the fighting, that at one point a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress. Undeterred, Clara kept working. Clara was one of the first women to serve as a nurse on the battlefield in America. Before the Civil War, professional and military nursing was a male profession. Women like Barton would change all that.
As the Civil War drew to a close, Clara was not ready to return to her old life. Instead, she had to find another way to serve those in need. She decided to open the Missing Soldiers Office. After the battles had ended and the smoke cleared, tens of thousands of men were missing, leaving their families to wonder: Had they died? Were they wounded somewhere—unable to return home? Had they been taken as a prisoner of war? With the blessing of President Abraham Lincoln himself, Clara Barton hired a small staff and opened the Missing Soldiers Office.
The Missing Soldiers Office received over 64,000 inquiries, people asking after their sons, husbands, and nephews. Clara and her team were able to locate over 22,000 men: living and dead. In at least one case, Clara located a missing man that didn’t want to be found. He wrote her, asking “what I have done so that I am worthy to have my name blazoned all over the country.” Clara, never one to hold her tongue, wrote him back that “It seems to have been the misfortune of your family to think more of you than you did of them.”
Clara Barton ran the Missing Soldiers Office for four years. When she closed the office in 1868, she was exhausted. Her doctors persuaded her to finally rest. She set sail for Europe and a long awaited vacation. How much she actually relaxed remains a mystery. During her “European vacation,” Clara discovered the Geneva Convention and the International Red Cross. She became determined to bring the Red Cross to America.
Back in the United States, Clara diligently lobbied for the United States to ratify the Geneva Conventions, a series of treaties that seek to limit the effects of violence, protecting those who are not fighting, whether civilians, wounded, or prisoners of war. As part of her work to ensure humanitarian aid for all, Barton both founded the American Red Cross and set the precedent that the Red Cross will respond to natural disasters as well as war. Clara herself provided aid after the Johnstown Flood, the Galveston Hurricane, and in Cuba during the Cuban War for Independence. When she was forced to resign the presidency of the American Red Cross, at age eighty-three, she founded the National First Aid Association of America and began teaching ordinary citizens how they could be of service in a crisis.
When Clara died in 1912, her obituaries praised her for devoting “her life … to prolonging the lives and alleviating the suffering of others,” calling her “a Mother to Humanity.”
Written for Sheroes of History by Amelia Grabowski.
Find out more…
If you ever happen to be in Washington, DC why not visit the Clara Barton Museum? (They have some great information on their website too!)
Here is a useful timeline of Clara’s life.
Find out more about the history of the Red Cross movement on their website.
This video gives a good introduction to Clara’s life: