Clara Barton

A Christmas gift to humanity, who would one day be called "Angel of the Battlefield," was born December 25 on a farm near Oxford, Massachusetts. Clara was the last of five children in a middle-class family. She was home-schooled.

A phrenologist, Lorenzo Fowler, suggested to 16-year-old Barton that she teach children to overcome her shyness. For a decade, Barton taught in a small Massachusetts town. Then she was approached to teach in a Bordentown, New Jersey, private school. There, Barton saw that some children could not afford to attend, and despite resistance, founded one of the state's first free schools. When local officials unaccountably assigned a male principal to the school, she turned in her resignation.

A Civil War angel

Barton moved to Washington, D.C. in 1854 and was appointed the first woman clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. While she was working there in 1861, the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment streamed in following the Baltimore Riots. Barton orchestrated relief for the soldiers. In so doing, she answered a calling that would preoccupy her the rest of her life.

Clara Barton

Barton was consistently devoted to helping others. When she learned that many of the wounded from the Battle of the First Bull Run had suffered from lack of medical supplies, she bought advertising space in the Worcester, Massachusetts Spy to appeal for donations, then began a successful organization to distribute them. The following year, U.S. Surgeon General William A. Hammond issued her a pass to ride with army ambulances. Drawing on her only prewar medical experience, when she nursed an incapacitated brother for two years, Barton traveled behind the lines and delivered aid to soldiers regardless of their uniform color. She encountered some of the most gruesome battlefields of the conflict.

For three years, Barton followed army operations throughout Virginia. She was present during the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond, and in the Charleston, South Carolina area. Her tireless work in Fredericksburg, Virginia hospitals, where she tended casualties from the Battle of the Wilderness, elicited national acclaim. In 1864, Barton was formally appointed Superintendent of Nurses of the Army of the James under the command of Major General Benjamin F. Butler.

Following the war, Barton traveled to Camp Parole, Maryland, to institute and operate a bureau to determine the whereabouts of men missing in action. Utilizing interviews with Union soldiers returning from Southern incarceration, she frequently managed to determine the status of many missing men and let families know. The bureau marked more than 12,000 graves in the Andersonville, Georgia, National Cemetery.

A Red Cross monument

Perhaps Barton's greatest achievement was her role in establishing the American Red Cross. This began when she traveled to Switzerland in 1869. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), she served as a nurse at the front and witnessed the exemplary work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Europe. When Barton returned home in 1873, she began to recommend the country's participation in Red Cross work. In 1881, she helped to found an American branch and became its first president in 1882.* She was the U.S. representative at the International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva (1884).

Barton realized that the Red Cross need not be confined to help for soldiers. She created a clause in the Red Cross constitution that authorized the organization to provide relief in disasters other than war. Barton had taken charge of relief efforts during the yellow fever epidemic in Florida (1877). She then served in flooded Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), and during the Russian and Armenian famines of 1891 and 1896, respectively. In 1900, she was in charge of relief following the hurricane flood at Galveston, Texas.

Barton authored several books, notably The Red Cross in Peace and War (1898); Story of the Red Cross (1904) and The Story of My Childhood (1907).

Following her retirement in 1904, Barton moved to her home in Glen Echo outside of Washington DC, and continued to contribute to charitable and patriotic causes. She died April 12, 1912.


*Barton also urged the U.S. Senate to ratify the Geneva Convention, which it did in 1882.
For more famous women, see
Important and Famous Women in America .

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