Barton, Clara (Harlowe)

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BARTON, Clara (Harlowe)

Born Clarisse Harlowe Barton on 25 December 1821, NorthOxford, Massachusetts; died 12 April 1912, Glen Echo, Maryland

Daughter of Stephen and Sarah Stone Barton

Best known as founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton had several careers in her long life. Extended periods of intense activity and endurance alternated with severe physical and emotional exhaustion. She taught school for 18 years, then became the first full-time woman clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. During the Civil War she became a living legend as the "Angel of the Battlefield."

In defiance of the military prejudice against female nurses on the battlefield, Barton gathered vital supplies on her own initiative and followed the troops. Survival of wounded men often depended not so much upon skilled doctors as upon immediate first aid, food, and shelter for the stricken. In long battles, the wounded might lie neglected on the ground for two or three days before evacuation to a hospital. Barton learned to make campfires in drenching rain, cook huge pots of gruel and coffee, go without sleep for days while she and a few helpers fed each soldier, bandaged his wounds, and protected him if possible from the elements. She was never a hospital nurse like her famous contemporaries Dorothea Dix and Florence Nightingale. She was on hand, however, in the most desperate situations with exactly what was needed most, such as kerosene lanterns for a distraught frontline doctor operating at night by the uncertain light of one candle.

She was close to fifty years old when she first heard of the Geneva Convention and the International Red Cross. Isolationist America was one of the few modern nations that had not ratified the Geneva Treaty. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out, she joined the Red Cross in the rehabilitation of the ruined Alsatian city of Strasbourg. When Barton returned home she launched a long and frustrating campaign for the ratification of the Geneva Treaty, which occurred finally in 1882. The first president of the American Red Cross (organized in 1881), she acted in that capacity for 23 years and served not only in Cuba during the Spanish-American War but also during great floods, fires, famines, and hurricanes. She is credited with expanding the functions of the International Red Cross to serve after natural disasters as well as on the battlefield.

Except in periods of acute depression and illness, Barton recorded her experiences in diaries that contain a vivid account of her life and times, and provide a rich source for subsequent biographers and historians. These diaries, as well as letters and other papers, are in the Library of Congress, and are widely quoted in published works. William E. Barton's biography reprints many of her letters. One of the best introductions to her prose is the last 100 pages of Illustrious Americans: Clara Barton, written by Barton, but with commentaries that put each excerpt in the context of her thought and action at that time. They include passages from The Story of My Childhood (1907), a small volume intended for young people—the extent of Barton's efforts at writing an autobiography. Barton's other two books, objective histories of the Red Cross, lean heavily on her personal experiences in disaster situations, described as she lived through them and recorded them in her diaries.

Although her actions are, no doubt, more important than her words, effective action often depended on her powers of persuasion and skill in diplomacy, both in speaking and in writing. Moreover, even now her accounts are moving documents about human suffering among the people history soon forgets: the common soldier quietly bleeding to death in the mud, the homeless family on the flooded bayou, the destitute blacks of the hurricane-swept Sea Islands, the ragged survivors who creep out of the ruins of war-gutted cities, the bloated and mangled corpses piled high on funeral pyres after a tidal wave in Galveston.

Her style is occasionally sentimental, and perhaps offensive to some modern readers, as in her remarks about the Sea Islanders: "The tender memory of the childlike confidence and obedience of this ebony-faced population is something that time cannot efface… ." On occasion, she has a gift for understated pathos. Four Sea Island blacks whose wounds she had dressed in the Civil War approached her one day, "One by one they showed their scars. There was very little clothing to hide them—bullet wound and sabre stroke."

In formal exposition, such as the first part of the longer volume, The Red Cross in Peace and War, her style is sometimes ponderous. Yet it soon moves into more personal narrative and acquires more vitality, covering the same territory as A Story of the Red Cross (1904), with additional details and photographs, as well as the formal reports and correspondence, and some of Barton's inspirational but undistinguished poetry.

The diaries, however, expose an element in Barton not apparent in her published works. Outwardly, even to close friends and relatives, she seemed always calm, efficient, good-natured, blessed with humor and wit. Inwardly, when not engrossed in her work, she suffered from depression and feelings of uselessness. This personal melancholy haunted her even when she was most honored at home and abroad. The demands made by her idealism and zeal for service seem to approach the pathological, driving her beyond physical endurance, making the necessary recuperative period unhappy and fretful.

The writings of Clara Barton will remain a primary source of information on the development of the American Red Cross. They will also provide a more personal insight into the motivations and style of one of the most dynamic women of the 19th century.

Other Works:

The Red Cross (1898; reprinted as The Red Cross in Peace and War). Papers, 1834-1918 (microfilm, 1986).

The papers of Clara Barton are in the Library of Congress.


Barton, W. E., The Life of Clara Barton (1922). Buckingham, C. E., Clara Barton, a Broad Humanity: Philanthropic Efforts on Behalf of the Armed Forces and Disaster Victims, 1860-1900 (1980, 1997). Burton, D. H., Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity (1995). Downey, F., Disaster Fighters (1938). Dulles, F. R., The American Red Cross (1950). Epler, P. H., The Life of Clara Barton (1941). Marko, E., Clara Barton and the American Red Cross (1996). McCaslin, N., Angel of the Battle-field (1993). Oates, S. B., A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War (1995). Poor, S. R., Herstory (1990). Pryor, E. B., Clara Barton: Professional Angel (1988). Rogers, G. N., Clara Barton and Hightstown (1994). Ross, I., Angel of the Battlefield (1956). Welles, S., Illustrious Americans: Clara Barton (1966). Williams, B. C., Clara Barton, Daughter of Destiny (1941).

Other reference:

American Women of Achievement Video Collection (video, 1995). Clara Barton (video, 1988). ClaraBarton (video, 1995). Clara Barton: Eyewitness to the Civil War (video, 1997). Great Women in American History: Volume 1 (video, 1996).


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Barton, Clara (Harlowe)

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