Born December 25, 1821
Died April 12, 1912
Glen Echo, New York
Union nurse known as the "angel of the
battlefield" for treating wounded Union soldiers
Founded the American Red Cross
Clara Barton is one of the most remarkable women in American history. A former schoolteacher, she never received any formal training in nursing. But she became a famous figure on Civil War battlefields, where she tended to thousands of sick and wounded soldiers and delivered huge quantities of medicine, food, and other provisions to Union troops. She also remained in the public spotlight after the war concluded. In 1881 she founded the American Red Cross, and in her later years she emerged as a leader in the fight to gain women's suffrage (right to vote).
An early taste of nursing
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born in Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day 1821. She grew up on a large farm with her parents, Stephen and Sarah Stone Barton, and four older brothers and sisters. Clara was ten years younger than any of the other children. This situation, she later admitted, sometimes made it seem like she had "six fathers and mothers. . . . All took charge of me, all educated me, each according to personal taste."
In many ways, Clara had a very good childhood. The family farm was quite successful, and she received lots of attention from her parents and her older siblings. But she had few playmates, and Barton's childhood interests were not always shared by her older brothers and sisters. This sometimes made her feel isolated from others, and she became a shy and sensitive youngster.
When Barton was eleven years old, her brother David was injured in a construction accident. "I was distressed beyond measure at his condition," Barton recalled. "From the first days and nights of illness, I remained near his side." Eventually, she learned to give David his medications and "to administer them like a genuine nurse." As Barton cared for her older brother over the next several months, she felt more useful than ever before.
When David finally recovered from his injuries, Clara decided to continue caring for the sick and injured. Following her father's example, she began to take on charity work in the area. After a while, she became a tutor to poor children. She even provided nursing assistance to area families when a deadly smallpox epidemic washed over the region. Barton eventually caught smallpox herself. But even though her recovery was long and difficult, she never regretted the assistance that she had provided.
A talented teacher
In 1838, Barton became a schoolteacher in the Oxford area. Teaching was one of the few career paths that were open to women during that period, and Barton was determined to make the most of her talents. The seventeen-year-old excelled as a teacher, and within a few months of starting classes, she received many teaching offers from other area communities. She spent the next decade teaching children throughout the region while also continuing with her charitable work. But as time passed she grew restless and dissatisfied with her life and began to look for other challenges.
In 1850 Barton abruptly left teaching behind to continue her own education at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York. She spent a year at the school, deeply absorbing herself in mathematics, science, and other subjects that women rarely had an opportunity to study. In 1852, Barton returned to teaching, accepting a position in Bordentown, New Jersey.
At the time that Barton arrived in Bordentown, the community's only school was one that charged students a fee to take classes. Since this situation often made it impossible for children from poor families to go to school, Barton approached the town's leaders with an intriguing offer: if they would provide her with a bigger building and allow all children to attend school for free, then she would give up her salary for three months.
On the first day that Barton's school opened, only six students showed up. But as time passed, more and more parents heard about the free classes and the community's dynamic new teacher. Within a year or so, the school's enrollment increased to more than two hundred students, with four hundred more on a waiting list. As Barton hired other teachers to help with the swelling student population, she expressed great satisfaction with the school's amazing success.
Bordentown's leaders recognized the popularity of Barton's school, too. They established generous salaries for Barton and the other teachers, and helped pass a local bill that set aside $4,000 for the construction of a brand new school that would provide rooms and school equipment for all six hundred children who wanted to attend. But when the new school opened in the fall of 1853, Barton discovered that prejudice against women holding positions of authority remained strong. The community's school board selected a man to serve as the school's principal, even though she was the one who was responsible for its very existence. Frustrated and disappointed, Barton resigned from the school and left Bordentown.
Rumblings of war
Over the next several years, Barton divided her time between the national capital of Washington, where she worked as a government clerk, and her old hometown of Oxford, Massachusetts. Then, as the 1850s drew to a close, Barton found herself increasingly drawn into the political turmoil (confusion) that was sweeping across the nation.
For years, America's Northern and Southern states had been arguing over several issues. One of these issues was slavery. Many Northerners believed that slavery was wrong and wanted to abolish it. But the economy of the South had been built on slavery, and Southerners resented Northern efforts to halt or contain the practice.
By early 1861, hostilities between the North and South had become so fierce that a number of Southern states voted to secede from (leave) the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America (a total of eleven states seceded by the end of the year). The U.S. government declared that those states had no right to secede and that it was willing to use force to make them return to the Union. In the spring of 1861, the two sides finally went to war over their differences.
Treating the wounded
When the Civil War began, Barton was a strong supporter of the North's position. She thought that slavery was a terrible practice, and she expressed patriotic outrage at the South's decision to secede. "When there is no longer a soldier's arm to raise the Stars and Stripes above our Capital, may God give strength to mine," she said in one letter to a friend.
Barton proved her willingness to support the Union cause from the very start. In April 1861, the Union Army's Sixth Massachusetts Regiment was traveling to Washington when it was attacked by a pro-South mob in Baltimore, Maryland. When the soldiers who had been wounded in the assault finally reached Washington, Barton sprang into action. She immediately went to help care for the wounded, and she organized a drive to provide the troops with supplies that they had lost in Baltimore.
A few months later, Washington received far greater numbers of Union wounded in the aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as the First Battle of Manassas). More than three thousand Federal troops were killed, wounded, or missing from this battle, which was the first major clash of the war. When the injured Union soldiers reached Washington, the city was completely unprepared to care for them. Once again, Barton devoted her energies to helping the wounded. Working night and day, she gathered clothing, food, and other supplies for the soldiers.
Over the next several months, Barton became a constant presence in Washington-area hospitals. She continued to gather supplies for the soldiers, and she spent long hours sitting by their bedsides, reading or talking to them. Some of her conversations with the soldiers distressed her deeply. They told her that medical supplies often lagged far behind the army. They also admitted that many seriously wounded soldiers out in the field had to wait for long periods of time before they received any medical attention because the Union Army had so few doctors. Some soldiers had to endure long wagon rides to Washington or other Northern cities before they received any attention at all. Some of these soldiers died before they reached their destination, bleeding to death or dying from infections.
As Barton listened to these alarming stories, she recognized that the Union troops needed to receive medical attention much more quickly. She then requested permission from the Union authorities to provide aid to wounded soldiers out in the field rather than wait until they were transported all the way to Washington. At first, the officials turned her down because they did not believe that a woman could handle the sight of battlefield gore and misery. But Barton refused to give up on the idea. Instead, she spent months lobbying (attempting to influence) various politicians and army officials. In the spring of 1862, she finally received permission to treat soldiers out on the battlefield.
Angel of the battlefield
As soon as Barton received official permission to work in the field, she made arrangements to carry needed medical supplies and food with her. "People talk like children about 'transporting supplies' as if it were the easiest thing imaginable to transport supplies by wagon thirty miles across a country scouted by guerrilla bands [groups of Confederate raiders]," she wrote.
Barton's first opportunity to provide aid to wounded soldiers out in the field came in August 1862, after a big battle at Cedar Mountain, near Culpepper, Virginia. When Barton heard about the battle, she rushed to the scene and immediately began tending wounded Union soldiers. "At the time when we were entirely out of dressings of every kind, she supplied us with everything," said one Union surgeon at Cedar Mountain. "And while the shells were bursting in every direction . . . she [stayed] dealing out shirts . . . and preparing soup and seeing it prepared in all the [field] hospitals. . . . I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a homely angel, she must be one [since] her assistance was so timely."
One month later, Barton traveled to a region near Antietam Creek in northern Maryland, where a clash between Union and Confederate forces produced the single highest casualty toll of any single day of the Civil War. All day long Barton worked tirelessly to bandage and feed the wounded, even as the sights and sounds of the terrible battle swirled all around her. At one point, she recalled, she bent down to give a wounded soldier a drink of water. "Just at this moment a bullet sped its free and easy way between us, tearing a hole between us, tearing a hole in my sleeve and [finding] its way into his body," she remembered. "He fell back dead. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve."
By the time the Battle of Antietam was over, Barton's tireless efforts on behalf of wounded soldiers had made her a beloved figure throughout the Union Army. "Here [at Antietam] her work was truly heroic," wrote Cathy East Dubowski in Clara Barton: Healing the Wounds, "and here she won the admiration of the common soldiers and of many surgeons. She had proved her courage and ability beyond a doubt—to the army and to herself. She had marched with the soldiers, gone without food and rest, slept under the stars, and stood her ground under fire, even when others ran."
Barton continued to work as a field nurse for most of the rest of the war, traveling from battlefield to battlefield. In recognition of her efforts on behalf of wounded Union soldiers, people started calling her the "angel of the battlefield." But although Barton appreciated the recognition she received, the war was an emotionally draining experience for her. She sometimes quarreled with other people and organizations who were trying to provide medical supplies to Union troops. In addition, the endless exposure to torn and bleeding bodies sometimes made it hard for her to go on. After one battle, she admitted, "I looked at myself, shoeless, gloveless, ragged, and bloodstained, [and] a new sense of desolation and pity and sympathy and weariness, all blended, swept over me with irresistible force. . . . I sank down . . . and wept." At one point of the war, these pressures combined to push her into a brief emotional breakdown. After several months of rest, however, she was able to return to her nursing work.
International Red Cross
In April 1865, the North finally defeated the South to bring the Civil War to a close. Over the next several months, Barton continued to work on behalf of Union soldiers and families. She helped people find out what happened to missing family members who had fought in the war, and she gave a series of lectures on her wartime experiences.
In 1869, Barton traveled to Europe, where she hoped that a long period of rest might help her deal with growing depression and nagging health problems. Soon after her arrival, she learned about an organization known as the International Convention of Geneva, or International Red Cross. This organization, founded in 1864, was dedicated to providing medical aid and other assistance to people wounded in wartime.
In 1870 a war broke out between Germany and France. This war, known as the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), gave Barton an opportunity to see how the International Red Cross operated. The organization refused to take sides in the war; instead, it devoted all of its energies to treating soldiers and civilians (people not involved in the war, including women and children) who were injured or made homeless in the conflict. As the Red Cross went into action, Barton marveled at the organization's operation. "The Red Cross societies in the field [accomplished] in four months under this systematic organization what we failed to accomplish in four years without it—no mistakes, no needless suffering, no starving, no lack of care, no waste, no confusion, but order, plenty, cleanliness, and comfort whenever that little [Red Cross] flag made its way."
Founding the American Red Cross
Barton spent the next few years helping the International Red Cross provide food and shelter to European refugees. In 1873, she returned to the United States, where she began working to create an American branch of the international aid organization.
Over the next several years Barton worked tirelessly to see her dream of an American Red Cross become a reality. She published pamphlets that discussed the organization's philosophy and goals and talked with influential congressmen and administration officials in order to gain their support. Finally, in 1881, Barton's crusade paid off, when the American Association of the Red Cross was formally founded. One year later, the U.S. Senate ratified (officially approved) a treaty that made the nation an official member of the International Red Cross.
Over the next two decades, Barton devoted her life to building the American Red Cross into a great relief organization. She served as the organization's president from 1882 to 1904, guiding it as it provided food, shelter, and medical supplies to victims of wars and natural disasters alike. But as the years passed, criticism of Barton's leadership became quite strong. People said that she never listened to anyone else, and that she did a terrible job of recordkeeping and managing the organization's funds. These criticisms seemed to be supported by dwindling public support for the group. By 1902, dissatisfaction with Barton's domineering style and sloppy bookkeeping became so great that a group of Red Cross members made an unsuccessful attempt to remove her from office.
In 1904, continued questions about Barton's handling of the organization's finances led to a Senate investigation. The Senate cleared her of any intentional wrongdoing, but public confidence in the organization continued to decline. Weary and bitter about the whole controversy, Barton finally resigned as president of the American Red Cross on May 14, 1904. The Red Cross reorganized itself after her departure and eventually established itself as one of America's most respected relief organizations.
Barton, meanwhile, adopted a quiet lifestyle. Settling in Glen Echo, New York, she spent her days reading or working in her garden. She died on April 12, 1912.
Where to Learn More
Burton, David H. Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Dubowski, Cathy East. Clara Barton: Healing the Wounds. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Hamilton, Leni. Clara Barton. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
National Park Service. Clara Barton National Historic Site. [Online] http://www.nps.gov/clba/ (accessed on October 8, 1999).
Oates, Stephen B. A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1994.
Rose, Mary Catherine. Clara Barton: Soldier of Mercy. Champaign, IL: Garrard Press, 1960. Reprint, New York: Chelsea Juniors, 1991.
Stevenson, Augusta. Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross. New York: Macmillan, 1982.
Clara Barton struggled throughout the Civil War to convince people that women could make major contributions in the effort to help save wounded young soldiers. She often encountered resistance, but her efforts were made a little easier by the example of Florence Nightingale.
Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) is regarded as the founder of modern nursing. An English woman from an upper-class background, she became involved in caring for sick and wounded people in the mid-1850s, when the Crimean War (1853–56) engulfed several nations. The Crimean War pitted Russia against Turkey, which wanted to rule itself without interference from Russia. England and France took part in the war on Turkey's side.
When Nightingale heard about the horrible hospital conditions in which wounded soldiers were treated, she decided to do something about it. Ignoring critics who argued that women had no business being in the midst of rough soldiers and dirty conditions, she organized a group of thirty-eight women nurses and traveled to army hospitals throughout the war zone. Led by Nightingale, these women nurses treated thousands of wounded soldiers and made great improvements in hospital conditions and organization. "The very first requirement in a hospital," Nightingale declared, "must be that it should do the sick no harm." Within a matter of months, Nightingale and her nurses had helped lower the death rate in military hospitals from more than 40 percent to about 2 percent.
By the time the Crimean War ended in 1856, Nightingale had become a legendary figure around the world. In 1860 her fame increased when she opened the world's first nursing school in St. Thomas's Hospital in London, England. The establishment of this school further increased the reputation of nursing as a legitimate career for women. A year later, when the American Civil War broke out, Nightingale's activities inspired an entire generation of Northern and Southern women. Using Nightingale's bravery and dedication as an example, hundreds of American women volunteered as nurses during the Civil War.
Born December 25, 1821
North Oxford, Massachusetts
Died April 12, 1912
Glen Echo, Maryland
American relief worker, founder and first
president of the American National Red Cross
"U.S. Admiral Sampson says openly and truthfully that my aim and efforts are exactly opposed to those of the government from which he takes his orders; that while my effort… is to get food into Cuba, his object, which isthe object of the Government, is to keep food out."
Clara Barton quoted in Clara Barton: Professional Angel
Clara Barton broke age and gender stereotypes as a relief worker and nurse during the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898). In February 1898, the seventy-seven-year-old Barton traveled with Red Cross workers to Cuba. The mission's purpose was to help provide food and medical aid to Cuban civilians during a colonial revolution against Spain. In June and July of that year, during some of the fiercest battles of America's war with Spain, Barton tended to wounded American soldiers behind battle lines near Santiago, Cuba. Barton returned to Cuba in 1899 to help malnourished children suffering during America's post-war military rule.
Childhood and teaching career
Clara Barton was born in North Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day, 1821. She acquired the discipline necessary for hard work by growing up on a farm, where she learned to drive nails, ride ponies, make soap, and raise a vegetable garden. Teaching self-reliance to suffering people would become an important part of Barton's relief work with the American National Red Cross.
At age fifteen, Barton began a teaching career, partly to overcome shyness. Success put her in high demand in North Oxford and surrounding villages. From 1850 to 1851, Barton took a break from teaching to attend the Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, for her own education.
Barton resumed teaching in 1852 in Bordentown, New Jersey, at a school that grew from a handful of students to hundreds under her guidance as instructor and administrator. School authorities then replaced Barton with a male principal, afraid that a woman could not administer a large operation. Refusing to put up with such ignorance, and suffering from depression, Barton left teaching permanently.
The American Civil War
When the American Civil War (1861-65) broke out in April 1861, Barton was in Washington, D.C., working for the U.S. Patent Office. Surprised that there were no plans for caring for the wounded, Barton placed advertisements for donations in the Worcester Daily Spy, a newspaper in Massachusetts. At first Barton distributed the goods from Massachusetts at her home in Washington, D.C., where she also cared for soldiers and made them food. In July 1862, after much effort, she convinced Surgeon-General William A. Hammond to let her go to the front (the areas where battle was taking place).
Once in the thick of the action, Barton worked mostly near battlefields in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. Although legend remembers her as a nurse, Barton worked primarily to bring medical supplies and food to the soldiers, bandaging and comforting them in the field instead of working in army hospitals. Her compassion earned her the nickname "Angel of the Battlefield."
During the late 1860s, Barton traveled to Europe to take care of another bout of her recurring depression. While in Geneva, Switzerland, she learned about the International Red Cross. Created by the Treaty of Geneva (an international agreement that the United States did not sign until 1882), the Red Cross worked to relieve wounded soldiers in times of war.
When the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) broke out in 1870 between France and several German states, led by Prussia, Barton gained firsthand knowledge about the Red Cross by working with the organization. While distributing relief supplies in French cities such as Strasbourg, Paris, Lyons, Belfort, and Montpellier, Barton became impressed with the effectiveness of Red Cross operations. Trained nurses worked with large stores of supplies that stood ready for relief, protected from attack in buildings painted with bright scarlet crosses, which signified the international agreement not to harm such sites in wartime.
After the Franco-Prussian War, Barton experienced another bout of depression and the death of her sister, Sally, before checking herself into a sanitarium (a health resort for those recovering from illness) in Dansville, New York, in 1876. Recovered the following year, Barton wrote to Dr. Louis Appia asking for permission to start a Red Cross organization in the United States. Appia appointed Barton the Red Cross representative in the United States.
Barton served as president of the American National Red Cross (originally called the American Association of the Red Cross) from its birth in 1881, when she was fifty-nine, until 1904. For most of this time she was active in relief work throughout the United States and around the world. In 1882, after years of hard work, Barton finally convinced the United States to sign the Treaty of Geneva, binding the country to international laws concerning Red Cross operations during wartime. In September 1884, while attending the Third International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva, Barton convinced the entire organization to expand its duties to include peacetime relief work. All along, she conducted the American National Red Cross with complete authority but without a good system of recordkeeping, which eventually led to her downfall in the organization.
The Second Cuban War for Independence
In February 1895, rebels in the Spanish colony of Cuba, an island, launched a revolution against Spain to reform poor economic conditions. By the end of the year, the revolutionaries controlled the rural regions on the eastern end of the island. Success came largely through help from rural civilians, who provided food and shelter to the rebels as they burned sugar plantations, destroyed refineries, and carried out violent attacks on other assets of the Cuban economy.
Spain responded by sending a vicious general, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930), to command military operations in Cuba in early 1896. Weyler adopted a concentration policy, imprisoning Cuban civilians in crowded camps and burning their homes and fields so they could not help the rebels. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died of starvation and disease in these camps.
Barton was initially hesitant about taking the Red Cross to Cuba to assist the Cuban pacificos, as the civilians were called. The Cuban conflict caused tense relations between the United States, Spain, and Cuba, and Barton was unsure of the Red Cross's rights under the Treaty of Geneva in such a political atmosphere. In July 1897, however, Barton met with President William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry) to discuss the possibility of going to Cuba to help the Cuban pacificos. McKinley liked the idea and made public assistance to the pacificos a topic in his State of the Union message in December 1897.
On January 1, 1898, the Central Cuban Relief Committee formed in New York to raise money and supplies for the Red Cross to distribute in Cuba. On February 6, Barton left for Havana, Cuba, to begin relief work on the island. Upon arriving at a hospital at Los Fosos, Barton saw sights that, compared to the religious warfare and massacres she had seen in Armenia in 1896,"seemed merciful by comparison," according to Ishbel Ross in Angel of the Battlefield. People as skinny as skeletons or bloated from malnutrition were dying at the rate of a dozen a day. Children in concentration camps were barely alive.
Barton set to work doing what she did best, organizing the distribution of food from Red Cross warehouses to the concentration centers. On February 13, she had lunch with Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, who commanded the U.S. warship Maine in the harbor at Havana, Cuba. The warship was there to protect American interests and to pressure Spain to end the revolution. When the Maine exploded mysteriously two days later, killing more than 250 people aboard, Barton visited the wounded sailors in the hospital.
U.S. senator Redfield Proctor (1831-1908; see entry in Primary Sources section) visited the island shortly thereafter to assess conditions with his own eyes. Barton took Proctor on a tour during his stay. Later, in a Senate speech that motivated Congress to seek war with Spain, Proctor said of Barton, "The American people may be assured that their bounty will reach the sufferers with the least possible cost and in the best manner in every respect," according to Elizabeth Brown Pryor in Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Unfortunately, Barton soon had to return to the United States to clear up political problems with the Central Cuban Relief Committee.
On April 19, 1898, while Barton was back in the United States, Congress authorized President McKinley to prepare for war with Spain. Four days later, Barton found herself stuck on a ship—the State of Texas—in Tampa, Florida, with fourteen hundred tons of supplies for the suffering Cubans. U.S. admiral William T. Sampson (1840-1902) would not allow the State of Texas to take food to Cuba, where American soldiers had yet to land. Barton did what she could for American soldiers and Spanish prisoners-of-war in Tampa until she finally got official clearance to travel to Cuba at the end of June.
Meanwhile, Barton visited Washington, D.C., to have the McKinley administration clarify the Red Cross's role in relief operations. It was the first American war for the American National Red Cross, and U.S. surgeon-general George M. Sternberg was trying to take control of its operations. Getting approval from the McKinley administration to operate independently of the federal government was one of Barton's crowning achievements in her long years of work for the Red Cross. It allowed the Red Cross to minimize, to the extent possible, political constraints on its relief operations.
Receiving the long-awaited orders to depart from Tampa on June 20, the State of Texas finally headed for Cuba with her anxious crew and passengers. When Barton arrived on the island, her role immediately changed from helping the Cubans in concentration camps to helping the wounded American and Cuban soldiers at the front near Santiago de Cuba. Deadly, day-long battles at San Juan Heights and El Caney on July 1, 1898, made it necessary for Barton to tend to wounded and dying soldiers in army hospitals. The hospitals, in Barton's opinion, were as unprepared to treat casualties as American military hospitals had been during the Civil War thirty years earlier.
At the same time, Barton coordinated distribution of supplies and prepared food such as gruel and Red Cross cider for the soldiers. (Her famous cider was a fermented mixture made from stewed apples, prunes, and lime juice.) Barton was working with food supplies when Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919; see entry), who led a volunteer regiment called the Rough Riders, arrived to purchase milk, oatmeal, beef-steak, fruits, and other food. When the Red Cross gave him the food for free, Roosevelt gratefully slung the sack over his shoulder and disappeared back into the jungle, emerging from the war to later become the governor of New York and president of the United States.
After the U.S. Navy defeated Spain at Santiago on July 3 and the city surrendered on July 17, the State of Texas led the naval procession to the city's docks, much to Barton's delight. When she later thanked Admiral Sampson for the honor, Commodore Winfield S. Schley (1839-1909) joked that Barton should not be too thankful, for the navy had thought there might be mines in the harbor.
In Santiago, Barton displayed her characteristic skill at organization by dividing the city into districts for distributing food to hungry civilians. Controversy erupted, however, as the Red Cross got blamed for spreading a disease called yellow fever by operating in a contaminated building. In fact, on a night prior to entering Santiago, Barton and others had picked up the disease when they were forced to take shelter in an abandoned building near the Cuban shore because waves prevented them from reaching their ship.
The State of Texas became quarantined (made off-limits) and was sent back to New York. This left Barton without transportation for five weeks until she got onto a commercial ship headed for Havana on August 21, nine days after Spain and the United States signed a peace agreement to end the war. Heading home, Barton took comfort in the fact that she had supervised the distribution of six thousand tons of provisions worth half a million dollars.
Back to Cuba
In the United States, Barton began to face criticism about the way she was running the Red Cross. Some felt Barton had misdirected Red Cross resources to Spaniards during the war. Others were concerned that her inadequate record-keeping made it hard to monitor the organization. Hurt by such charges, Barton retreated to her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, to write a book, The Red Cross in Peace and War. Published in 1899, half of the book describes the Red Cross's role in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
In his State of the Union message in December 1898, President McKinley praised the work of Clara Barton and the Red Cross during the Cuban crisis. Barton again approached McKinley, proposing to return to Cuba to help orphan children who had lived in the concentration camps. Barton met resistance from the New York chapter of the Red Cross, which felt she was getting too old for such work. McKinley disagreed and approved Barton's plan, so she sailed back to Cuba in the spring of 1899.
When Barton arrived, Red Cross workers had already been there for a couple of months. Disagreement soon erupted between Barton and people who felt she could better serve the organization in an administrative capacity from Washington, D.C. Barton resented such treatment, which made her last trip to Cuba her most unpleasant. Barton did what she could for the children while she was there, but she left Cuba discouraged about the future of the Red Cross.
Growing criticism of her administration led Barton to resign from the Red Cross on June 16, 1904. She lived the rest of her life at her homestead in Glen Echo, Maryland, writing two more books, A Story of the Red Cross (1905) and Story of My Childhood (1907). Barton died in Glen Echo on April 12, 1912. Thirty-nine years later, the Cuban Red Cross unveiled a marble bust of Clara Barton in Santiago to honor her wartime work in the region.
For More Information
Barton, Clara. The Red Cross in Peace and War. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Press, 1899.
Hamilton, Leni. Clara Barton. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
Rose, Mary Catherine. Clara Barton: Soldier of Mercy. New York: Chelsea House, 1991.
Ross, Ishbel. Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.
Wheeler, Jill C. Clara Barton. Minneapolis, MN: Abdo & Daughters, 2002.
Born: December 25, 1821
North Oxford, Massachusetts
Died: April 21, 1922
Glen Echo, Maryland
Ahumanitarian works for the well-being of others. The American humanitarian Clara Barton was the founder of the American Red Cross. Her work helping people in times of war and times of peace made her a symbol of humanitarianism.
Early life and career
Clara Barton was born on December 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the youngest child of Stephen Barton, a farmer and state law maker who had served in the American Revolution (1775–83), and his wife, Sarah. She later recalled that his tales made war familiar to her at an early age. Barton acquired skills that would serve her well when, at age eleven, she helped look after a sick older brother. In return her brother taught her skills that young women did not usually learn, such as carpentry.
The teenage Barton was very shy but was also well spoken and well read. Her mother suggested that she put her gifts to work by becoming a teacher. At age fifteen Barton began teaching at nearby schools. In 1850 she left to teach at Bordentown, New Jersey. Families in Bordentown were required to pay for children's schooling. Thus many children were unable to attend. Barton offered to teach without salary if children could attend for free. She later took pride in having established the first free school in New Jersey and in having raised enrollment from six to six hundred. However, when town officials decided to appoint a male principal over her, she resigned.
Civil War activities
Barton was working for the patent office in Washington, D.C., when the Civil War (1861–65) began. She decided to serve the Federal troops by personally collecting and storing supplies that people had given freely in support of the troops. In Washington she collected and stored food and medical supplies that could be distributed to the troops. In 1862 she was permitted to travel to places where the fighting was taking place. Barton was with Federal forces during the siege of Charleston, South Carolina, and also at battles in other areas.
Barton did not work primarily as a nurse during the war. She became increasingly skilled at obtaining and passing out supplies. However, her courage and concern for people made her presence strongly felt everywhere she went.
In 1865 Barton decided to begin the project of locating missing soldiers. With President Lincoln's approval, she set up the Bureau of Records in Washington and traced perhaps twenty thousand men.
Barton suffered from periods of poor health. In 1869 she went to Geneva, Switzerland, hoping to improve her condition through rest and change. There she met officials of the recently organized International Red Cross, a group that worked to help victims of war. They urged her to seek U.S. agreement to the Geneva Convention, a treaty that permitted medical personnel to be treated as neutral parties who could aid the sick and wounded during wars. Before Barton could turn to this task the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), a war in which France was defeated by a group of German states led by Prussia, began.
Barton helped organize military hospitals during this war. Her most original idea was to put needy women in Strasbourg, France, to work sewing garments for pay. She also introduced this work system in Lyons, France. In 1873 she was awarded the Iron Cross of Merit by the German emperor, William I (1797–1888). It was one of many such honors for Barton.
Barton then returned to the United States and settled in Danville, New York. In 1877 she wrote to a founder of the International Red Cross and offered to lead an American branch of the organization. Thus, at age fifty-six she began a new career. In 1881 Barton incorporated the American Red Cross; that is, she organized it as a legal corporation. The American Red Cross was devoted to helping people in need during peacetime as well as wartime. She herself served as its president. A year later her extraordinary efforts brought about U.S. agreement to the Geneva Convention.
In 1883 Barton also served as superintendent of the Women's Reformatory Prison in Sherborn, Massachusetts. However, she remained devoted to her major cause. In 1882 she traveled as a Red Cross worker to assist victims of fires in Michigan and earthquake victims in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1884 she brought supplies to flood victims along the Ohio River. Five years later she went to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after it suffered a disastrous flood. Barton also traveled to Russia and Turkey to assist those in need. As late as 1900 she visited Galveston, Texas, to supervise assistance after a tidal wave.
Retirement and death
In 1900 Congress reincorporated the Red Cross and demanded a review of its funds. Soon public pressures and conflict within the Red Cross itself became too much for Barton. She resigned from the organization in 1904. By this point Barton was a figure of international fame. She retired to Glen Echo, Maryland, and died there on April 12, 1912.
For More Information
Burton, David H. Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity. Westwood, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Dubowski, Cathy East. Clara Barton: Healing the Wounds. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.
Barton, Clara (1821-1912)
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).
The American humanitarian Clara Barton (1821-1912) was the founder of the American Red Cross. Her work made her a symbol of humanitarianism.
Clara Barton was born on Dec. 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Mass. She was the youngest child of Stephen Barton, a farmer and state legislator who had served in the Revolution under Gen. Anthony Wayne; she later recalled that his tales made war early familiar to her.
Well-spoken and well-read, at the age of 15 Clara Barton began teaching at nearby schools. In 1850 she went to teach at Bordentown, N.J., where state tradition required paid schooling and thus served few children. Barton offered to teach without salary if payment were waived. She later took pride in having established the first free school in New Jersey and having raised enrollment in Bordentown from 6 to 600. When town officials decided to appoint a male administrator over her, she resigned. At this time she suffered her first crisis of nervous illness, associated in part with uncertainty about her future.
In 1853 she obtained an appointment as copyist in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., becoming the first woman in America to hold such a government post. She continued this work till April 1861, when the Civil War began and she determined to serve the Federal troops.
Civil War Activities
Although the U.S. Sanitary Commission was formed in June 1861 to aid soldiers, Barton had little association with it. (Casual reports later misnamed her as one of its founders.) Her own enterprise involved appeals for provisions to be carried into the war zones; she collected and stored them in Washington for personal distribution. In 1862 the U.S. surgeon general permitted her to travel to the front, and she implemented this order with directives from generals John Pope and James S. Wadsworth, who welcomed her work. Barton was present with Federal forces during the siege of Charleston, S.C., and also at engagements in the Wilderness and at Fredericksburg, Va., and elsewhere.
Barton's mission was not primarily that of a nurse. She became increasingly adept at obtaining and passing out provisions, though her courage and humanity made her a vital presence everywhere. In 1864 she made her most influential connection, joining Gen. Benjamin F. Butler with the Army of the James. She later visited the notorious prison camp at Andersonville, Ga., to identify and mark Union graves.
In 1865 she conceived the project of locating missing soldiers and obtained a note of endorsement from President Lincoln. She set up the Bureau of Records in Washington and traced perhaps 20, 000 names. She also lectured on her experiences until her voice failed in 1868.
Barton's health continued to trouble her; in 1869 she went to Geneva, Switzerland, for rest and a change. There, officials of the International Red Cross, organized in 1864, urged her to seek United States agreement to the Geneva Convention recognizing the work of the Red Cross; the powerful U.S. Sanitary Commission had been unable to obtain it. But before Barton could turn to the task, the Franco-Prussian War began.
She offered her services to the Grand Duchess of Baden in administering military hospitals. Her most original idea (developed further in later situations) was to put needy Strasbourg women to work sewing garments for pay. Later, with the French defeated and Paris held by the Commune, she entered the starving city to distribute food and clothing. She served elsewhere in France—in Lyons again instituting her work system. She was awarded the Iron Cross of Merit by the German emperor, William I, in 1873; this was one of many such honors.
Clara Barton settled in Danville, N.Y., where for several years she was a semi-invalid. In 1877 she wrote a founder of the International Red Cross, offering to lead an American branch of the organization. Thus, at 56 she began a new career.
In 1881 Barton incorporated the American Red Cross, with herself as president. A year later her extraordinary efforts brought about United States ratification of the Geneva Convention. She herself attended conferences of the International Red Cross as the American representative. She was, however, far from bureaucratic in interests. Although wholly individualistic and unlike reformers who worked on programs for social change, she did a great social service as activist and propagandist.
In 1883 Barton served as superintendent of the Women's Reformatory Prison, Sherborn, Mass., thus deviating from a career marked by single-minded commitment to her major cause. As a Red Cross worker, she went to Michigan, which had been ravaged by fires in 1882, and to Charleston, S.C., which had suffered an earthquake. In 1884 she traveled the Ohio River, supplying flood victims. Five years later she went to Johnstown, Pa., to help it recover from a disastrous flood. In 1891 Barton traveled to Russia, which was enduring famine, and in 1896 to Turkey, following the Armenian massacres. Barton was in her late 70s when the Cuban insurrection required relief measures. She prepared to sail in aid of Cubans, but the outbreak of the Spanish-American War turned her ship into a welfare station for Americans as well. As late as 1900 she visited Galveston, Tex., personally to supervise relief for victims of a tidal wave. In 1900 Congress reincorporated the Red Cross, demanding an accounting of funds. By 1904 public pressures and dissension within the Red Cross itself had become too much for Barton, and on June 16 she resigned from the organization. (She even entertained unrealistic thoughts of beginning another one.) A figure of international renown, she retired instead to Glen Echo, Md., where she died on April 12, 1912.
Clara Barton was the subject of innumerable sketches and books, many merely eulogistic and even fanciful. She herself wrote The Story of My Childhood (1907), as well as enlightening accounts of her work, such as The Red Cross in Peace and War (1899). Most useful for general purposes is Ishbel Ross, Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton (1956). William E. Barton, Life of Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross (2 vols., 1922), is adulatory but reproduces revealing letters. Percy H. Epler, The Life of Clara Barton (1915), details her life as it appeared to her contemporaries. □
As the Civil War, especially early on, afforded few official roles for women, Barton could carve out an independent niche and use her status to bypass the formidable military bureaucracy. Throughout, she sought to bring humanity and personal dignity to the war; to counteract the brutal and dehumanizing affects of modern, large‐scale carnage. Although her relief activities abated somewhat later in the war, she began in February 1865 the herculean effort of identifying missing men. Much of her attention focused on the unknown dead of Andersonville Prison, securing the identification of nearly 11,000 in that infamous pen.
When the Civil War ended, Barton continued her mission of humanizing the horrors of military suffering. She worked tirelessly for U.S. ratification of the Geneva Conventions of 1864 (conferring neutrality on wounded and hospital personnel in war), and in 1881, organized the American Association of the Red Cross. In 1898, she personally led Red Cross relief efforts in Cuba during the Spanish‐American War.
Rev William E. Barton ., Life of Clara Barton, 2 vols., 1922.
Stephen Oates , A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, 1994.
Clara Barton, 1821–1912, American humanitarian, organizer of the American Red Cross, b. North Oxford (now Oxford), Mass. She taught school (1839–54) and clerked in the U.S. Patent Office before the outbreak of the Civil War. She then established a service of supplies for soldiers and nursed in army camps and on the battlefields. She was called the Angel of the Battlefield. In 1865 President Lincoln appointed her to search for missing prisoners; the records she compiled also served to identify thousands of the dead at Andersonville Prison. In Europe for a conference at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War (1870), she went to work behind the German lines for the International Red Cross. She returned to the United States in 1873 and in 1881 organized the American National Red Cross, which she headed until 1904. She worked successfully for the President's signature to the Geneva treaty for the care of war wounded (1882) and emphasized Red Cross work in catastrophes other than war. Among her writings are several books on the Red Cross.
See biographies by I. Ross (1956) and W. E. Barton (1969); S. B. Oates, A Woman of Valor (1994).