Clara (Clarissa Harlowe) Barton

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Clara (Clarissa Harlowe) Barton


American Founder of the American Red Cross, Teacher and Social Reformer

Clara Barton served as a nurse during the American Civil War, but her primary contributions to the war effort were to the monumental task of obtaining supplies, organizing relief efforts for wounded soldiers, and identifying the dead and wounded. After the war, she created an organization to search for missing men. However, Clara Barton is best known for her role in founding the American Red Cross.

Barton was born in Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the youngest child of Stephen Barton, a prosperous farmer and leader in public affairs. Clara's early education was principally at home under the direction of her brothers and sisters. When Barton was sixteen she became a schoolteacher. She later completed her own education at Clinton, New York. She opened the first free school in Bordentown with only six pupils, but at the end of the year the school was serving six hundred students.

In 1854 she moved to Washington, D.C., where Charles Mason, the Commissioner of Patents, appointed her to the first independent government clerkship held by a woman. She resigned from the Patent Office at the outbreak of the Civil War and devoted herself to the relief of sick and wounded soldiers, often working with the field surgeons not far from the battlefield. Her admirers said that, despite her love of the Union cause, when she worked in the battlefield, she never discriminated between soldiers from the North or the South. Although she did not yet know about the Red Cross of Geneva, she was already an advocate of total neutrality in war relief efforts.

After the war Barton went to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia, to identify and mark the graves of the Union soldiers who had died there. She was also involved in the establishment of the first national cemetery and a bureau of records in Washington, D.C., that was dedicated to the search for missing men. In 1869 a full report was completed and accepted by Congress.

In 1869, in failing health, Barton went to Switzerland to rest and recover. While in Europe she became involved in relief efforts for victims of the Franco-Prussian War. Her work with victims of the war led to an association with the International Red Cross. Gustave Moynier, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, asked Barton to serve as the official bearer of an invitation to the President of the United States to endorse the articles of the Geneva Convention. Barton returned to the United States in 1873 and worked towards that goal, but President Rutherford Hayes ignored the invitation. His successor, President James A. Garfield, offered to support the initiative. Unfortunately, Garfield was assassinated before any action could be taken. Chester A. Arthur, the next President, urged Barton to form a Red Cross Organization in preparation for American accession to the Geneva Treaty.

The American National Red Cross Society was established in 1881, with Barton as its president. Later that year she presented the invitation to endorse the Treaty of Geneva to President Arthur, who urged Congress to do so. In 1882 President Arthur signed the document that made the United States a member of the International Red Cross. Barton served as president of the American Red Cross until 1904.

The Red Cross eventually evolved from a society that distributed only war relief to one that also responded to peacetime disasters, such as floods, fires, earthquakes, famines, storms, and epidemic diseases. This addition to the Geneva Convention has often been called the "American amendment," but Barton's influence on this transition appears to have been exaggerated by her American supporters. Indeed, the Red Cross organizations of some other nations had been involved in peacetime disaster relief long before the Geneva Convention was officially amended. Barton's writings include an official History of the Red Cross (1882), The Red Cross in Peace and War (1898), A Story of the Red Cross (1904), and the autobiographical Story of My childhood (1907).