Acclaimed humanitarian and Red Cross of America founder, Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton was born on December 25, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the youngest (by ten years) of Stephen and Sarah (Stone) Barton’s five children.
Stephen Barton was a successful businessman, farmer, and horse breeder. As a militia captain, he campaigned during the French and Indian War, and against American Indians with General Anthony Wayne in the Northwest Territory. Historians know of Sarah Stone Barton other than that she was a homemaker who cared for her daughter but struggled to understand her peculiarities.
Clara Barton was a shy and quiet child who struggled with the social facets of formal education. Although she attended local schools and excelled at her studies, young Barton learned from her older siblings at home.
Barton accepted her first healthcare project at the tender age of eleven when her brother, David, seriously injured himself upon falling from the roof of a barn. Suspending her formal education for two years, the distraught sister dedicated herself to nursing her brother back to health. Her successful mission laid the groundwork for the medical and humanitarian achievements for which she would become renowned later in her life.
Following David’s recovery, Barton’s family sent Clara to a private boarding school, hoping the experience away from home would help their daughter overcome her extreme shyness. When the experiment failed, they engaged L.N. Fowler, a noted phrenologist, to offer guidance on what should become of their daughter. Following an examination of Clara’s skull, Fowler recommended that she become a teacher to overcome her shyness. As a result, Clara undertook the required studies, and by 1839 she passed the requisite examinations to launch a fifteen-year teaching career.
In 1839, at age seventeen, Barton began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse near Oxford. She quickly achieved notoriety for her ability to control rowdy students without using corporal punishment. Six years later, Barton moved to the adjoining town of Charlton, Massachusetts, where she established a school for the children of her brother’s mill workers.
After teaching for more than a decade, Barton moved to Oneida County, New York, in 1850. There, she enrolled at the Clinton Liberal Institute for a year to pursue formal studies in education.
Afterward, Barton accepted a teaching position at Cedarville School, a subscription school at Bordentown, New Jersey. Upon noticing that the families of many of the children in Bordentown could not afford private tuition, Barton convinced community leaders to allow her to open a free school in 1852. Barton’s new school may have been New Jersey’s first free public school.
Starting with only six students meeting in a dilapidated two-room building, the school’s enrollment quickly grew to over 600 students gathering in multiple locations by the second year. By the end of the school year, Barton’s school was so successful that town leaders appropriated funds to erect a new brick building to assemble all the students in one place by the beginning of the fall term. When the new building opened in 1853, it dismayed Barton to learn that the school board had hired a man from out of town (with less experience and at twice her pay) to displace her as the school’s principal. Despite Barton’s success in founding the school, the board members reasoned that a woman was incapable of managing such a large facility. Increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied, Barton resigned in 1854 and moved to Washington, D.C.
Upon arriving in the nation’s capital in 1855, Barton used her connections with Alexander De Witt (the US Congressman from her family’s home district in Massachusetts) to secure employment in the U.S. Patent Office. Originally hired as a clerk-copyist, Barton quickly impressed Charles Mason, the head of the patent office. The quality of Barton’s work prompted Mason to advance her to the rank of clerk, a position held only by men. Barton’s promotion spawned a wealth of hostility within the office, resulting in Barton being shunned and verbally abused by her male coworkers. As a result, Mason’s boss, Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland—who opposed women in the workplace—returned Barton to her former position as a clerk-copyist. Despite the demotion, Barton continued to work at the patent office until 1857 when James Buchanan assumed the presidency. As an outspoken opponent of slavery and a supporter of Republican candidate John C. Fremont in the 1856 presidential election, Barton fell victim to the spoils system and lost her job after Buchanan took office.
After being sacked by Buchanan, Barton returned to Massachusetts and took up residence with her brother David and his wife Julia. She spent the greater part of the next four years unemployed while attending to family matters and immersing herself in charity work.
Barton’s employment prospects brightened with the election of Abraham Lincoln to the U.S. presidency in November 1860. During the lame-duck period between Lincoln’s victory and his March inauguration, Barton’s allies in Washington successfully secured employment for her as a temporary copyist at the patent office, paying her eight cents for each one hundred words copied. Although the new opportunity was less profitable than her previous position with the patent office, Barton made the most of the situation. Characteristically, she tackled her assignments with a fervor that ensured she would earn as much as possible.
Civil War Activities — The Angel of the Battlefield
On April 12, 1861, Southern forces bombarded the U.S. Army garrison occupying Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The American Civil War had begun. Three days later, President Lincoln countered by requesting all state governors to muster recruits for the formation of a volunteer army to suppress the rebellion. The 6th Massachusetts Regiment quickly responded. Organized on January 21, 1861, the unit had been drilling in anticipation of war. Many of its members included Clara Barton’s former students or men that she otherwise knew.
On April 19, the men of the 6th Massachusetts were passing through Baltimore by train on their way to report for duty in Washington, D.C. As they disembarked to switch trains, an angry crowd of Southern sympathizers began pelting them with rocks. As the confrontation escalated, gunfire erupted, producing casualties on both sides. By the time the men of the 6th Massachusetts escaped Baltimore, four were dead and many others suffered injuries. In addition, marauders had plundered much of their luggage, leaving many of the recruits with nothing but the proverbial shirts on their backs.
Word of the encounter traveled quickly. When the Bay State regiment reached Washington, Clara Barton and her sister, Sally Vassal, joined supporters who greeted them at the train station. The sisters took as many of the wounded as possible to their homes for medical care. For the others, they began collecting clothes, blankets, rations, and other supplies that the War Department was unprepared to provide.
During the coming months, the mushrooming size of the volunteer army overwhelmed Washington. Barton’s spontaneous act of kindness for the men of her home state grew into a larger designed campaign to provide relief for any soldiers in need. As her efforts expanded, Barton actively solicited support from across the nation, and supplies flooded into the nation’s capital.
Besides collecting and distributing supplies, Barton spent her personal time assisting soldiers with their personal affairs—helping them read or write letters, listening to their concerns, and offering advice or inspiration.
When injured soldiers returned to Washington after the First Battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Barton broadened her efforts to include tending the wounded soldiers. Gradually, as her nursing activities increased, Barton came to believe that she had more to offer on the battlefield than behind the lines.
Barton returned to Massachusetts in late 1861 to attend to her ailing father. After his death on March 21, 1862, she came back to Washington with a renewed eagerness to continue her wartime relief efforts. Following her vigorous lobbying campaign, on August 3, 1862, the War Department granted Barton permission to deliver supplies and render aid at the front. Wasting no time, Barton traveled to Culpeper County, Virginia, on August 13, 1862, to assist soldiers wounded during the Battle of Cedar Mountain (August 9, 1862). Before departing, she also assisted doctors at a field hospital for Confederate prisoners.
During the next four months, Barton delivered supplies and nursed wounded soldiers at many major conflicts including the Second Battle of Bull Run (August 28–30, 1862), the Battle of Chantilly (September 1, 1862), the Battle of South Mountain (September 14, 1862), the Battle of Antietam, Maryland, (September 17, 1862), and the Battle of Fredericksburg (December 11–15, 1862). At Antietam, Barton barely escaped death when a bullet passed through the sleeve of her dress, killing the wounded man she was attending.
In April 1863, Barton arrived at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, where she helped soldiers throughout the Operations against Defenses of Charleston. In August, she helped to establish field hospitals and distributed supplies following the Battle of Fort Wagner and the subsequent Federal assaults that drove Confederate troops off of Morris Island in September.
Returning to Washington over the winter, Barton next accompanied the Army of the Potomac during the Overland Campaign (May 4–June 24, 1864). On June 23, 1864, the War Department placed her in charge of diet and nursing at a 10th Corps hospital near Point of Rocks, Virginia, during the Petersburg Campaign. She served in that capacity for the rest of the war.
Barton’s willingness to put her personal safety at risk to tend the wounded near the front won the trust of soldiers and field doctors alike. It also earned her the endearing informal title of “Angel of the Battlefield.”
Post-Civil War Life
Missing Soldiers Office
During the war, Barton received many letters of inquiry from friends and family members concerning the whereabouts of missing soldiers. As the fighting wound down, Barton began devoting her energy toward discovering the fate of those men. With the help of Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, Barton received President Lincoln’s blessing to found the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army (commonly known as Missing Soldiers Office) on March 11, 1865. Initially using her own financial resources, Barton established an office in Annapolis, Maryland, and undertook the monumental task of trying to locate the remains of soldiers who had been missing, sometimes for years. Eventually, she moved the office to Washington, where she could work more closely with the War Department.
During July and August 1865, Barton accompanied a U.S. Army expedition to the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp at Andersonville, Georgia, charged with identifying the graves of Union soldiers who had died there. Although Barton’s work there did not include cataloging burial sites, she served an important role by notifying the families of deceased soldiers who the army identified. In recognition of her service, the U.S. government accorded Barton the honor of raising the flag over Andersonville National Cemetery on August 17, 1865, during the dedication ceremony.
Barton’s work with the Missing Soldiers Office gradually exhausted her personal funds. In March 1866, Congress appropriated $15,000 to reimburse Barton so that the work could continue. By the time the office closed in 1869, Barton and her staff had answered over 63,000 letters from friends and family members, and they determined the fate of over 22,000 soldiers.
Lecturer and Civil Rights Supporter
To augment her financial resources while supervising the Missing Soldiers Office, Barton embarked on a nationwide speaking tour in 1866. During the next two years, she presented over 200 lectures recounting her experiences during the Civil War. Her travels enabled her to meet progressive luminaries of the time, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Mark Twain. These acquaintances led her to support crusades to expand civil rights for women and former slaves.
American Red Cross Co-founder
Barton’s extensive lecture schedule, combined with her work with the Missing Soldiers Office, left her physically and mentally fatigued. In September 1869, on the advice of her doctor, Barton embarked on a trip to Europe to regain her health. While in Switzerland, she met Dr. Louis Appia, one of the five founding members of the “International Committee for Relief to Wounded Soldiers” that later became the International Committee of the Red Cross. When the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870–May 10, 1871) erupted, Barton journeyed behind German lines to assist the organization’s relief efforts in Strasbourg, France. Later, while volunteering in Paris, Barton’s health again failed her, forcing her to travel to England to recuperate.
Still strained by mental fatigue, Barton returned to the United States in October 1873 and began campaigning for the creation of an American chapter of the International Organization of the Red Cross. Barton’s condition worsened the next spring when her sister, Sally Vassell, died. By 1876, Barton’s health had deteriorated so much that she entered Dr. Jackson’s Sanitarium in Dansville, New York. Gradually, Barton’s health returned, and she bought a private home in Dansville, choosing to remain close to her doctors.
Barton spent the next few years lecturing and writing pamphlets to solicit support for the creation of an American chapter of the International Red Cross. In addition, she began lobbying Congress and President Rutherford B. Hayes to adopt the Geneva Conventions of 1864 (the treaty that endorsed the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded”, which became the International Committee of the Red Cross). Hayes, who viewed the Geneva Conventions as an entangling alliance, rebuffed Barton’s entreaties.
Haye’s successor, President James A. Garfield, was more receptive. In 1881, his administration recommended the American adoption of the Geneva Conventions. Tragically, Charles Guiteau shot Garfield on July 2, 1881. The president died on September 19, before the Senate ratified the treaty.
Vice-president Chester A. Arthur, who succeeded Garfield, was also receptive to Barton’s campaign. On May 21, 1881, Barton convened a meeting of supporters at her residence. With Arthur’s blessing, the group adopted a constitution for the formation of the American Association of the Red Cross. On June 9, the organization elected Barton as its first president. The American Red Cross secured solid traction the following year when Arthur announced on March 1, 1882, that the U.S. would adhere to the Geneva Conventions. The Senate ratified his declaration on March 16.
Barton held the office of President of the American Red Cross for twenty-three years and she never received a salary for her leadership. Under her guidance, the organization was far more than a relief organization for wounded or captured soldiers. It also became the source of support for victims of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, forest fires, tornados, and hurricanes.
The organization’s inaugural relief effort came in the autumn of 1881 when forest fires swept through Michigan. In subsequent years, under Barton’s leadership, the Red Cross assisted victims of Mississippi River floods in 1882; an 1884 Ohio River flood; an 1884 typhoid epidemic in Dansville, New York; fires in Texas in 1885; an 1886 earthquake in Charleston, South Carolina; an 1887 Texas drought; an 1888 Mount Vernon, Illinois, tornado; an 1888 Jacksonville, Florida, yellow fever epidemic; the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood; the 1893–1894 South Carolina hurricane; the 1900 Galveston, Texas, hurricane and tidal wave; and the 1903 Butler, Pennsylvania, typhoid fever epidemic.
Besides domestic relief efforts, during Barton’s tenure, the American Red Cross provided financial aid for victims of the Balkan War in 1885 and provided food for famine sufferers in Russia in 1892 and in the Ottoman Empire in 1896.
On the day after the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, touching off the Spanish-American War (April 21–August 13, 1898), Barton was already helping wounded American sailors in a Havana hospital. Throughout the four-month-long conflict, Barton’s Red Cross coordinated relief efforts, supported hospitals, and established orphanages in Cuba. When the war ended, Barton was onboard the first ship to enter Havana Harbor transporting much-needed medical supplies.
In 1886, Barton returned to live in Washington. Five years later, she had a building constructed nearby in Glen Echo, Maryland, which served primarily as a warehouse for Red Cross supplies. In February 1897, the building became the national headquarters of the American Red Cross and Barton’s personal residence. The property served as Barton’s home for the rest of her life. In 1975, the National Park Service dedicated it as the Clara Barton Historic Site.
During later stages of Barton’s life, she authored several books including The Red Cross in Peace and War (1899), A Story of the Red Cross (1904), and The Story of My Childhood (1907).
By the early 1900s, the American Red Cross had matured into a large nonprofit association that was no longer a good fit with Barton’s independent, hands-on leadership style. Following several highly publicized disputes within the organization, Barton bowed to pressure from internal and external forces and resigned as president on May 14, 1904. The board of trustees accepted her resignation on June 16, 1904.
Following her departure from the Red Cross, Barton remained active in charity work. In 1905, she established the National First Aid Association of America. Her new organization focused on basic first aid instruction and emergency preparedness. Barton served as the honorary president of the association for the rest of her life.
Death and Burial
During the first few months of 1912, Barton struggled with a case of pneumonia. After appearing to rally in March, she slowly relapsed. On the morning of April 12, 1912, Barton cried out, “let me go—let me go,” and succumbed to the disease at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, at the age of ninety. Before her death, Barton dismissed support for her burial at Arlington National Cemetery. Instead, she chose her family’s plot in Oxford, Massachusetts, less than a mile from her birthplace, as her final resting place.