Clarissa Harlowe Barton (better known as Clara Barton) (December 25, 1821 (although there is a confusion with her date of birth, as her birth certificate says the 25th, while her family members say that she was born the day before Christmas, the 24th)–April 12, 1912) was a pioneer American teacher, nurse, and humanitarian. She has been described as having had an “indomitable spirit” and is best remembered for organizing the American Red Cross.
Youth, education, family nursing
Barton was born to Captain Stephen and Sarah Barton in Oxford, Massachusetts. Her father was a farmer and horse breeder while her mother managed the household. The two later helped found the first Universalist Church in Oxford. She was the youngest of five siblings. All her brothers and sisters were all at least 10 years older. Young Clara was home-educated and extremely bright. It is said that her older brothers and sisters were kept busy answering her many questions, and each sibling taught her complementary skills, her older sisters being teachers and her brothers happy to teach her how to ride horses and do other things thought of being only appropriate for men.
Clara Barton also spent four years at the Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York. As a child, she was a shy and retiring little girl. At the age of 11, when her brother became ill, for 2 years Clara stayed by his side and learned to administer all his medicine, including the “great, loathsome crawling leeches.” This was an early indication of what would become Clara’s lifework.
Teaching, organizing, learning bureaucracy, a mission
Clara became a teacher at age 17, a post that she was to hold for the next 18 years. For ten years, Clara taught in a small Massachusetts town, where her brother owned a factory. After she was invited to teach in a private school in Bordentown, New Jersey, Barton recognized the community’s need for free education, and despite opposition,she set up one of the first free public schools in the state, which is now Barton High school in New Jersey.
In 1854 she suffered from a serious nervous breakdown probably brought on by overwork. She took a break from teaching (which would be called a sabbatical in modern times) and attended the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, where she studied analytic geometry, calculus, astronomy, mathematics and natural science in addition to French, German, ancient history, philosophy and religion. Afterward, she was appointed to a job as a clerk in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. here she learned the ins and outs of the federal bureaucracy.
When her father was dying, they had a conversation that she later said changed her life. He gave Clara a command that she would always recall: “As a patriot he bade me serve my country with all I had, even with my life if need be; as the daughter of an accepted Mason, he bade me seek and comfort the afflicted everywhere, and as a Christian he charged me to honor God and love mankind.”
American Civil War
When the American Civil War began, Barton resigned her position in the Patent Office to devote herself to the care of wounded soldiers on the field of battle. With the outbreak of war and the cascade of wounded Union soldiers into Washington, Miss Barton quickly recognized the unpreparedness of the Army Medical Department. In April 1861, after the First Battle of Bull Run, she established an agency to obtain and distribute supplies to wounded soldiers. For nearly a year, she lobbied the U.S. Army bureaucracy in vain to bring her own medical supplies to the battlefields. Finally, in July 1862, she obtained permission to travel behind the lines, eventually reaching some of the grimmest battlefields of the war and serving during the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond. Barton delivered aid to soldiers of both the North and South. In 1864 she was appointed by Union General Benjamin Butler “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln placed her in charge of the search for the missing men of the Union army, and while engaged in this work she traced the fate of 30,000 men. As the War ended, she was sent to Andersonville, Georgia, to identify and mark the graves of Union soldiers buried there. This experience launched her on a nationwide campaign to identify soldiers missing during the Civil War. She published lists of names in newspapers and exchanged letters with veterans and soldiers’ families. She also delivered lectures on her war experiences, which were well received. She met Susan B. Anthony and began a long association with the suffrage movement. She also became acquainted with Frederick Douglass and became an activist for black civil rights.
Barton sees the International Red Cross in action
The search for missing soldiers and years of toil during the Civil War physically debilitated Miss Barton. In 1869, her doctors recommended a restful trip to Europe. In 1870, while she was overseas (on “vacation”), she became involved with the International Red Cross and its humanitarian work during the war between France and Prussia. Created in 1864, the International Red Cross had been chartered to provide humane services to all victims during wartime under a flag of neutrality.
Organizing the American Red Cross
When she returned to the United States, she inaugurated a movement to secure recognition of the International Red Cross society by the United States government. When she began this organizing work in 1873, no one thought the U.S. would ever again face an experience like the Civil War, but she finally succeeded during the administration of President James Garfield on the basis that the new American Red Cross organization could also be available to respond to other types of crisis. As Barton expanded the original concept of the Red Cross to include assisting in any great national disaster, this service brought the United States the “Good Samaritan of Nations” label. Barton naturally became President of the American branch of the society, which was founded on May 21, 1881. John D. Rockefeller gave money to create a national headquarters in Washington, DC, located one block from the White House.
Various authorities call her a “Deist-Unitarian.” However, her actual beliefs varied throughout her life across a spectrum between freethought and deism. In a 1905 letter to her friend, Norman Thrasher, she called herself a “Universalist.”
Later life, heritage
Clara Barton continued to do relief work in the in the battle field as an aid until she was well into her 70s. She went to Cuba with a cargo of supplies in 1898 and spent six weeks on the scene of the Galveston, Texas floods, at age 79. She resigned from the American Red Cross in 1904 at the age of 83 and spent her remaining years in Glen Echo, Maryland. She died in 1912 at age 90, and is buried less than a mile from her birthplace in a family plot in Oxford, Massachusetts.
One published source sums her life up this way: “Clara Barton was one of America’s greatest heroines — a true patriot and philanthropist who, when she saw a practical need, gave every ounce of her strength to address it. ”
The American Red Cross she founded is one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the entire world. Clara was the most decorated American woman, receiving the Iron Cross, the Cross of Imperial Russia, and the International Red Cross Medal. Her final act was founding the National First Aid Society in 1904. In 1942, a United States Liberty ship named the SS Clara Barton was launched. She was scrapped in 1970.
Clara Barton’s Birthplace House and Museum
Clara Barton’s Birthplace in North Oxford, Massachusetts is operated as a house museum as part of The Barton Center for Diabetes Education, Inc., a humanitarian project established in Clara Barton’s honor to educate and support children with diabetes and their families.
Clara Barton National Historic Site
In 1975, Clara Barton National Historic Site was established as a unit of the National Park Service at her Glen Echo, Maryland home. The first National Historic Site dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman, it preserves the early history of the American Red Cross and the last home of its founder. Clara Barton spent the last 15 years of her life in her Glen Echo home, and it served as an early headquarters of the American Red Cross as well.
The National Park Service has restored eleven rooms, including the Red Cross offices, parlors and Miss Barton’s bedroom. Visitors to Clara Barton National Historic Site can gain a sense of how Miss Barton lived and worked surrounded by all that went into her life’s work. Visitors to the site are led through the three levels on a guided tour emphasizing Miss Barton’s use of her unusual home, and come to appreciate the site in the same way visitors did in Clara Barton’s lifetime.