Clara Barton was a pioneering humanitarian who worked as a nurse during the American Civil War and helped to set up the American chapter of the Red Cross. Although she concentrated on humanitarian action rather than politics, she was a supporter of civil rights and female suffrage. Even well into her 80s, Barton remained active in giving practical help to those in distress, whatever their nationality or background. She also founded the American First Aid society.
Clara Barton was born on 25 December 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Her parents were members of the Unitarian Church had held relatively progressive, liberal views. Clara was taught at a local school and proved an excellent student, though she was personally very shy and struggled with social interaction. When she was ten years old, her brother suffered a nasty head injury after falling from a barn roof. Clara took great interest in nursing her brother and became responsible for looking after his medical treatment. Her brother made a full recovery, even though doctors had doubted he would. Throughout her childhood, she remained quite shy and found that offering assistance to her helping her extended family to be the most effective way of giving her a sense of satisfaction.
Despite her difficulties in social interaction, her parents encouraged her to become a teacher as they felt this would help her gain more confidence. In 1838, at the age of 17, Clara gained her teaching certificate and found that the job of teaching was very rewarding. Inspired by her job, she campaigned to enable education for the children of poor workers. She also demanded equal pay for female teachers at a time of pay disparity.
Barton taught at various schools in Canada and West Georgia for 12 years and she gained a good reputation for her professionalism and ability to mould young children. In 1852, she helped to found a ‘free school’ in Bordentown, the first of its kind in New Jersey. The local city raised money to finance the school, but after a short time, Barton was replaced as principal as the local school governors felt the head teacher should be a man. Her demotion and working in a difficult environment left her physically and emotionally drained and she quit the school to move to Washington D.C.
In 1855, she worked as a clerk in the US Patent Office – it was the first time a woman held such a position and she received the same salary as men. However, the employment of a woman led to criticism from other workers who felt women shouldn’t be allowed to have such a position. As a supporter of civil rights and opposing slavery, under the presidency of James Buchanan in 1856, she was fired from her position because of her ‘black Republicanism.’ She returned to friends and family in Massachusetts.
Service in the Civil War
In 1860, the US elected Abraham Lincoln as President of the US. America as Lincoln opposed the spread of slavery it instigated southern slave states to secede from the union, sparking civil war. On 19 April 1861 riots in Baltimore broke out between supporters of the south and supporters of the union. Federal soldiers from a Massachusetts regiment were sent to quell the violent protests. It led to the first casualties of the civil war. Barton was in Washington D.C. when the casualties returned by railroad. She visited the returning troops and became aware of the lack of care given to the wounded soldiers. She volunteered to look after the injured troops providing medical care and food. With other volunteers, she looked after troops in the unfinished capitol building. As the soldiers were from Massachusetts, she recognised many of them and referred to them as “her boys.” As well as providing material needs of the soldiers, Barton felt it important to keep up the spirits of injured soldiers, and she would read letters and listen to their personal difficulties.
In the autumn of 1861, she briefly gained a new position at the US patents office, but as the war progressed, she wished to spend more time in providing care and medical supplies. In 1862, she overcame stiff opposition from the military establishment, and her band of volunteers were allowed to work on the front lines, distributing bandages and medical aid. She recalls her efforts to overcome traditional ways of working.
“I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past.” – Clara Barton
Her efforts were largely self-financed, Barton placed ads in newspapers for encouraging supplies to be donated. Throughout the civil war, Barton often arrived on the front lines at critical times. Following the Battle of Cedar Mountain in August 1862, she arrived with a wagon load of supplies just as casualties were being brought back from the battlefield. The lead surgeon, who was overwhelmed with casualties, later remarked on her propitious arrival.
“I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a[n] . . . angel, she must be one—her assistance was so timely.”
Throughout the civil war, she sought to travel to areas of intense battle and she was present at or near the front lines at civil war battles such as Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Charleston, Petersburg and Cold Harbor. She treated both Union and Confederate soldiers and was willing to put at risk her own personal safety to administer wounded soldiers amid the battlefield. She wrote:
“I always tried . . . to succor the wounded until medical aid and supplies could come up — I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.” – Clara Barton
In 1864, she was appointed the “Lady in Charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James. Working so close to the front lines was not without risk. On one occasion a stray bullet narrowly missed her body – going through her sleeve and killing a soldier she was tending to. A life-long opponent of slavery, during the civil war, she also joined Frances Gage in helping to prepare slaves for their lives in freedom
After the civil war, she became aware of how many relatives were seeking information about their sons who were missing in action, but without any formal notification of their fate. With the permission of President Lincoln, she began the Office of Missing Soldiers, which worked from Washington D.C. to try and identify and bury unidentified soldiers. For the next four years, her team answered over 63,000 letters and helped to bury 20,000 more union soldiers.
“You must never so much think as whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.”
During this time, she also became a well known public figure after embarking on a public lecture tour of the country. She spoke of her war experiences and became more interested in issues of civil rights, she became acquainted and friendly with leading civil rights figures such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.
Foundation of the American Red Cross
With her work on missing soldiers largely completed, she travelled in 1869 to Geneva in Switzerland. She was invited to the Red Cross Foundation which inspired her with its humanitarian ideals and practical help protect the sick and wounded during wartime. The philosophy of the Red Cross was based on Henry Dunant’s ideals laid out in A Memory of Solferino, which encouraged the formation of neutral national Red Cross Societies to provide voluntary relief to all affected by war and natural disaster. Dunant’s ideas for fair treatment of combatants in war led to the Geneva convention of 1864.
In 1870, she was still in Europe at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. At the request of German authorities, she volunteered to work with the Red Cross to provide aid during the war. With a close working relationship with Princess Louise of Prussia, she served in Strasbourg and at the siege of Paris in 1871 – distributing food and supplies to the destitute.
On her return to the US, she tried to find financial and official backing for her International Committee of the Red Cross. In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes rejected her request for formal recognition. Hayes argued that Americans would never allow a repeat of the horrors of the civil war, and was reluctant to become involved in an ‘entangling alliance’. However, she persisted and after Chester Arthur’s election, he agreed on the basis the American Red Cross could also respond to natural disasters.
“It [The Red Cross] may appear singular that a movement so humane in its purposes, so wise and well considered in its regulations, so universal in its application, and every way so unexceptional, should have been so long in finding its way to the knowledge and consideration of the people of the United States.” Message to Congress December 6, 1898.
Barton became the first president of the American Red Cross on 21 May 1881. The first action of the American Red Cross was responding to victims of a forest fire in Michigan in 1881.
The Red Cross soon established itself as an important organisation for responding to natural disasters. Including the 1884 Ohio floods, the Texas famine of 1887 and the Johnstown flood of 1889. Her efforts were largely appreciated, though she also faced criticism for the way she organised efforts.
“The paths of charity are over roadways of ashes; and he who would tread them must be prepared to meet opposition, misconstruction, jealousy and calumny. Let his work be that of angels, still it will not satisfy all.”
Barton, Clara, Message to Congress December 6, 1898.
The biggest test for the Red Cross was the Spanish-American war of 1898. Barton led relief efforts for the refugees and civilians caught up in the crossfire.
Despite her advancing age, Barton did not slow down but was personally involved in relief attempts – even in challenging conditions. She also continued to travel, working in Turkey and Cuba – even into her early 80s. In 1884, Barton and the American Red Cross proposed an amendment to the Geneva Treaty, which called for an expansion of Red Cross relief to victims of natural disasters. (and not just war) This was accepted.
In 1904, at the age of 83, she was forced to resign as President. A new generation of Red Cross officials wished to promote a more scientific approach, based on the ideas of the Progressive Age. Barton was also criticised for her leadership style, which made her unwilling listen to advice. Her critics felt she was stuck in an old fashioned humanitarian idealism. After resigning as President, she spent five years as honourary president of the National First Aid Society of America. The society encouraged the ownership of first aid kits and basic levels of understanding how to administer first aid. After her death, the promotion of first aid became widely accepted as a social necessity.
She spent her remaining years in Glen Echo, Maryland. She wrote an autobiography in 1907 – The Story of My Childhood.
Barton often suffered from periods of depression and anxiety, but throwing herself into the service of others, nearly always overcame her personal difficulties as she felt fulfilled in the service of others. She was a leading pioneer for female leadership at a time when very women were in positions of responsibility and power. Her strong-willed character and independent spirit sometimes created conflict, but her strength of character also led to support from a wide range of society. To Barton, service to others was the most important aspect of her life.
“I have never worked for fame or praise, and shall not feel their loss as I otherwise would. I have never for a moment lost sight of the humble life I was born to, its small environments, and the consequently little right I had to expect much of myself, and shall have the less to censure, or upbraid myself with for the failures I must see myself make.”
Barton never married or had children. During the war, she had a romantic relationship with Colonel John J. Elwell.
Barton identified with her parents, Universalist Church of America. She was not a regular church goer but believed in the basic principles of the church. The Universalist church was a liberal Christian denomination which emphasised individual faith, a ‘religion of the heart’ and importantly believed that all souls were destined to be saved by God. This contrasted with other Christian denominations who believed that salvation was limited to Christians only. Barton’s religion was in serving the humanitarian needs of all people, whatever their faith or nationality. After a miraculous escape from the 1884 floods of Ohio, Barton remarked on her escape:
“I have no way of accounting for this incident, but the reader will perhaps not be “too hard” on me, if I say with the father of “Little Breeches,” “I have believed in God and the angels ever since one night last spring.” Gutenberg
On 12 April 1912, she died from pneumonia aged 90.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Clara Barton”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net, Published 4 September 2019. Last updated 3 November 2019.
Clara Barton – Courage under fire – at Amazon
Clara Barton – The story of my childhood – Letters from Crimea at Amazon
Famous Humanitarians – Famous people who have offered charitable service to others, including Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale and Princess Diana.
Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businessmen. Featuring Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Madonna, Oprah Winfrey.
People of The American Civil War (1861-65) A list of over 20 famous and influential figures in the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) Includes politicians, generals, soldiers, spies and social activists. Including; Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.
Famous Nurses – Other famous nurses including Dorothy Dix, Florence Nightingale, Walt Whitman and Edith Cavell.