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Clara Barton

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Clara Barton

Clara Barton
Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton
(1821-12-25)December 25, 1821
North Oxford, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died April 12, 1912(1912-04-12) (aged 90)
Glen Echo, Maryland, U.S.
Resting place
North Cemetery, Oxford Massachusetts
Nationality American
Occupation Nurse, humanitarian, founder and first president of the American Red Cross

Clarissa Harlowe "Clara" Barton (December 25, 1821 – April 12, 1912) was a pioneer nurse who founded the American Red Cross. In addition to being a hospital nurse, she worked as a teacher, patent clerk, and humanitarian. At a time when relatively few women worked outside the home, Barton built a career helping others. She was never married, as she knew the restrictions of a married woman at the time, but had a relationship with John J. Elwell. She was prominent as a nurse in the American Civil War.


  • Early life 1
  • Early professional life 2
  • American Civil War 3
  • American Red Cross 4
  • Final years 5
  • Religious beliefs 6
  • Clara Barton National Historic Site 7
  • Fictional depictions 8
  • Places named for Clara Barton 9
  • Published works 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes 12
  • Further reading 13
  • Historiography 14
  • External links 15

Early life

Barton's father was Captain Stephen Barton, a member of the local militia and a selectman. Barton's mother was Sarah Stone Barton, a homemaker.

When three years old, Clara was sent to school with her brother Stephen where she excelled in reading and spelling. At school, she became close friends with Nancy Fitts; this is the only known friend Clara Barton had as a child due to her extreme timidness.[1] Her parents tried to help cure her of this shyness by sending her to Col. Stones High School, but their strategy turned out to be a disaster.[2] Clara became more timid and depressed and would not eat. She was immediately removed from the school and brought back home to regain her health.

Upon her return, her family relocated to help a family member, as the nephew of Captain Stephen Barton had died and left his wife with four children and a farm. The house that the Barton family was to live in needed to be painted and repaired.[1] Clara was persistent in offering her assistance, for which the painter was very grateful. After the work was done, Clara felt at a loss because she had nothing else to do to help and not feel like a burden to her family.[2] She began to play with her male cousins, and to their surprise, she was good at keeping up with such tasks as horseback riding. It was not until after she had injured herself that Clara's mother began to question her playing with the boys. Clara's mother wanted her to become acquainted with her feminine side. She invited one of Clara's female cousins over to help develop her femininity. Upon learning from her cousin, she gained proper social skills as well.[3]

She was just ten when she assigned herself the task of nursing her brother David back to health after he fell from the roof of a barn and received a severe injury.[1] She learned how to distribute the prescribed medication to her brother, as well as how to place leeches on his body to bleed him. (This was a regular treatment during this time.) She continued to care for David long after doctors had given up. Her brother made a full recovery.[1]

Early professional life

Clara Barton became an educator in 1838 for 12 years in schools in Canada and West Georgia. Barton fared well as a teacher and knew how to handle rambunctious children, particularly the boys, since as a child she enjoyed her male cousins’ and brothers’ company. She learned how to act like them, making it easier for her to relate to and control the boys in her classroom since they respected her.[2] In 1850, Barton decided to further her education by pursuing writing and languages at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York. Following these studies, Barton opened a free school in Bordentown, New Jersey,[4] the first free school to be opened in the state. The attendance under her leadership grew to 603, but instead of hiring Barton to head the school, the board hired a man. Frustrated, in 1855 she moved to Washington D.C. and began work as a clerk in the US Patent Office;[5] this was the first time a woman had received a substantial clerkship in the federal government and at a salary equal to a man's salary. Subsequently, under political opposition to women working in government offices, her position was reduced to that of copyist, and in 1856, under the administration of James Buchanan, eliminated entirely.[6] After the election of Abraham Lincoln, having lived with relatives and friends in Massachusetts for three years, she returned to the patent office in the autumn of 1861, now as temporary copyist, in the hope she could make way for more women in government service. She was probably the first woman to hold a government job in the US.[5]

American Civil War

Clara Barton circa 1866.

Before her father died, Clara Barton was able to talk to him about the war effort. Her father convinced her that it was her duty as a Christian to help the soldiers. In the April following his death, Barton returned to Washington to gather medical supplies. Ladies' Aid societies helped in sending bandages, food, and clothing that would later be distributed during the Civil War. In the August of 1862, Barton finally gained permission from Quartermaster Daniel Rucker to work on the front lines. She gained support from other people who believed in her cause. These people became her patrons, her most supportive being Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.[7]

She worked to distribute stores, clean field hospitals, apply dressings, and serve food to wounded soldiers in close proximity to several battles, including Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.[8]

In 1863 she began a romantic relationship with a married officer, Colonel John J. Elwell.[9]

In 1864 she was appointed by Union General Benjamin Butler as the "lady in charge" of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James. Among her more harrowing experiences was an incident in which a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress without striking her and killed a man to whom she was tending. She is known as the "Angel of the Battlefield."[10]

American Red Cross

After the war, she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers, at 437 Seventh Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. in the Gallery Place neighborhood.[11] The office's purpose was to find or identify soldiers killed or missing in action.[12]

Barton then achieved widespread recognition by delivering lectures around the country, which lasted well over a year, about her war experiences. After her country wide tour she was both mentally and physically exhausted and under doctor's orders to go somewhere that would take her far from her current work; so she packed up and went on a retreat to Europe for some R&R. She met Susan B. Anthony and began a long association with the woman's suffrage movement. She also became acquainted with Frederick Douglass and became an activist for civil rights.

Detail of Clara Barton monument at Antietam National Battlefield, with red cross formed of a brick from the home where she was born.

In 1869, during her trip to Geneva, Switzerland, Barton was introduced to the Red Cross and Dr. Appia; who later would invite her to be the representative for the American branch of the Red Cross and even help her find financial beneficiaries for the start of the American Red Cross. She was also introduced to Henry Dunant's book A Memory of Solferino, which called for the formation of national societies to provide relief voluntarily on a neutral basis.

At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, she assisted the Grand Duchess of Baden in the preparation of military hospitals, and gave the Red Cross society much aid during the war. At the joint request of the German authorities and the Strasbourg Comité de Secours, she superintended the supplying of work to the poor of Strasbourg in 1871, after the Siege of Paris, and in 1871 had charge of the public distribution of supplies to the destitute people of Paris. At the close of the war, she received honorable decorations of the Golden Cross of Baden and the Prussian Iron Cross.[13]

When Barton returned to the United States, she inaugurated a movement to gain recognition for the International Committee of the Red Cross by the United States government.[14] In 1873, she began work on this project. In 1878, she met with President Rutherford B. Hayes, who expressed the opinion of most Americans at that time which was the U.S. would never again face a calamity like the Civil War. Barton finally succeeded during the administration of President Chester Arthur, using the argument that the new American Red Cross could respond to crises other than war such as earthquakes, forest fires, and hurricanes.

Barton became President of the American branch of the society, which held its first official meeting at her I Street apartment in Washington, DC, May 21, 1881. The first local society was founded August 22, 1882 in Dansville, Livingston County, New York, where she maintained a country home.[15][16]

Clara Barton was honored with a U.S. commemorative stamp, issued in 1948

The society's role changed with the advent of the Spanish-American War during which it aided refugees and prisoners of the civil war. Domestically in 1884 she helped in the floods on the Ohio river, provided Texas with food and supplies during the famine of 1887 and took workers to Illinois in 1888 after a tornado and that same year to Florida for the yellow fever epidemic.[17] Within days after the Johnstown Flood in 1889, she led her delegation of 50 doctors and nurses in response.[18] In 1897, responding to the humanitarian crisis in the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the Hamidian Massacres, Barton sailed to Constantinople and after long negotiations with Abdul Hamid II, opened the first American International Red Cross headquarters in the heart of Turkey. Barton herself traveled along with five other Red Cross expeditions to the Armenian provinces in the spring of 1896, providing relief and humanitarian aid. Barton also worked in hospitals in Cuba in 1898 at the age of seventy-seven.[19] Barton's last field operation as President of the American Red Cross was helping victims of the Galveston hurricane in 1900. The operation established an orphanage for children.

As criticism arose of her careless management of the American Red Cross, plus her advancing age, Barton had to resign as president in 1904, at the age of 83. She had been forced out of office by a new generation of all-male scientific-experts who reflected the realistic efficiency of the Progressive Era rather than her idealistic humanitarianism.[20] After resigning, Barton founded the National First Aid Society.

Final years

She retired to Glen Echo, Maryland. Barton published her autobiography in 1907, titled The Story of My Childhood.[10] On April 12, 1912 at the age of 90 she died in Glen Echo. The cause of death was tuberculosis, which she had contracted two years earlier and with which she had been bedridden for a month.

Religious beliefs

Although not formally a member of the Universalist Church of America,[21] in a 1905 letter to the widow of Carl Norman Thrasher, she identified herself with her parents' church as a "Universalist”.[22] While she was not an active member of her parents' church, Clara wrote about how well known her family was in her hometown and how many relationships her father formed with others in their town through their church and religion.[2]

Clara Barton National Historic Site


In 1975, the The North Oxford, Massachusetts, house in which she was born is now also a museum.

The National Park Service has restored eleven rooms, including the Red Cross offices, the parlors and Barton's bedroom. Visitors to Clara Barton National Historic Site can gain a sense of how Barton lived and worked. Guides lead tourists through the three levels, emphasizing Barton's use of her unusual home. Modern visitors can come to appreciate the site in the same way visitors did in Clara Barton's lifetime.[23]

Fictional depictions

  • Numbering All the Bones by Ann Rinaldi features Clara Barton and Andersonville Prison, a Civil War prison with terrible conditions.
  • Angel of Mercy (MGM, 1939) is a biographical short film directed by Edward L. Cahn, starring Sara Haden as Clara Barton and Ann Rutherford as a woman whose brother's death in a Civil War battle inspires her to join Barton in her work.[24]

Places named for Clara Barton

Clara Barton – steel engraving by John Sartain

Published works

  • Barton, Clara H. The Red Cross-In Peace and War. Washington, D.C.: American Historical Press, 1898. OCLC 1187508.
  • Barton, Clara H. Story of the Red Cross-Glimpses of Field Work. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904. OCLC 5807882.
  • Barton, Clara H. The Story of My Childhood. New York: Baker & Taylor Company, 1907. Reprinted by Arno Press in 1980. OCLC 6015444.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Barton, Clara. The Story of My Childhood New York: Arno Press Inc, (1980)
  2. ^ a b c d Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton: Professional Angel Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, (1987)
  3. ^ Pryor, Elizabeth Brown (1988). Clara Barton : professional angel (1st pbk. print. ed.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.  
  4. ^ "Clara Barton Biography". 
  5. ^ a b Clara Barton, Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography
  6. ^ Clara Barton,
  7. ^  
  8. ^  
  9. ^  
  10. ^ a b "The Story of My Childhood".  
  11. ^ Clara Barton.
  12. ^ "Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office". National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Retrieved 30 June 2014. 
  13. ^  
  14. ^ Epler, Percy Harold (1915). The Life of Clara Barton. Macmillan. Retrieved 2010-09-28. 
  15. ^ Marks, Mary Jo. "History - Founder Clara Barton". American Red Cross. Retrieved 2014-05-21. 
  16. ^  
  17. ^  
  18. ^  
  19. ^ Christine Ardalan, "Clara Barton’s 1898 battles in Cuba: a reexamination of her nursing contributions." Florida Atlantic Comparative Studies Journal 12.1 (2010).
  20. ^ David Henry Burton, Clara Barton: in the service of humanity (Greenwood, 1995)
  21. ^ Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America 1386 "Although not formally a Universalist by church membership, she had come of a Universalist family, was sympathetic to the tenets of the denomination, and has always been claimed by it.124 Known as "the Florence Nightingale of our war",
  22. ^ "Positive Atheism website". Retrieved 2007-05-25.  Source taken from The Universalist Leader 120/49 1938.
    My dear friend and sister: Your belief that I am a Universalist is as correct as your greater belief that you are one yourself, a belief in which all who are privileged to possess it rejoice. In my case, it was a great gift, like St. Paul, I 'was born free', and saved the pain of reaching it through years of struggle and doubt. My father was a leader in the building of the church in which Hosea Ballow preached his first dedication sermon. Your historic records will show that the old Huguenot town of Oxford, Mass. erected one of, if not the first Universalist Church in America. In this town I was born; in this church I was reared. In all its reconstructions and remodelings I have taken a part, and I look anxiously for a time in the near future when the busy world will let me once more become a living part of its people, praising God for the advance in the liberal faith of the religions of the world today, so largely due to the teachings of this belief. Give, I pray you, dear sister, my warmest congratulations to the members of your society. My best wishes for the success of your annual meeting, and accept my thanks most sincerely for having written me. Fraternally yours, (Signed) Clara Barton.
  23. ^ "Clara Barton NHS – The House". National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-05-25. 
  24. ^ Angel of Mercy at the Internet Movie Database
  25. ^ "Clara Barton School No. 2 / Overview". 
  26. ^ michael. "Bartons Crossing Emergency (BCAC)". 

Further reading

  • Ardalan, Christine. "Clara Barton’s 1898 battles in Cuba: a reexamination of her nursing contributions." Florida Atlantic Comparative Studies Journal 12.1 (2010). online
  • Barton, William E. The Life of Clara Barton Founder of the American Red Cross. (1922) OCLC 164624867. a flattering old account by a relative
  • Burton, David Henry. Clara Barton: in the service of humanity (Greenwood, 1995); Major scholarly study online
  • Crompton, Samuel Etinde. Clara Barton: Humanitarian. New York: Chelsea House, 2009. ISBN 9781604134926. OCLC 290489234.
  • Deady, Kathleen W. Clara Barton. Mankato: Capstone Press, 2003. ISBN 0-736-81604-6. OCLC 50022907.
  • Dulles Foster R. The American Red Cross: A History (1950)
  • Henle, Ellen Langenheim. "Clara Barton, Soldier or Pacifist?." Civil War History 24.2 (1978): 152-160. online
  • Hutchinson, John F. Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross. Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1996. ISBN 0-813-32526-9 OCLC 33948775.
  • Jones, Marian Moser. The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013. ISBN 9781421407388 OCLC 786245443
  • Joyce, James Avery. Red Cross International and the Strategy of Peace. New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1959. OCLC 263367.
  • Oates, Stephen B. A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1994. ISBN 0029234050 OCLC 29259364
  • Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. ISBN 0-812-28060-1 OCLC 15792319.
  • Ross, Ishbel. Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1956. OCLC 420062.
  • Safranski, Debby Burnett. Angel of Andersonville, Prince of Tahiti: The Extraordinary Life of Dorence Atwater. Alling-Porterfield Publishing House, 2008. ISBN 0-974-97671-7 OCLC 613558868


  • Amico, Eleanor B., ed. Reader's Guide to Women's Studies ( Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998) pp56-57

External links

  • Clara Barton National Historic Site
  • Clara Barton Birthplace Museum
  • The Barton Center For Diabetes Education, Inc.
  • Clara Barton Passport Application – 1869 (Original document image)
  • Clara Barton, A Register of Her Papers in the Library of Congress
  • Clara Barton Papers, Sophia Smith Collection
  • The personal papers of Clara Barton are in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Clara Barton at Find a Grave
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