Barton was born in Massachusetts and worked briefly as a schoolteacher. She became a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in 1854, but lost the job when the Democrats won the presidency in 1856.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, Barton saw the need for an efficient organization to distribute food and medical supplies to the troops. The network, Barton believed, had to be disentangled from the bureaucracy of the War Department and the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Her work of soliciting and distributing supplies and nursing the wounded was grueling and endless. She once complained to a friend, ‘I cannot tell you how many times I have moved with my whole family [the Army] of a thousand or fifteen hundred and with a half hour’s notice in the night.’ Her efforts, however, were much appreciated at battle sites, especially Antietam and Fredericksburg. At war’s end she set up an office to sort out the difficult business of locating and identifying prisoners, missing men, and the dead buried in unmarked graves. But the strain of her work took its toll, and she was ordered to Europe by her doctor for a rest cure in 1869.
While abroad Barton came into contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross. She participated in relief efforts during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871, but was forced into temporary retirement by ill health in 1872. After recovering, she campaigned to establish an American branch of the Red Cross, despite government resistance arising from fears of foreign entanglements. The U.S. Senate, after years of lobbying, finally ratified the Geneva Convention in 1882, forming the American Association of the Red Cross. Barton became its president. Her subsequent domestic program was impressive. The Red Cross provided relief at the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood in 1889 and after hurricanes in the Sea Islands off the southeastern coast in 1893. The organization also marshaled support for international campaigns, sending supplies to Russia during a famine in 1892 and to Armenia in 1896.
Barton, at the age of seventy-seven, distinguished herself again, this time in Cuba during the Spanish-American conflict. But her presence on the battlefield called her methods into question and widened a rift between the national Red Cross and its local chapters. Barton was unwilling to delegate responsibility and her inability to do so was a drawback sustained within the ranks of the Red Cross. Her inflexibility forced her to resign in 1904 from the organization she had founded and built. Barton nevertheless remained active and involved in relief work until her death at the age of ninety-one. Her energy and commitment to humanitarian causes over a forty-year period has made her a household name, a symbol of charitable self-sacrifice.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.