Clara Barton is one of the most-recognized heroes of the American Civil War. She began her illustrious career as an educator but found her true calling tending wounded soldiers on and off bloody Civil War battlefields. When the war ended, Barton worked to identify missing and deceased soldiers, and eventually founded the American Red Cross. Her life was dedicated to the care of others, and Barton had a crucial and long-lasting impact on caregiving and disaster relief in America and throughout the world.
Early Life of Clara Barton
She was born Clarissa Harlowe Barton on December 25, 1821 in Oxford, Massachusetts, into an abolitionist family. It’s reported her love of nursing started when her oldest brother experienced a serious head injury and she nursed him diligently for two years.
After receiving a formal education, Barton became a teacher at the age of 17. Twelve years later, she founded and was headmaster of a free school in New Jersey where 600 students were eventually enrolled. She left the school after the school board voted to replace her as headmaster with a man.
Barton then moved to Washington, D.C., and became a clerk for the U.S. Patent Office, earning pay equal to her male counterparts. “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay,” Barton said later.
Civil War Service Begins
Barton was working for the Patent Office when the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861. A week later, soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry were attacked by southern sympathizers, and the wounded flooded the streets of Washington, D.C.
A makeshift hospital was created in the uncompleted Capitol Building. Though often described as shy, Barton felt an urgency to care for the injured and brought them food, clothing and other necessities.
As the need for care and medical provisions grew, Barton gathered provisions from her home and spearheaded a campaign to solicit additional relief items from friends and the public.
More importantly, she spent hours with the homesick, suffering soldiers, nursing them back to health, writing letters and offering kind words, prayers and comfort. With no formal training, her nursing expertise came from common sense, courage and compassion.
‘Angel of the Battlefield’
After witnessing the sad state of battle-weary soldiers in Washington, D.C., Barton realized the greatest need for care and supplies was in the makeshift field hospitals near the front lines. In 1862, she received permission to take bandages and other supplies to a battlefield hospital after the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Northern Virginia. From then on, she traveled with the Union Army.
On September 17, 1862, Barton arrived at the now-infamous Antietam cornfield during the Battle of Antietam. After dropping off her wagon load of medical supplies to grateful surgeons struggling to make bandages out of corn husks, she worked long into the night assisting the surgeons, cooking food for the soldiers and tending the wounded, despite nearby cannon fire and bullets flying overhead.
One unlucky soldier was shot and killed as Barton tended him. Said Barton later, “A ball has passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?”
Barton made a profound impression on Union army surgeons at Antietam. One surgeon, Dr. James Dunn, said of Barton, “In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”
Barton continued to assist the Union Army at Petersburg, Virginia, and Fredericksburg and Fort Wagoner, South Carolina, among other places. But even her best efforts couldn’t conquer the disease and infection so rampant in warfare.
In Charleston, South Carolina, she became seriously ill and was transported to Hilton Head Island, then to Washington, D.C., to recuperate. She solicited more supplies and, once recovered, went back to the battlefield.
Organizing an Unprecedented Letter Campaign
Whenever possible, Barton recorded the personal information of the soldiers she cared for. As the war progressed, she was often called upon to correspond with family members of missing, wounded or dead soldiers. After returning to Washington, D.C., in January 1865 after the death of her brother, she continued her letter-writing campaign from her home.
Barton’s efforts didn’t go unnoticed, and President Abraham Lincoln selected her as General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. Her job was to find missing soldiers and, if possible, inform their families of their fate.
It was a daunting yet important job which she couldn’t do alone. She formed the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States and – along with twelve clerks – researched the status of tens of thousands of soldiers and answered over 63,000 letters.
By the time Barton left her post and presented her final report to Congress in 1869, she and her assistants had identified 22,000 missing soldiers, but she believed at least 40,000 were still unaccounted for.
Founding the American Red Cross
In 1869, Barton traveled to Europe for rest and learned about the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, which had established an international agreement known as the Geneva Treaty (now part of the Geneva Convention), which laid out rules for the care of the sick and wounded in wartime.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Barton – never one to sit on the sidelines – wore a red cross made of red ribbon and helped deliver supplies to needy war-zone citizens.
After Barton returned to the United States, she solicited political support for America to enter the Geneva Treaty. President Chester A. Arthur finally signed the treaty in 1882 and the American Association of the Red Cross (later called the American Red Cross) was born, with Barton at its helm.
Leading the American Red Cross
As head of the American Red Cross, Barton focused mainly on disaster relief, including helping victims of the deadly Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, and devastating hurricanes and tidal waves in South Carolina and Galveston, Texas. She also sent relief supplies overseas to victims of war and famine.
Barton played an integral role in the passing of the “American Amendment” to the Geneva Treaty in 1884 which expanded the role of the International Red Cross to include assisting victims of natural disasters.
But everything wasn’t rosy in Barton’s Red Cross. She was reportedly an independent workaholic who fiercely protected her vision of what the Red Cross should be. She also suffered from depression, although nothing rallied her more than an urgent call for help. Her authoritarian leadership approach and supposed mismanagement of funds eventually forced her to resign her post in 1904.
In 1905, Barton established the National First Aid Association of America which made first aid kits and worked closely with local fire and police departments to create ambulance brigades.
Clara Barton’s Legacy
Barton served on sixteen battlefields during the Civil War. Whether working tirelessly behind the scenes to procure supplies, prepare meals and arrange makeshift hospitals or tending the wounded during some of the goriest battles in American history, she earned the respect of countless soldiers, officers, surgeons and politicians. She almost singlehandedly changed the widely-held viewpoint that women were too weak to help on battlefields.
The American Red Cross wouldn’t exist as it is today without Barton’s influence. She believed in equal rights and helped everyone regardless of race, gender or economic station. She brought attention to the great need of disaster victims and streamlined many first aid, emergency preparedness and emergency response procedures still used by the American Red Cross.
Clara Barton died on April 12, 1912, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland at age 91. A monument in her honor stands at Antietam National Battlefield.
American Red Cross Founder Clara Barton. American Red Cross.
Biography: Clara Barton. Civil War Trust.
Clara Barton. Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.
Clara Barton and the American Red Cross. Clara Barton Birthplace Museum.
Clara Barton at Antietam. National Park Service.