Today in History:

Clara Barton - Nurse

Clara Barton (more)

Nurse, founder of American Red Cross


Clara Barton's work made her a symbol of humanitarianism.


Clara Barton was born on December 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the youngest child of Stephen Barton, a farmer and state legislator who had served in the Revolution under General Anthony Wayne; she later recalled that his tales made war early familiar to her.


Well-spoken and well-read, at the age of 15 Clara Barton began teaching at nearby schools. In 1850 she went to teach at Bordentown, New Jersey, where state tradition required paid schooling and thus served few children. Barton offered to teach without salary if payment were waived. She later took pride in having established the first free school in New Jersey and having raised enrollment in Bordentown from 6 to 600. When town officials decided to appoint a male administrator over her, she resigned. At this time she suffered her first crisis of nervous illness, associated in part with uncertainty about her future.


In 1853 she obtained an appointment as copyist in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., becoming the first woman in America to hold such a government post. She continued this work till April 1861, when the Civil War began and she determined to serve the Federal troops.


Civil War Activities

Although the U.S. Sanitary Commission was formed in June 1861 to aid soldiers, Barton had little association with it. (Casual reports later misnamed her as one of its founders.) Her own enterprise involved appeals for provisions to be carried into the war zones; she collected and stored them in Washington for personal distribution. In 1862 the U.S. surgeon general permitted her to travel to the front, and she implemented this order with directives from generals John Pope and James S. Wadsworth, who welcomed her work. Barton was present with Federal forces during the siege of Charleston, South Carolina, and also at engagements in the Wilderness and at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and elsewhere.


Barton's mission was not primarily that of a nurse. She became increasingly adept at obtaining and passing out provisions, though her courage and humanity made her a vital presence everywhere. In 1864 she made her most influential connection, joining Gen. Benjamin F. Butler with the Army of the James. She later visited the notorious prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, to identify and mark Union graves.


In 1865 she conceived the project of locating missing soldiers and obtained a note of endorsement from President Lincoln. She set up the Bureau of Records in Washington and traced perhaps 20,000 names. She also lectured on her experiences until her voice failed in 1868.


Franco-Prussian War

Barton's health continued to trouble her; in 1869 she went to Geneva, Switzerland, for rest and a change. There, officials of the International Red Cross, organized in 1864, urged her to seek United States agreement to the Geneva Convention recognizing the work of the Red Cross; the powerful U.S. Sanitary Commission had been unable to obtain it. But before Barton could turn to the task, the Franco-Prussian War began.


She offered her services to the Grand Duchess of Baden in administering military hospitals. Her most original idea (developed further in later situations) was to put needy Strasbourg women to work sewing garments for pay. Later, with the French defeated and Paris held by the Commune, she entered the starving city to distribute food and clothing. She served elsewhere in France — in Lyons, again instituting her work system. She was awarded the Iron Cross of Merit by the German emperor, William I, in 1873; this was one of many such honors.


American Red Cross

Clara Barton settled in Danville, N.Y., where for several years she was a semi-invalid. In 1877 she wrote a founder of the International Red Cross, offering to lead an American branch of the organization. Thus, at 56 she began a new career.


In 1881 Barton incorporated the American Red Cross, with herself as president. A year later her extraordinary efforts brought about United States ratification of the Geneva Convention. She herself attended conferences of the International Red Cross as the American representative. She was, however, far from bureaucratic in interests. Although wholly individualistic and unlike reformers who worked on programs for social change, she did a great social service as activist and propagandist.


In 1883 Barton served as superintendent of the Women's Reformatory Prison, Sherborn, Massachusetts, thus deviating from a career marked by single-minded commitment to her major cause. As a Red Cross worker, she went to Michigan, which had been ravaged by fires in 1882, and to Charleston, S.C., which had suffered an earthquake. In 1884 she traveled the Ohio River, supplying flood victims. Five years later she went to Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to help it recover from a disastrous flood. In 1891 Barton traveled to Russia, which was enduring famine, and in 1896 to Turkey, following the Armenian massacres. Barton was in her late 70s when the Cuban insurrection required relief measures. She prepared to sail in aid of Cubans, but the outbreak of the Spanish-American War turned her ship into a welfare station for Americans as well. As late as 1900 she visited Galveston, Tex., personally to supervise relief for victims of a tidal wave. In 1900 Congress reincorporated the Red Cross, demanding an accounting of funds. By 1904 public pressures and dissension within the Red Cross itself had become too much for Barton, and on June 16 she resigned from the organization. (She even entertained unrealistic thoughts of beginning another one.) A figure of international renown, she retired instead to Glen Echo, Maryland, where she died on April 12, 1912.


Throughout her career, Barton often cited her faith as a source of inspiration and strength in her efforts to alleviate human suffering. She viewed her work as a form of Christian service, motivated by a deep sense of compassion and empathy for those in need. Barton's religious convictions fueled her commitment to providing aid and assistance to soldiers on the battlefield and to civilians in times of crisis.

Additionally, Barton's faith provided her with resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity. She often turned to prayer for guidance and solace during challenging times, drawing strength from her belief in a higher power.



Clara Barton was the subject of innumerable sketches and books, many merely eulogistic and even fanciful. She herself wrote The Story of My Childhood (1907), as well as enlightening accounts of her work, such as The Red Cross in Peace and War (1899). Most useful for general purposes is Ishbel Ross, Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton (1956). William E. Barton, Life of Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross (2 vols., 1922), is adulatory but reproduces revealing letters. Percy H. Epler, The Life of Clara Barton (1915), details her life as it appeared to her contemporaries.


Source: Encyclopedia of World Biography, Gale, 1998.