Clara Barton

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Clara Barton
Clara Barton 1904.jpg
Clara Barton photographed by James E. Purdy
Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton
(1821-12-25)December 25, 1821
North Oxford, Massachusetts, U.S.
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Glen Echo, Maryland, U.S.
Resting place North Cemetery, Oxford Massachusetts
Occupation Nurse, humanitarian, founder and first president of the American Red Cross
Clara Barton Signature, 1907.svg

Clarissa "Clara" Harlowe Barton (December 25, 1821 – April 12, 1912) was a pioneering nurse who founded the American Red Cross. She worked as a hospital nurse in the American Civil War, and as a teacher and patent clerk. Barton is noteworthy for doing humanitarian work at a time when relatively few women worked outside the home. She had a relationship with John J. Elwell, but never married.

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Early life

Clara Barton was born Clarissa Harlowe Barton on December 25, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Barton's father was Captain Stephen Barton, a member of the local militia and a selectman. Barton's mother was Sarah Stone Barton.

When she was 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 timidity.[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 removed from the school and brought back home to regain her health.

Upon her return, her family relocated in order to help a family member: a paternal cousin of Clara's 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 was at a loss because she had nothing else to help with, in order to 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 activities 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 acquire more feminine skills. She invited one of Clara's female cousins over to help develop her femininity. 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 (a standard treatment at this time.) She continued to care for David long after doctors had given up, and he made a full recovery.[1]

To assist Clara with overcoming her shyness, her parents persuaded her to become a schoolteacher.[4] She achieved her first teacher’s certificate in 1839, when only seventeen years old. This profession interested Barton greatly and helped motivate her; she ended up conducting an effective redistricting campaign that allowed the children of workers to receive an education. Successful projects such as this gave Clara the confidence needed when she demanded equal pay for teaching.

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.

In 1852, Clara Barton was contracted to open a free school in Bordentown. She was successful, and after a year she had hired another woman to help teach over 600 pupils. Both women were making $250 a year. This accomplishment compelled the town to raise nearly $4,000 for a new school building. Once completed, though, Barton was replaced as principal by a man elected by the schoolboard. They saw the position as head of a large institution to be unfitting for a woman. She was demoted to "female assistant" and worked in a harsh environment until she had a nervous breakdown along with other health ailments, and quit.[5]

In 1855 she moved to Washington D.C. and began work as a clerk in the US Patent Office;[6] 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.[7] 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.

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.[8]

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.[9]

In 1863 she began a romantic relationship with an officer, Colonel John J. Elwell.[10]

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."[11]

Post American Civil War

After the end of the American Civil War, Clara Barton discovered that thousands of letters from distraught relatives to the War Department were going unanswered because the soldiers they were questioning about were buried in unmarked graves. Many of these soldiers were labeled just as "missing". Motivated to do more about the situation, Miss Barton contacted President Lincoln in hopes that she would be allowed to respond officially to these unanswered inquiries. She was given permission, and "The Search for the Missing Men" commenced.[12]

Barton spent the summer of 1865 helping find, relocate, and properly bury 13,000 individuals from Andersonville, Georgia. She continued this task over the next four years, burying and marking the graves of 20,000 more Union soldiers.[12]

American Red Cross

After the war, she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers, at 437 ½ Seventh Street, Northwest, Washington, D.C. in the Gallery Place neighborhood.[13] The office's purpose was to find or identify soldiers killed or missing in action.[14] Barton and her assistants wrote 41,855 replies to inquiries and helped locate more than twenty-two thousand missing men. She traveled to the Andersonville prison camp in Georgia to help identify the dead and missing and install grave markers for thirteen thousand graves, and Congress eventually appropriated $15,000 toward her project.[15]

Barton then achieved widespread recognition by delivering lectures around the country about her war experiences from 1865-1868. During this time 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.

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. She closed the Missing Soldiers Office in 1868 and traveled to Europe. 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.[16]

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.[17] 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 natural disasters like 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.[18][19]

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.[20] Within days after the Johnstown Flood in 1889, she led her delegation of 50 doctors and nurses in response.[20] 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.[21] 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 mixing professional and personal resources, Barton was forced to resign as president of the American Red Cross 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.[22] After resigning, Barton founded the National First Aid Society.

Final years

She continued to live in her Glen Echo, Maryland home which also served as the Red Cross Headquarters upon her arrival to the house in 1897. Barton published her autobiography in 1907, titled The Story of My Childhood.[11] On April 12, 1912 at the age of 90 she died in her home. The cause of death was tuberculosis.

Religious beliefs

Although not formally a member of the Universalist Church of America,[23] in a 1905 letter to the widow of Carl Norman Thrasher, she identified herself with her parents' church as a "Universalist".[24] 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 Clara Barton National Historic Site, located at 5801 Oxford Road, Glen Echo, Maryland, was established as a unit of the National Park Service at Barton's home, where she spent the last 15 years of her life. As the first National Historic Sites dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman, it preserves the early history of the American Red Cross, since the home also served as an early headquarters of the organization. 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.[25]

Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office

In 1869, Clara Barton closed the Missing Soldiers Office and headed to Europe.[26] The third floor of her old boardinghouse was boarded up in 1913, and the site forgotten. The site was "lost" in part because the city realigned its addressing system in the 1870s. The boardinghouse became 437 ½ Seventh Street Northwest (formerly 488-1/2 Seventh Street West).

In 1997, General Services Administration carpenter Richard Lyons was hired to clear out the building for its demolition. He found a treasure trove of Clara Barton items in the attic, including signs, clothing, Civil War soldier's socks, an army tent, Civil War-era newspapers, and many documents relating to the Office of Missing Soldiers.[27] This discovery led to the NPS saving the building from demolition. It took years, however, for the site to be restored.[28] The Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office Museum, run by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, opened in 2015.[29][30]

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.[31]
  • In the NBC TV series Voyagers! (1982-1983), Phineas Bogg and Jeffrey Jones travel through time to make sure history proceeds correctly. In the episode “The Travels of Marco and Friends”, season 1, episode 9, original airdate December 3, 1982, Phineas and Jeffrey encounter Clara Barton, who has been trapped in a burning wagon and is suffering from smoke inhalation. Jeffrey (a young boy from 1982) applies mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (a technique unknown in Barton’s time) and saves her life, thus enabling her to go on to found the American Red Cross.

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. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Barton, Clara. The Story of My Childhood New York: Arno Press Inc, (1980)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton: Professional Angel Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, (1987)
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  4. Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Barton, Clara. American National Biography, (2000)
  5. Spiegel, Allen D. "The Role of Gender, Phrenology, Discrimination and Nervous Prostration in Clara Barton’s Career". Journal of Community Health 20.6 (1995): 501-526.
  6. Clara Barton, Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography
  7. Clara Barton,
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  12. 12.0 12.1 Harper, Ida H. "The Life and Work of Clara Barton". The North American Review 195.678 (1912): 701-712.
  13. Clara Barton.
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  21. Christine Ardalan, "Clara Barton's 1898 battles in Cuba: a reexamination of her nursing contributions." Florida Atlantic Comparative Studies Journal 12.1 (2010).
  22. David Henry Burton, Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity (Greenwood, 1995)
  23. 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",
  24. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. 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.
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  31. Lua error in Module:WikidataCheck at line 28: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value). Angel of Mercy at IMDb
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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.
  • 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