Clara Barton – Notable Women in History Series

Clara Barton was an educator, nurse and humanitarian who supported a number of war efforts throughout her life. She is most notably credited with founding the American Red Cross. Read on as we honor her life and achievements this women’s history month!
Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts, the youngest of five children. Her father, Stephen, was a prosperous farmer, and her mother was the children’s caretaker.
Barton’s first career path was encouraged by her parents; they felt she would make a good teacher. She began teaching at the age of 18. Later, at age 24, she founded a school for the children of the workers of her brother’s mill. After moving to Bordentown, New Jersey, she established the first free school there. She later resigned when she discovered a male teacher had been hired at double her salary. She declared she would never earn less than a man doing the same work.
In 1854 she took a position at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. She was the first woman to ever be appointed to such a post. She was paid the same as her male counterparts. Though her position was eliminated entirely by the Buchanan Administration in 1857, she returned after the election of President Lincoln in 1860.
After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Barton left her job to help the Union soldiers in need. She started by taking supplies to the young men of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry, many of whom were “her boys,” some she had grown up with, and others she had even taught. Along with a few other like-minded women, Barton provided clothing, food and supplies to the sick and wounded soldiers on behalf of such organizations as the U.S. Sanitary Commission, although she was never formally associated with any agency or group.
In 1862, Barton received official permission to transport supplies to battlefields and is thought to have been present at every major battle in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. Her tender care of the wounded resulted in a nickname: the “angel of the battlefield.” She was further recognized for her efforts when, in 1864 she was officially named head nurse for one of General Benjamin Butler’s units, though she lacked any formal training.
After the war, she perceived another pressing need: located missing soldiers. She kindly offered to help locate missing persons, after the families provided the name, regiment, and company of the missing soldiers. She and her assistants received and answered over 63,000 letters and identified over 22,000 missing men. Years later, the Red Cross established a tracing service to aid in similar efforts; it is one of the organizations most valued activities today.
In 1869, Barton spent some time travelling through Europe in order to regain her health. While in Switzerland, she discovered the International Red Cross, and was largely impressed with their mission and goals. Upon her return to the U.S. she campaigned for an American branch, which was established on May 21, 1881. Barton was elected president the following month. In 1882, the U.S. joined the International Red Cross.
Barton resigned from the American Red Cross in 1904 amid an internal power struggle and allegations of mishandling funds. Though she was known to be an autocratic leader, she never took a salary for her work within the organization and sometimes even supplemented relief efforts with her own funds.
Barton remained active after leaving the Red Cross, giving speeches and lectures. She also wrote a book entitled The Story of My Childhood, which was published in 1905. 5 years later, she died at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, on April 12, 1912.
Barton’s contributions to a number of war efforts as well as founding the American Red Cross are remarkable achievements, especially for a woman of her time. She refused to accept a salary lower than a man’s when they were performing the same job, and she had a significant impact on the lives of thousands of soldiers in the Civil War. This women’s history month, we praise the memory of Clara Barton, and her heroic efforts.