Clara Barton: A Life of Compassion & Service

To celebrate Women's History Month and Red Cross Month, we're taking a look at the inspiring life of Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, who made it her mission to serve humanity in troubled spots around the world.
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Catherine McHugh
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To celebrate Women's History Month and Red Cross Month, we're taking a look at the inspiring life of Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, who made it her mission to serve humanity in troubled spots around the world.
Clara Barton Photo

Founder of the American Red Cross Clara Barton's philosophy was to help people by "offering a hand up, not a handout."

One of the world’s greatest humanitarians was born on Christmas Day in 1821, in the town of North Oxford, Massachusetts. Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton was the youngest of five children born to Sarah (Stone) and Captain Stephen Barton. A teacher, a nurse, a civil rights activist and a suffragist, this founder of the American Red Cross opened paths to the new field of volunteer service through the force of her personal example. She dedicated her life to helping people by "offering a hand up, not a handout."

A Shy Student 

Homeschooled by her family, Barton, a bit of a tomboy, suffered from acute shyness as a child. She gained her first experience in nursing when she was 11 years old: Her brother David became seriously ill following an accident, and she cared for him for two years. She then went on to attend a private boarding school. Though she kept up academically, her reticence affected her health, and she returned home. With encouragement from her parents, she overcame her shyness and became a teacher. This pattern would repeat itself during her lifetime, as she suffered from periods of severe depression, yet always managed to rally when a crisis called for her services.

A Gifted Teacher

While still a teenager, Barton passed the teacher’s exam and began instructing classes in May 1838 in North Oxford. She enthralled her students and refused to discipline them physically (even though that was common practice at the time). Six years later, she opened her own school.

In 1850, Barton enrolled at New York’s Clinton Liberal Institute to further her own education. After a year of study, she moved with a friend to Bordentown, New Jersey, where she enlisted support from the local community to open a free public school. By the end of the year, she had about 200 pupils. Her project was such a success that the community built a new school. However, she was shocked that they hired a man to run it—at twice her salary—so she resigned.

The earliest known photograph of Clara Barton, which was probably taken in Clinton, New York in 1850 or 1851 while she was a student at the Clinton Liberal Institute. She was about 29 years old. (Photo: National Park Service)

The earliest known photograph of Clara Barton, which was probably taken in Clinton, New York in 1850 or 1851 while she was a student at the Clinton Liberal Institute. She was about 29 years old. (Photo: National Park Service)

A Patent Clerk and a Civil War Nurse

Barton’s next move was to Washington, D.C. where she became the first female clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. But upon the outbreak of the Civil War, she independently organized relief for the wounded, often bringing her own supplies to front lines. She recognized the need for an efficient organization apart from the War Department’s bureaucracy to distribute food and medical supplies to the troops. She began soliciting supplies from her friends, distributing them and staying to nurse and nourish the wounded, often very close to the actual fighting. In fact, while tending the wounded at the Battle of Antietam, she worked so close to the battlefield that a bullet once tore through her sleeve and killed the man she was treating. 

By June of 1864, the army had put her in charge of diet and nursing at X Corps. It was dubbed the "flying hospital" because of its frequent moves to be close enough to the battle to help the wounded, but not so close as to be overrun.

An Advocate for the Wounded and the Missing

On March 11, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Barton to search for missing prisoners of war. With assistance from several volunteers, including her sister Sally, Barton used her own money to set up Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army. They put the name of every soldier for whom they received an inquiry on their lists, which were organized by state and published in local newspapers, displayed in post offices, and reviewed by various organizations. Veterans seeing the list could then provide Barton with information. She and her assistants received and answered more than 63,000 letters and identified over 22,000 missing men. Years later, the Red Cross established a tracing service, which remains one of the organization’s most valued activities today. 

Clara Barton Photo

Clara Barton photographed by Mathew Brady in 1865 from the Civil War period of her life. (Photo: Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Suffrage Supporter 

In 1866, Barton went on a lecture tour throughout the Northeast and Midwest to describe her Civil War experiences. During this time, in November 1867, she met and befriended women's suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Although her own cause took precedence, Barton aligned herself with the suffrage movement and once hosted a party for 400 feminists. She also gave many lectures in support of suffrage.

First President of the American Red Cross

Ordered to Europe by her doctor for a rest cure in 1869, Barton met 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 due to fears of foreign entanglements. The U.S. Senate finally ratified the Geneva Convention in 1882 and formed the American Association of the Red Cross. Barton became its president. 

The newly formed organization sprang into action in the fall of 1881 when forest fires ripped through Michigan. It provided relief during many other natural disasters and epidemics in the U.S., including the Johnstown, PA, flood in 1889. Clara directed many of the relief operations herself. The American Red Cross also provided international relief, including helping victims of the Russian famine of 1892 and providing relief to Armenians living in Turkish-controlled Armenia in 1896. 

Clara Barton Photo

Clara Barton working in the National Headquarters office of the American Red Cross in Glen Echo, Maryland in 1902. (Photo: National Park Service

In 1898, at age 76, Barton traveled with nurses to Cuba during the Spanish-American War to nurse the wounded and provide supplies and food. In 1900, after several contentious attempts, the U.S. Congress granted the American Red Cross a charter, making the independent, non-profit organization responsible for fulfilling the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, providing family and other support to the U.S. military, and providing a system for disaster relief. However, Barton’s unwillingness to delegate responsibility had created dissent within the ranks of the Red Cross and, in 1904, she resigned from the organization she had founded and built. 

Rather than retire, in 1905, Barton established the National First Aid Association of America, which emphasized basic first aid instruction and emergency preparedness, and served as its honorary president for five years. She published several books about the beginnings of the American Red Cross and the global Red Cross network. She died on April 12, 1912, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland. She was 90 years old. 

Barton’s family donated her papers and awards, along with numerous mementoes, to the Library of Congress. The National Park Service manages what is now the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo. Barton’s legacy to the nation—service to humanity—is reflected in the services provided daily by the employees and volunteers of the American Red Cross throughout the nation and in troubled spots around the world.