March is Red Cross Month in the United States—and the American Red Cross would be nothing without the help of Clara Barton, the heroic crusader who founded the American chapter of this emergency response organization. In 1975, the National Park Service designated her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, as one of the first National Historic Sites that honored a woman, in honor of all her great work. But how much do we really know about Barton? Here are five items you might be surprised to know about this humanitarian and pioneer.
1. Early Equality
In Barton's early life, she opened a school in Bordentown, New Jersey. Impressed by the rapidly growing enrollment, local authorities provided $4,000 to build a new and larger school. When the schoolhouse opened, however, Clara was replaced by a man, who was paid double her salary. Undeterred by this setback, Barton moved to Washington, D.C., to work in a patent office, and became the first woman to work in that government position, at a salary equal to a man. She became an advocate for civil rights for the rest of her life.
2. Brush with a Bullet
Barton's organizational abilities, and her scientific approach to nursing, impressed the Union leaders. By 1864, she was running Union hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina, sometimes working under fire. Once, while tending a wounded man, a bullet ripped through her puffed sleeve, and killed a soldier standing next to her.
3. Lost Soldiers, Lost Office
After working as a nurse in the Civil War, Clara Barton appealed directly to Abraham Lincoln for assistance in finding missing soldiers when the war ended. He gave her aid to operate the Missing Soldiers Office. In the years from 1865 to 1868 Barton handled over 63,000 letters, and helped provide information to the families of more than 21,000 men. The location of her office was lost to history until November 1997, when the U.S. General Services Administration discovered artifacts belonging to her in the attic of 437 Seventh Street in Washington, D.C.
4. Loved by Enemies
Her reputation preceded her overseas; the newly organized International Red Cross was impressed by what she had accomplished during the Civil War. She served for the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War (July 19, 1870 – May 10, 1871). She was honored by both sides of the war for her work in helping the wounded. Ten years later, in 1881, she founded the American Red Cross.
5. A Different Kind of Cross
The original intention of the International Red Cross was to serve as a neutral aid provider during armed conflicts. However, Clara Barton believed that the American Red Cross should provide aid to natural disaster victims as well. In 1884, at the Third International Red Cross Conference in Geneva, the American Red Cross suggested an amendment to the Geneva Treaty that would provide aid to natural disaster victims. This amendment was accepted, and known as the "American Amendment."