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Clara Barton (December 25, 1821-April 12, 1912) was both famous and honored in her lifetime—and has a well-earned place in American history—as the angel of Civil War battlefields and founder of the American Red Cross.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton, the fifth and youngest child of Sarah Stone and Stephen Barton, was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts, a small farming community. Her father was prominent in the local Universalist church. She remembered the church as austere, with tall box pews and high narrow seats, where the faith was “hammered out” in “an incongruous winter atmosphere.” She loved to hear her father reminisce about his Revolutionary War experience in the army of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne.
The Barton household was a stressful place for the timid and sensitive child. Because she was small and had a lisp she was teased by members of her family. Her emotionally unbalanced mother was given to sudden fits of rage. Her older sister Dolly mothered her, but had a mental breakdown when Clara was six. Thereafter, sister Sally looked out for Clara while Dolly remained locked in an upstairs room. Clara learned early to make the best of a difficult family situation, a skill she put to considerable use in her pioneering career as an army nurse.
Clara was taught to read by Dolly and Sally at such an early age that she had “no knowledge of ever learning to read.” Her brother Stephen taught her mathematics. Brother David began teaching her to ride bareback when she was only five. She attended a district school during three-month winter and summer sessions. Academically advanced but emotionally immature, she was first sent away to school at age eight, but was unable to stay and soon returned home.
Her days of childhood play ended abruptly when a fall at a construction site rendered her brother David an invalid. Eleven-year-old Clara nursed him night and day throughout his two year convalescence. Afterwards she was anxious. She needed to be needed. Throughout her life, inactivity brought depression. After a short period as a weaver in brother Stephen’s mill, she was at loose ends.
A phrenologist visiting the Barton house advised her parents to put Clara, in her late teens, to teaching school to overcome her shyness. Although the idea terrified her, she took on forty boys and girls at a district school. Some of the boys near her own age might have proved unmanageable, but she joined their games and impressed them with her skills. “When they found that I was as agile and as strong as themselves, that my throw was as sure and as straight as theirs, their respect knew no bounds.”
Surprised when her school won a prize for discipline, Barton said no discipline had been needed. Many job offers followed, even after she demanded and received the same pay as male teachers. She taught school for ten years.
At age 30 Barton enrolled as a student at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York State. When the term ended, schoolmates Charles and Mary Norton invited her for an extended visit with their family in Hightstown, New Jersey. Soon she was teaching in the Cedarville school and later in Bordentown. There she started a free public school like those in Massachusetts, previously unknown in New Jersey. The school was so successful that a new building was constructed and additional teachers hired. A man was brought in to head the school at a salary of $600, greater by $350 than Barton’s. Resentful of his dictatorial manner and his unfair salary, she left for Washington, DC.
Barton worked in Washington as the first woman clerk in the Patent Office, for a salary equal to the men’s. At first she found the situation “delightfully pleasant” with “no one to complain of me.” After a time, however, men in the office began to harass her. Hounded by rumors of sexual misconduct, the more she tried to rise above the situation, the worse it became. She struggled with an overwhelming work load and then fell ill with malaria. James Buchanan’s presidential victory put an end to her job.
She stayed at home and in Worcester for a while, studied French and art, and looked unsuccessfully for employment. Lincoln’s election brought an offer to return to the patent office as a temporary copyist earning eight cents per 100 words, less than her earlier pay. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts agreed to help her. Barton hoped she might make way for more women in government service. “I had just as lief they made an experiment of me as not,” she wrote. “It does not hurt me to pioneer.” Able again to see herself as helping others, she was lively and cheerful and enjoyed her work and Washington society.
On April 19, 1861, a week after Fort Sumter was fired upon, the Sixth Massachusetts troops arrived in Washington in disarray, having been attacked by secessionists in Baltimore. Barton and her sister, Sally Vassall, went to the station to meet the men, some of whom Barton had taught when they were schoolboys. The city had no facilities for the soldiers. Most were housed in the Capitol building. Barton took the most seriously wounded to her sister’s house and nursed them. Finding that the men’s baggage had been lost in the Baltimore fracas, she rounded up clothing, food and supplies from local merchants. “The patriot blood of my fathers was warm in my veins,” she wrote of those hectic days.
Troops soon arrived from upstate New York and New Jersey. Not a few recognized their former teacher. She visited the men camped in and around the city. “I don’t know how long it has been since my ear has been free from the roll of a drum,” she wrote her father. “It is the music I sleep by, and I love it.”
Barton became the recipient of supplies sent to Washington in response to letters the men wrote home. When floods of the wounded filled the city after the first battle of Manassas, she began soliciting supplies from such groups as the Worcester Ladies’ Relief Committee, instructing women what to send and how best to pack it. “I will remain here while anyone remains,” she wrote. “I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.”
She returned home during her father’s last illness, but was back in Washington the following summer, determined to get to the battlefield where she was most needed. She obtained a quartermaster’s pass and six wagons with teamsters to carry her supplies through the lines. Arriving with two helpers a few days after the battle at Culpepper, Virginia, she unloaded her wagons at the ill-equipped field hospital and worked among the wounded for two days and nights without food or sleep. She did what she could for wounded Confederate prisoners. Her first experience at the front strengthened her determination to keep on with the work.
Barton arrived with her supplies and skills on battlefields from Manassas (Bull Run) to Antietam and Fredericksburg, considering herself part of the Army of the Potomac. The Twenty-first Massachusetts held a dress parade in her honor and made her a daughter of the regiment. She shared the lot of common soldiers, refusing to eat other than the same grub they were given. Time after time a wounded man recognized her as she worked to ease his suffering. “Oh what a place to meet an old-time friend!” she wrote. Returning to Washington, she collapsed with typhoid fever but rejoined the troops as soon as she felt able.
Barton was not the only woman serving as a volunteer. She later praised the work of Mary Bickerdyke, Mary Livermore, Frances Dana Gage and Dorothea Dix, although she herself preferred to work alone or with a single helper. Moreover, she felt her place was on the battlefield, not in Washington hospitals or supply depots. She lobbied Senator Wilson repeatedly for better supplies and improved conditions in field hospitals. But after the Sanitary Commission under Henry Whitney Bellows was officially recognized, efforts of women volunteers were discouraged.
The War Department permitted Barton, however, to accompany her brother David, quartermaster to the Eighteenth Army Corps, which was sent to bombard Charleston, South Carolina. She arrived in Hilton Head in April, 1862, to find an entirely different face of the war. Housed and fed with the officers, she attended parties and dances and went horseback riding. She met there friends from earlier years and, also, Col. John H. Elwell, chief quartermaster for the region. Fellow Universalist Frances Dana Gage and her daughter Mary were at Hilton Head working with the slaves left behind when owners abandoned their plantations. Elwell and Gage became lifelong friends of great importance to her.
From their first meeting Elwell and Barton learned that they had much in common. Gradually, chatty notes they exchanged turned into love letters. Elwell had a wife and family in Cincinnati, but he found Barton’s verve and wit irresistible. She complained of feeling out of place, so far removed from the war’s battles, and talked of leaving. He pressed her to stay. She stayed.
But the war soon caught up with them. With one saddle horse and one well-supplied ambulance for their use, Barton and Mary Gage accompanied the troops assigned to the siege of Fort Wagner. Barton saw Elwell go down under fire, rushed to help him to safety and then returned to tend other wounded. As the siege continued and supplies ran short, battlefield conditions were as bad as any she had seen. Military officials resented her presence. Under such pressure she fell ill, physically and emotionally, and returned to Hilton Head. Elwell tended her. Recovered and ready to go back to the front, she was informed that Dorothea Dix’s nurses were in charge.
Influenced at this critical time by woman suffrage advocate Frances Dana Gage, Barton’s disappointment expanded into a view of the broad injustice done to women. Soon Barton would write, “I think ‘taxation and representation are and of right ought to be inseparable.’ I most devoutly wish that intellect, education and moral worth decided a voter’s privileges and not sex, or money or land or any other unintelligent principle.”
Barton helped Gage with her work among the former slaves and Gage helped Barton out of her self-pity. Over the next two decades Barton needed and appreciated “letters of faith and trust” from this “capable, faithful, grand strong loving Mother.” Gage’s death in 1884 was a severe blow to her.
In December, 1863, restless and anxious over her cooling relationship with Elwell, Barton sailed for Washington. She sank into deep depression to the point of considering suicide. Then General Grant’s spring 1864 campaign began to flood the field hospitals with wounded. Supplies ran short despite the planning of the Sanitary Commission. Barton again received a pass to go to the front. Fredericksburg was full of wounded Union soldiers, suffering from want of food. She worked in hospitals there, but still longed for the battlefield. Granted a place under Gen. Benjamin Butler in a Virginia mobile field hospital, she was again in her element.
After the war President Lincoln put Barton in charge of locating missing prisoners of war, a daunting task amid the bureaucratic confusion that followed war’s end. She answered hundreds of the letters which poured in, giving or requesting information about the dead and missing.
Frances Gage suggested that Barton tell her story to the people, and so in November, 1866, she set off on a speaking tour. Her lecture, “Work and Incidents of Army Life,” was warmly received wherever she delivered it for the next two years. Dressed in black silk, her small figure commanded respect, and her musical voice stirred feelings. Her performance on the lecture circuit made her name a household word, and brought her first steady income since leaving the patent office.
In November, 1867, Barton met Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Cleveland railroad station. Barton had never spoken publicly on woman suffrage, but she was in complete sympathy with the cause. Stanton and Anthony were eager to enlist her participation. Anthony began including notices of Barton’s lectures in her suffrage publication, The Revolution, and women’s groups invited her to speak at their gatherings. She was especially effective before veterans’ groups. “Soldiers!” she would cry. “I have worked for you and I ask you, now, one and all, that you consider the wants of my people. . . . God only knows women were your friends in time of peril and you should be [theirs] now.”
Barton continued to support woman’s suffrage, but it was never her main priority. She advocated passage of the Fifteenth Amendment which gave the vote to Negro men, not to women. She wrote articles for Lucy Stone’s Woman’s Journal and occasionally appeared on the platform with Stanton, Anthony, Stone, and Julia Ward Howe at woman’s suffrage conventions over the years. But from 1870, her heart was in the Red Cross movement.
Barton was vacationing in Europe when the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Having just heard of the Geneva Convention which established the International Red Cross, she offered her services to the organization. She set up aid centers in several war-torn cities. The Grand Duchess Louise of Baden and other influential leaders welcomed the famous American. She was awarded the Iron Cross and urged to found an American Red Cross.
Returning to America in 1873 with broken health, Barton spent the next three years as an invalid in Worcester, Massachusetts, and Dansville, New York. Finally, in 1877 she was able to make two trips to Washington. She urged the government’s signature of the Geneva Convention, thus far ignored in the United States, and establishment of an American Red Cross. On May 12, 1881, the American Red Cross was organized, but for years the organization required a continuous battle to keep it alive and functioning.
Over the next two decades Barton made the presence of the American Red Cross felt in such emergencies as the Johnstown flood, the Sea Island and Galveston hurricanes, and the outbreaks of typhoid in Butte, Pennsylvania, and yellow fever in Jacksonville, Florida. In these crises the Red Cross provided nurses, basic supplies and aid centers to help victims.
The results were mixed. Press reports exaggerated mistakes and lack of organization as often as they praised good work. Local Red Cross affiliates sprang up, but with uneven standards. Barton personally funded many of the organization’s operations when she couldn’t get government support. She did not keep good records. Financial transactions were noted on scraps of paper. There was no clarity regarding either income or expenditures. Barton was accused of pocketing contributions. The needed tasks were more than she could do, but she held onto the reins.
In the midst of her struggles, Barton traveled intermittently to appear at international events such as the 1882 ratification of the Geneva Convention, where she received the highest decoration given by the International Red Cross. In 1884 she was the first woman appointed as a diplomatic representative to the Third International Conference of the Red Cross, where she moved an American amendment regarding peacetime functions of the organization and was given the Augusta medal for humanitarian service.
Hailed and decorated as a heroine abroad, Barton was often snubbed and misunderstood at home. She usually managed, eventually, to get her way. But, as throughout her life, she would work on any project with only one or two others of her own choosing. Close relationships, which began in mutual admiration, often broke down, endangering the enterprise. Barton was not an able administrator.
Meanwhile, influential citizens who questioned Barton’s management established a rival to the officially recognized American Red Cross in New York City. Upset by this and by unwarranted commercial use of the Red Cross name and symbol, Barton implored the government to support the organization’s charter as outlined in the international treaty. In 1891 two bills were before Congress to answer these concerns. But not until 1900 was the appropriate legislation passed and signed by President McKinley.
In 1893 Barton called a national meeting of the American Red Cross. A new constitution was adopted. It eliminated the independence of local affiliates and shifted the organization’s emphasis from domestic disasters to wartime assistance. Efforts were made to increase and regularize fund-raising. The name of the organization was changed to American National Red Cross.
By 1900 Barton had moved the Red Cross headquarters from downtown Washington to Glen Echo, Maryland. There she built a large structure on her own property for offices, storage facilities and her personal living space. Though the building lacked many comforts, she made it her home even after giving up the Red Cross presidency in 1904. In 1905 she was named honorary president of the National First Aid Association of America, a rival organization later absorbed by the Red Cross.
Late in life Barton became keenly interested in spiritualism and Christian Science, though she never joined a Christian Science church. She claimed she was not “what the world denominated a church woman.” In 1905 she affirmed her Universalist faith in a letter to an Ohio inquirer. “Your belief that I am a Universalist is as correct as your belief in being one yourself, a belief in which all who are privileged to possess it rejoice.”
During her last years she summered in a house she bought in North Oxford and continued to attend suffrage conventions and veterans’ encampments. Her celebrity status brought with it much correspondence, some from children asking about her childhood. In response she wrote The Story of My Childhood, published in 1907. She died of pneumonia at Glen Echo.
— By Joan Goodwin, excerpted from Clara Barton’s entry in the Dictionary of UU Biography
Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection
The Red Cross in Peace and War by Clara Barton, Abridged Edition