Clara Barton

Civil War Nurse Became the Great Example of a 19th Century Humanitarian

Photograph of Clara Barton
Clara Barton. Getty Images

Clara Barton is remembered as the founder of the American Red Cross and for her work as a battlefield nurse during the Civil War. During the late 19th century she routinely traveled to disaster zones, helping victims of floods and fires find medical help and shelter.

In an age which revered heroes, Clara Barton was routinely held up as the epitome of a humanitarian. When she died in 1912, at the age of 91, an obituary in the New York Times called her a “woman of remarkable executive skill, of unbounded enthusiasm, inspired by humane ideas.”

The obituary also noted that she had probably been the first woman appointed to office in the federal government, when she worked in the U.S. Patent Office before the Civil War.

Her name, the New York Times noted, had become “a household word, associated in the public mind with goodness and mercy."

Early Life of Clara Barton

Clara Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Her father told her stories of his service in the Revolutionary War, which made her familiar with the struggles faced by soldiers. Educated as a child, and showing exceptional intelligence, she began teaching school at the age of 15.

Her first activity as a reformer took place in New Jersey, where she had moved in 1850. In Bordentown she offered to set up a school for local children who were receiving no education. She she hsd been told she had no chance of success, but she persevered and managed to eventually enroll 600 children in what would be the first free public school in New Jersey.

By the late 1850s she had relocated to Washington, D.C., finding work as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. By some accounts her outspoken political views, particularly her opposition to slavery, endangered her job by putting her at odds with the administration of President James Buchanan. But she kept her post in the federal government and was still a federal employee when the Civil War broke out.

Service as a Civil War Nurse

In 1861 Clara Barton was determined to serve the Union during the Civil War. Operating separately from the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which had been established to operate hospitals, she created her own organization which obtained supplies and set up field hospitals near battlefields.

In September 1862 the Confederate Army invaded Maryland, and Clara Barton realized a great battle was coming. She loaded a wagon with hospital supplies and set out from Washington to follow the Union Army. She tended to wounded soldiers on the day of the great Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, and according to legend she was so close to the action that a Confederate bullet passed through the sleeve of her dress.

A monument to Clara Barton stands on the Antietam Battlefield today.

Throughout the rest of the war Clara Barton tended to wounded soldiers. Her real talent, however, seemed to be in organizing the distribution of provisions at a time when the military had critical problems supplying soldiers with necessities.

At the end of the war Clara Barton was lauded for devising a system by which many thousands of missing soldiers could be accounted for. She set up a Bureau of Records that traced as many as 20,000 soldiers.

Clara Barton Founded the American Red Cross

In 1869, suffering from health problems, Clara Barton traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to recuperate. She came into contact with officials of the International Red Cross, who urged her to involve the United States in the organization’s humanitarian work.

After offering her services in organizing humanitarian efforts in the Franco-Prussian War, Clara Barton returned to America. In 1877 she started to organize an American branch of the Red Cross, which she incorporated in 1881 with herself as president.

A year later, Clara Barton’s campaign led to the United States ratifying the treaty of the first Geneva Convention, which specified how nations would treat the victims of warfare.

Humanitarian Activities

In the late 1800s, at an age when most people would retire, Clara Barton was actively engaged in a number of humanitarian activities.

When Johnstown, Pennsylvania was destroyed by a raging flood in 1889 she arrived to help the victims find medical help, shelter, and food. She also traveled to help victims of floods on the Mississippi, as well as localities devastated by fires, earthquakes and tornadoes.

Clara Barton organized a relief ship that sailed to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and in 1900, though approaching the age of 80, she visited Galveston, Texas to personally supervise relief operations following the massive hurricane that devastated the city.

Organizational conflicts within the American Red Cross prompted her to resign from the organization in the early years of the 20th century, and she died in retirement at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland on April 12, 1912.