Clara Barton

Civil War Nurse, Humanitarian, Founder of the American Red Cross

Clara Barton
Clara Barton. Buyenlarge/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Known for: Civil War service; founder of American Red Cross

Dates: December 25, 1821 - April 12, 1912 (Christmas Day and Good Friday)

Occupation: nurse, humanitarian, teacher

About Clara Barton:

Clara Barton was the youngest of five children in a Massachusetts farming family. She was ten years younger than the next-youngest sibling. As a child, Clara Barton heard stories of wartime from her father, and, for two years, she nursed her brother David through a long illness. At fifteen, Clara Barton began teaching in a school that her parents started to help her learn to transcend her shyness, sensitivity, and hesitation to act.

After a few years of teaching in local schools, Clara Barton started a school in North Oxford and served as a school superintendent. She went to study at the Liberal Institute in New York then began teaching in a school in Bordentown, New Jersey. At that school, she convinced the community to make the school free, an unusual practice in New Jersey at that time. The school grew from six to six hundred students, and with this success, it was determined that the school should be headed by a man, not a woman. With this appointment, Clara Barton resigned, after a total of 18 years in teaching.

In 1854, her home town Congressman helped her obtain an appointment by Charles Mason, Commissioner of Patents, to work as a copyist in the Patent Office in Washington, DC. She was the first woman in the United States to hold such a government appointment. She copied secret papers during her time in this job. During 1857 to 1860, with an administration that supported enslavement, which she opposed, she left Washington, but worked at her copyist job by mail. She returned to Washington after the election of President Lincoln.

Civil War Service

When the Sixth Massachusetts arrived in Washington, DC, in 1861, the soldiers had lost many of their belongings in a skirmish along the way. Clara Barton began her Civil War service by responding to this situation: she decided to work to provide supplies for the troops, advertising widely and successfully after the battle at Bull Run. She talked the Surgeon-General into letting her personally distribute supplies to wounded and sick soldiers, and she personally cared for some who needed nursing services. By the next year, she had gained the support of generals John Pope and James Wadsworth, and she had traveled with supplies to several battle sites, again also nursing the wounded. She was granted permission to become superintendent of nurses.

Through the Civil War, Clara Barton worked without any official supervision and without being part of any organization, including the Army or the Sanitary Commission, though she worked closely with both. She worked mostly in Virginia and Maryland, and occasionally at battles in other states. Her contribution was primarily not as a nurse, though she did nursing as needed when she was present at a hospital or battlefield. She was primarily an organizer of supply delivery, arriving at battlefields and hospitals with wagons of sanitary supplies. She also worked to identify the dead and wounded, so families could know what happened to their loved ones. Though a supporter of the Union, in serving wounded soldiers, she served both sides in providing neutral relief. She became known as the "Angel of the Battlefield."

After the War

When the Civil War ended, Clara Barton went to Georgia to identify the Union soldiers in unmarked graves who had died at the Confederate prison camp, Andersonville. She helped to establish a national cemetery there. She returned to work out of a Washington, DC, office, to identify more of the missing. As head of a missing person's office, established with the support of President Lincoln, she was the first woman bureau head in the United States government. Her 1869 report documented the fate of about 20,000 missing soldiers, about one-tenth the total number of missing or unidentified.

Clara Barton lectured widely about her war experience, and, without getting enmeshed in the organization of the women's rights organizations, also spoke for the campaign for woman suffrage (winning the vote for women).

American Red Cross Organizer

In 1869, Clara Barton traveled to Europe for her health, where she heard for the first time about the Geneva Convention, which had been established in 1866 but which the United States had not signed. This treaty established the International Red Cross, which was also something Barton first heard of when she came to Europe. The Red Cross leadership began talking with Barton about working for support in the US for the Geneva Convention, but instead, Barton became involved with the International Red Cross to deliver sanitary supplies to various venues, including to a freed Paris. Honored for her work by heads of state in Germany and Baden, and ill with rheumatic fever, Clara Barton returned to the United States in 1873.

Rev. Henry Bellows of the Sanitary Commission had established an American organization associated with the International Red Cross in 1866, but it had survived only until 1871. After Barton recovered from her illness, she began working for the ratification of the Geneva Convention and establishment of a US Red Cross affiliate. She persuaded President Garfield to support the treaty, and after his assassination, worked with President Arthur for the ratification of the treaty in the Senate, finally winning that approval in 1882. At that point, the American Red Cross was formally established, and Clara Barton became the first president of the organization. She directed the American Red Cross for 23 years, with a brief break in 1883 to act as a women's prison superintendent in Massachusetts.

In what has been called the "American amendment," the International Red Cross broadened its scope to include relief not just in time of war but in times of epidemic and natural disaster, and the American Red Cross also expanded its mission to do so. Clara Barton traveled to many disaster and war scenes to bring and administer aid, including the Johnstown flood, Galveston tidal wave, Cincinnati flood, Florida yellow fever epidemic, Spanish-American War, and Armenian massacre in Turkey.

Though Clara Barton was remarkably successful in using her personal efforts to organize Red Cross campaigns, she was less successful in administering a growing and on-going organization. She often acted without consulting the organization's executive committee. When some in the organization fought against her methods, she fought back, trying to get rid of her opposition. Complaints about financial record-keeping and other conditions reached Congress, which reincorporated the American Red Cross in 1900 and insisted on improved financial procedures. Clara Barton finally resigned as president of the American Red Cross in 1904, and though she considered founding another organization, she retired to Glen Echo, Maryland. There she died on Good Friday, April 12, 1912.

Also known as: Clarissa Harlowe Baker

Religion: raised in the Universalist church; as an adult, briefly explored Christian Science but did not join

Organizations: American Red Cross, International Red Cross, U.S. Patent Office

Background, Family

  • Father: Stephen Barton, farmer, selectman, and legislator (Massachusetts)
  • Mother: Sarah (Sally) Stone Barton
  • four older siblings: two brothers, two sisters


  • Liberal Institute, Clinton, NY (1851)

Marriage, Children

  • Clara Barton never married or had children

Publications of Clara Barton

  • History of the Red Cross. 1882.
  • Report: America's Relief Expedition to Asia Minor under the Red Cross. 1896.
  • The Red Cross: A History of This Remarkable International Movement in the Interest of Humanity. 1898.
  • The Red Cross in Peace and War. 1899.
  • Story of My Childhood. 1907.

Bibliography - About Clara Barton

  • William Eleazar Barton. Life of Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross. 1922.
  • David H. Burton. Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity. 1995.
  • Percy H. Epler. The Life of Clara Barton. 1915.
  • Stephen B. Oates. A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War.
  • Elizabeth Brown Pryor. Clara Barton: Professional Angel. 1987.
  • Ishbel Ross. Angel of the Battlefield. 1956.

For Children and Young Adults

  • Clara Barton Alexander Doll.
  • Rae Bains and Jean Meyer. Clara Barton: Angel of the Battlefield. 1982.
  • Cathy East Dubowski. Clara Barton: Healing the Wounds. 1991/2005.
  • Robert M. Quackenbush. Clara Barton and Her Victory over Fear. 1995.
  • Mary C. Rose. Clara Barton: Soldier of Mercy. 1991.
  • Augusta Stevenson. Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross. 1982.
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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Clara Barton." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Clara Barton. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Clara Barton." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).