MAKING A DIFFERENCE:
A Short Biographical Blog of Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross
Today is National American Red Cross Founders Day. While most of us recognize the actual red cross symbol, very few people understand its origins or importance in the fabric of American History – it’s the story of how a school teacher, turned recording clerk, wanted to make a difference.
Clara Barton was working as a recording clerk at the US Patent Office in Washington, DC in 1861. From her window, she watched thousands of young men pour into the city as newly-recruited soldiers in the army being formed to quash the rebellion and secession of the southern states. Clara saw these oceans of young men – many who had left home for the first time in lives as adventure seekers – were now scared, hungry, afraid, and many were sick. She took it upon herself to try to bring aid and comfort to these men, many of which she knew – some were friends, some where neighbors, and some were former students – all were “her boys” because they were fighting for freedom.
Clara stayed in the city until the fighting started in earnest, and then took leave of the city and followed the army to the battlefield. It was unusual to see a woman in this time period so willing to step out in the face of so much death, destruction, and the gore of battle. Very few women were actually allowed near a battlefield hospital, much less the actual battlefield. But Clara didn’t let propriety and modesty stop her from what she believed was her calling. She demanded passes from the government and army so that she could pass freely through the battle lines to deliver supplies and tend to the wounded and dying.
It wasn’t an unusual sight to see Clara pull up to a Civil War Field Hospital driving a wagon heavily laden with supplies. Following the battle of Cedar Mountain in 1862, Clara appeared at a field hospital with a load of supplies and immediately set to work. The field surgeon, who was overwhelmed by sheer numbers of wounded, declared that she must have been an angel sent from God – from that point on, Clara was known as “The Angel of the Battlefield.”
Clara rarely waited until after a battle had concluded before attending to the wounded. She risked her life as shot and shell rained all around her in order to give aid and comfort to the wounded and dying. One example of this occurred when she delivering water to wounded on the Antietam battlefield – the bloodiest single day of the entire war – when she stopped to administer aid to a young man crying for his mother. When she raised his head to give him a drink of water, a minie ball passed through the sleeve of her dress, killing the wounded soldier.
Her work with the wounded soldiers of the Army of the Potomac gave her a wealth of information about the men and regiments to which they belonged. It was not unusual for hundreds of men to disappear following a major battle of the war – some were captured, others were blown to bits by short range artillery, and countless others were buried in mass graves without identification (dog tags were extremely rare and not standard issue). Towards the end of the war, Clara found that she could offer another service by providing information to families who were desperately trying to find out what happened to their loved ones. Clara established the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army and operated it for four years. During that time, Clara and her associates answered over 63,000 letters and identified over 22,000 missing men.
Perhaps Clara’s greatest achievement occurred outside the confines of Washington in a small rural backwater town in Southern Georgia. Andersonville Prison has gone down in the annals of history as one of country’s greatest war-time atrocities. Clara led a team of thirty soldiers that were sent to the site of the prison to establish a National Cemetery. With the assistance of Dorence Atwater, a prisoner who had secretly charted a list of the dead, Clara’s team was able to identify 13,000 men and provide them with headstones to mark their final resting place, as well as contacting families with news of their loved-one’s fate.
After spending some time in Europe in 1869, Clara was introduced to the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She came back to the United States and shared what she had learned and demanded that the US government take notice of the Geneva Convention, which created wartime protections for the sick and wounded, as well as those who tried to aid them.
Clara once again returned to the war front, this time in Europe, aiding the sick and wounded during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870’s before returning home again to fight for the Geneva Treaty to be ratified by the US. Clara hounded three US Presidents for years until Chester Arthur finally agreed to sign the treaty in 1882.
For its first 20 years, the American Red Cross served mostly as a disaster relief organization. The Red Cross was often the first on the scene of US catastrophic disasters, like the Johnstown, Pennsylvania Flood in 1884 and the 1893 Hurricane that devastated the Sea Islands of South Carolina. Clara’s vision for help to all in a time of war came to life during the Spanish American War when the Red Cross delivered supplies and services to Cuba to American forces, prisoners of war, and Cuban refugees.
Clara stepped down from the Red Cross as its leader in 1904. She went on to write volumes about her life’s work. She never stopped volunteering, caring, and sharing her vast knowledge, skills, and abilities until she became unable to travel during the last years of her life. She died in 1902, and her life is memorialized at the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland.
Clara Barton’s legacy of service is still visible today. Just as her American Red Cross was the first on the scene of catastrophic disasters, so is the American Red Cross we know today. The American Red Cross provides so much more than warm blanket and a hot meal at a disaster site: the organization provides around 40% of nation’s blood and blood components. Ninety-one cents of every dollar donated goes to humanitarian aid, with the majority of those funds spent in the United States.
To learn more about the American Red Cross, visit https://www.redcross.org/.
National Park Service, Handbook 110: Clara Barton. Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, 1981.
Oates, Stephen B., A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1994.
Pryor, Elizabeth Brown, Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.