Also known as: Clarissa Harlowe Barton
Born: 1821 Died: 1912
Occupation: founder of the American Red Cross
Clarissa Harlow Barton, who went by the name Clara, was born on December 25, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts, to Stephen Barton, a farmer and state legislator, and Sarah Stone Barton. An independent woman who helped nurse soldiers and get supplies during the Civil War, Clara Barton is best known for founding the American Red Cross.
Although Clara Barton received little formal education, at age 15 she began teaching at a school near her home, in North Oxford. In 1850 she founded a free school at Bordentown, New Jersey, one of the few in that state. She quit, however, when the town officials passed her over and appointed a man as principal.
In 1853 Clara Barton was appointed a copyist in the federal Patent Office in Washington, D.C. With the outbreak of theCivil War in 1861, the diminutive Barton, who stood five feet tall, decided to help the Union troops. She was shocked at the attitude in the military, which held that ambulances, medical supplies, and hospitals were luxuries. When she discovered that a regiment from her home state of Massachusetts lacked beds and other supplies and was being forced to make its quarters in the U.S. Senate chambers, she acted quickly to obtain provisions from donors in Massachusetts and distribute the items to the men.
She then began collecting supplies for other troops and in 1862, with the approval of Union generals, started taking them to the front lines. Despite having no training as a nurse, she ministered to the wounded, and in 1864 she served as superintendent of nurses attached to the Army of the James. Barton, who earned the nickname "Angel of the Battlefield," worked under difficult conditions; writing in her journal, she said about the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1864:I saw [the soldiers] lying there early this morning-they had been wounded two and three days previous, had been brought from the front, and after all this lay still another night without care or food or shelter, many doubtless famished....The city is full of houses and this morning...parlors were thrown open and displayed to the view of the rebel occupants the bodies of the dead Union soldiers lying beside the wagons in which they perished. Only those most slightly wounded have been taken to [Washington]. The roads are fearful and it is not worth the life of a wounded man to remove him over them.
Except in one brief period, during the war Barton never served in an official government position, nor was she a member of any organization. She preferred to act independently and in that showed the fortitude that marked her career. Despite her activities as a nurse, her main contribution was in obtaining supplies for the soldiers.
She later identified and marked Union graves at the Confederate prison camp near Andersonville, Georgia. In 1865 she worked to locate missing soldiers from around the country and eventually traced 20,000 names. High-strung and suffering from a nervous disorder, in 1869 Barton traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to regain her health. But while she was in Europe, the Franco-Prussian War broke out, and with her characteristic commitment to helping others, she organized women in Strasbourg to sew garments for the needy. At the same time, she arranged for the women, who lived in poverty, to be paid for their work.
Barton distributed food in Paris after the war, and in 1873 the German emperor, William I, awarded her the Iron Cross of Merit. She received also the Red Cross of Geneva and the Empress Augusta medal.
Clara Barton returned to the United States in 1876 and settled at Danville, New York. Still suffering from a nervous disorder, she lived for a while in that town's sanitarium. In 1877 she wrote to the International Red Cross and offered to establish an American branch. Over the next few years she worked to convince the U.S. government to sign the Geneva Convention, which had provided for a Red Cross. She incorporated the American Red Cross in 1881 and served as its first president. In 1882 Congress confirmed the Geneva Convention treaty.
Barton attended several international conferences, and at one in Geneva in 1884 she persuaded the International Red Cross to accept an amendment that committed the organization to providing relief during disasters unrelated to war. She personally supervised many relief efforts, such as in the wake of fires that swept Michigan in 1882 and an earthquake that same year that devastated Charleston, South Carolina; floods that inundated settlements along the Ohio River in 1884 and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889; famine that killed thousands in Russia in 1891; and a hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900. In addition to these activities, she helped Cubans and Americans during the Spanish-American War.
But by running everything herself, Barton did little to attract members to the American Red Cross. And her inept handling of finances generated much criticism. In 1900 Congress reincorporated the Red Cross and required that it make annual financial reports.
Complaints continued, however, and other Red Cross members attacked Barton for her arbitrary rule. Nevertheless, an investigation uncovered no wrongdoing, and some historians have concluded that her critics were primarily motivated by a desire to replace her with a centralized bureaucracy and professional management.
Worn down by the disputes within the Red Cross, Barton quit the organization in 1904 and retired to Glen Echo, Maryland, where she died on April 12, 1912. She was never a reformer in the sense of wanting to remake society, but she was indefatigable in helping those in need through the American Red Cross and through her earlier efforts.
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