A Nearly Forgotten Woman: Clara Barton
By Tom Morrow
For the past year, much of the pandemic focus has been on front-line nurses, so it’s fitting that Clara Barton be recognized and remembered as America’s first official nurse.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton, born Dec. 25, 1821, was the founder of the American Red Cross after being a hospital nurse during the Civil War. In addition, she also had been a teacher, and a patent clerk. Since nursing education was not then very formalized and she did not attend nursing school, Barton provided self-taught nursing care. She was doing humanitarian work and civil rights advocacy at a time before women had the right to vote.
Born in North Oxford, Mass., her father was Captain Stephen Barton, a member of the local militia and town leader who inspired his daughter with patriotism and a broad humanitarian interest.
Barton became an educator in 1838, teaching for 12 years in schools in Canada and Georgia. Barton knew how to handle rambunctious children, particularly the boys since as a child she was close to her brothers and boy cousins. She learned how to act like them, making it easier for her to later relate to and control the young men in her care.
On April 19, 1861, the Baltimore Riot resulted in the first bloodshed of the Civil War. Some of the wounded were transported to Washington D.C., where Barton was living at the time. Wanting to serve her country, Barton went to the railroad station when the victims arrived where she she gave aid to some 40 wounded. Barton provided crucial assistance to the men in uniform, many of whom were hungry and without any supplies other than what they carried on their backs. She began helping them by taking supplies to the partially constructed U.S. Capitol Building where young soldiers of her home state’s 6th Massachusetts Militia were housed.
Barton quickly recognized some of the boys, a few of which she had taught in school. Barton, along with some other women, provided clothing, food, and supplies for the sick and wounded soldiers. She learned how to store and distribute medical supplies and offered emotional support to the soldiers by keeping their spirits high. Barton read to them, wrote letters to their families, talked and supported them in any way she could.
After the end of the Civil War, Barton discovered thousands of letters from distraught families to the War Department were going unanswered concerning the missing soldiers, many of them buried across the South in unmarked graves. Many were labeled simply as “missing.” Motivated to rectify the situation, Barton contacted President Lincoln for permission to officially respond to the unanswered inquiries. Thus, a massive search began for the missing soldiers.
From 1865 to 1868, Barton achieved widespread recognition by delivering lectures around the country about her war experiences. During this time she met Susan B. Anthony and began an association with the woman’s suffrage (right to vote) movement. She also became acquainted with abolitionist Frederick Douglass, becoming an activist for civil rights.
After her nationwide tour in 1868, she was both mentally and physically exhausted and under doctor’s orders she took a break from her work. In Barton closed the Missing Soldiers Office and traveled to Europe. In 1869, during her trip to Geneva, Switzerland, Barton was invited to be the representative for the U.S. branch of the European Red Cross and helped her find financial benefactors to start the “American Red Cross Society.”
In 1870, at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War, Barton assisted in the preparation of military hospitals and gave much help to the European Red Cross Society during that war.
In 1873, when Barton returned home, she began a movement for the U.S. government to officially recognize the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In 1878, she met with then-President Rutherford B. Hayes, but he doubted the nation would ever see another calamity like the Civil War. Barton persisted and finally succeeded getting said recognition during the administration of President Chester Arthur. She argued that addition to war, the new American Red Cross could respond to crises such as natural disasters like earthquakes, forest fires, and hurricanes.
Barton became president of the society, which was officially founded Aug. 22, 1881 in Dansville, New York, where she maintained a country home
In 1884, Barton helped in the floods on the Ohio river, provided Texas with food and supplies during the famine of 1887 and took nurses to Illinois in 1888 after a tornado, and in that same year to Florida for a yellow fever epidemic. In response to the Johnstown Flood of 1889, she led a delegation of 50 doctors and nurses.
In 1897, Barton sailed to Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey where she opened the first American International Red Cross headquarters. Barton’s last field operation as president of the American Red Cross was helping victims of the Galveston hurricane in 1900.
In 1897, at age 76, Barton continued to live in her Glen Echo, Maryland home which also served as the Red Cross Society’s national headquarters. In 1898, the society’s role changed with the advent of the Spanish-American War during which time it aided both military and civilian wounded.
Barton published her autobiography in 1907. On April 12, 1912, she died in her home at the age of 90. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973.