Clara Barton: Red Cross Founder Became the Civil War's “Angel of the Battlefield”

March 19, 2021

Women’s History Month is a great opportunity to commemorate the contributions of God-fearing women in American history. Women have played an important role in our nation’s history and the women in this series represent those who have faithfully, courageously, and humbly served their families, communities, and our nation. Periodically throughout the month of March, we will be sharing some of these inspiring stories. Don’t miss our previous installments on Abigail Adams and Fanny Crosby.

Clara Barton is primarily known for founding the American Red Cross. However, this remarkable American woman also lead the way in female nursing in America, women working in government, and domestic and international humanitarian aid. Clara was deeply dedicated to serving those in need and wasted no time in waiting to be told what needed to be done; rather, she took initiative and saw the needs of others. Her humble courage inspired a nation during the Civil War through her compassionate and healing work as a nurse.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born Christmas Day 1821, the youngest of five children by 10 years. Her two older brothers, Stephen and David, taught her to ride bare back, climb trees, and mathematics, while her two sisters, Sarah “Sally” and Dorothea “Dolly,” both worked together to teach her to read and write. The Barton home was not a happy one. Mrs. Barton suffered from a mental disorder (most likely bipolar) and was particularly unkind to Clara as a child. Dolly also suffered a mental break when Clara was six, and the family had Dolly locked in an upstairs room most of her life. However, her father Captain Stephen Barton loved Clara and gave her an example of hard work, persistence, and compassion that would be the foundation of her future fame. She was raised in the church and her autobiography gives testimony to the role her faith took in her work.

When Clara was 11, her older brother David fell off a shed during work. Unfortunately, his injuries rendered him bed ridden, and doctors believed that he would not survive. Clara refused to accept their prognosis and for the following two years, nursed her brother back to full health. This was her first exposure to nursing, but it would not be her last. She finished her formal education at a local school, but pursuing nursing was not an option as it was predominately a male profession at the time. Instead, she took on a teaching position in her hometown of Oxford, Massachusetts where she remained for six years. For the following seven years she taught local children who worked at the mill. Clara went on to earn a higher degree from Clinton Liberal Institute and in 1852 she founded the first Free School in Bordentown, New Jersey. Her school was so successful that the government took over and suggested that a man take her position because she could not handle the work. Clara held on to the post but suffered from burnout as well as the first of many mental breaks, eventually resigning from the school.

Clara moved to Washington, D.C. and was one of the first women hired to work for the federal government, working as a clerk for the Patent Office. The adjustment was difficult, and some men gave her a hard time, making work unpleasant at times. But her superior appreciated her work and respected her persistence despite the challenges. Her position changed to a copyist where she was paid 10 cents for every 100 words. Clara left the capitol when her job was terminated with the election of James Buchanan in 1857 and moved home. However, she soon returned to D.C. when Abraham Lincoln took office the following term and resumed her position at the Patent Office. The boarding house that she lived in is now the Clara Barton Museum.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Clara was extremely aggravated by the lack of care given to union soldiers who were traveling from the northern states south to the battle grounds. Many of these men were packed into train cars and not given food, water, or shelter when they stopped in the capitol. Clara went to work acquiring supplies and helping in whatever way she could when the trains stopped at the station. She became particularly concerned with the number of wounded men who had been on the battlefield for days before receiving medical attention once on the train to a hospital. Because women were not allowed on the battlefield, she worked diligently to receive permission to transport supplies and medical care herself to the front lines.

At The Battle of Cedar Mountain on August 9, 1862, Clara Barton became the first American female nurse during the civil war. As she carried supplies to the wounded, comforted the dying, and stayed calm and collected through it all, other male nurses and surgeons working alongside her marveled at her instincts and gentleness. She soon received the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield” and her fame began to grow and gave the union hope. She would go on to serve at every battle in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. General Benjamin Butler named her head nurse of his unit in 1864, even though she had no formal medical training. She would go on to instruct other female nurses as the war continued. After the war, 63,000 families wrote to Clara asking for help in locating lost soldiers. She and her colleagues were able to locate 22,000 of them and bring closure to their families.

The stress of the war and recoveries of missing persons caused her to suffer a second mental break, and Clara traveled to Europe for rest. While in Europe she was exposed to the work of the international Red Cross and returned to America when she was 60 determined to aid various humanitarian crises. While the government was not initially intrigued by Clara’s proposal of the American Red Cross, the great Michigan fire of 1881 increased support and funds poured in. On March 16, 1882, the American Red Cross opened its doors. Clara Barton remained at her post as president until 1904 and went on to also found the National First Aid Association of America.

Clara Barton died of pneumonia on April 12, 1912. Despite suffering from depression and mental illnesses for most of her life, her pioneering work as a nurse and the immense compassion she showed for those in need inspired a wounded nation and continues to be a shining example of selfless love.