by Stan Griffin

During Clara Barton's lifetime, women were limited in their choice of occupations to those of wives and mothers. Clara, however, was outstanding in a number of varied careers.

Although she is remembered mostly as founder of the American Red Cross, Clara also was a teacher who brought educational innovations to several communities.

She was a nurse who supplied food, medical help, a woman's touch, and memories of home to wounded men on Civil War battlefields.

In addition, Clara was a diplomat who was able to influence politicians here and abroad while acting as an advisor to senators and presidents. Throughout her career of public service, she was honored by leaders of many countries, including her own.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the youngest of seven children. Two sisters and a brother became teachers, and they taught Clara lessons in poetry, math, and geography when she was young.

At the age of nine, she was sent to boarding school. Being away from her family was troubling for Clara. She was a nervous, shy child who found it hard to talk to fellow students. When she stopped eating, school officials sent her home.

Clara's brother, David, was injured in a fall and developed a serious fever. Over a period of two years, she cared for him, staying at his side day and night until he recovered. David was the first of many patients Clara would take care of during her lifetime.

She made a decision to follow the lead of those three family members and enter the teaching profession. At the age of 18 (1839), Clara took her first job in her hometown. For ten years, she taught successfully in several area schools.

In 1850 Clara was hired to teach in Bordentown, New Jersey. There she found a school that required tuition (a fee) from all students. This meant that poorer students in town were unable to attend.

During a period of several months, Clara campaigned for a free school; and she finally was able to convince the school board to provide a vacant (but shabby) building to be used for that purpose.

She started classes at her free school with only six students, but that number grew rapidly; soon the board had to admit that it was a success. By 1852 they paid for the construction of a new, two-story, eight-classroom free schoolhouse. By this time, enrollment had grown to 600!

School officials then chose a head teacher for the free school; but instead of putting Clara in that position, they hired a man. She was told that "the job was too important for a woman to hold." Disappointed, Clara remained as an assistant with a salary half that of the new administrator.

She remained unhappy in her secondary role but for a time continued to teach in Bordentown. In 1854 ill, exhausted, and still upset about being rejected for the head teacher job, she resigned and moved to Washington, D. C.

There Clara gained an appointment as a clerk in the Patent Office, at that time one of only a few women in government service. She lost that position in 1856 but was re-hired late in 1860.

Just a few months later, the Civil War began. As soldiers streamed into Washington, Clara saw that there were crucial shortages: they lacked food, clothing, and medicine as well as other items. She began gathering supplies and taking them to the men. Additionally she brought news from home as well as brandy, tobacco, lemons, soap, and sewing kits.

As the war continued, Clara witnessed wounded men being neglected. She undertook a campaign for permission to visit the battlefields to help. Approval came in 1862.

From then until the end of the War (1865), Clara Barton was a familiar figure at the scene of many bloody conflicts. She did what she could to ease the suffering of the wounded men. She said, "While our soldiers stand and fight, I can sit and feed and nurse." She believed that her place was " ... any place between the bullet and the battlefield ..."

Clara hauled wagonloads of medical supplies to places where they were needed, delivering such items as bandages, splints, and drugs. She and other female volunteers brought food and water, washing wounds of as many soldiers as they could. Clara's face often had a blue tint from the ever-present, dense gunpowder smoke.

Once Clara barely escaped being captured by the enemy. Another time as she was giving a wounded man a cup of water, a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress and into the man's chest, killing him!

Still another incident involved a soldier with a musket ball (bullet) wedged in his cheek. No surgeons were available so Clara grabbed a pocketknife, cut open the soldier's face, and pulled out the bullet herself.

At the battle of Antietam, the Union hospital area came under Confederate fire. Surgeons did their best to continue operating, but all male surgical assistants ran for cover. Clara stood her ground and held a movable table steady so one of the surgeons could finish his operation.

One of the soldiers that Clara nursed was her brother, Stephen. He had been held prisoner; and once released, Clara found him to be very sick. In spite of her skilled help, Stephen died a month before the South surrendered.

An army brigade surgeon, Dr. James Dunn, wrote about Clara: "She was like an angel, an angel of the battlefield." That name caught on and was frequently used by admirers. Others called her a "true heroine of the age."

Once the War ended, Clara worked to locate missing soldiers and identify unknown casualties. An organization she founded was able to find more than 22,000 missing men. Clara also helped to set up a cemetery at Andersonville (a notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia). To raise money for expenses, Clara went on a lecture tour (in spite of her constant fear of speaking before crowds). Each appearance drew large audiences.

By 1869 Clara was exhausted, so she took a trip to Europe for a rest. Visiting Geneva, Switzerland she learned of a new institution called the "International Red Cross." It provided medical personnel for wounded soldiers of all nations. She learned that the U. S. was the only major nation not to sign the Treaty of Geneva (1864) which created the Red Cross.

Clara then visited Prussia and France, and found the Franco-Prussian War in progress. She volunteered her services to the Red Cross and soon was again spending time on battlefields, this time in Europe. Again, Clara had worked to the point of exhaustion; in 1873 she was forced to return home.

Clara kept in touch with the International Red Cross while recuperating. They asked her to intervene with the U. S. President and work for his recognition. She was glad to do so, and she visited Washington to speak with President Hayes.

When Clara did not receive any encouragement, she and her friends went ahead on their own to form the "American National Red Cross Society" (1881) with Clara as president. It was modeled after the European organization. Soon they had thousands of volunteers.

Only a year later, the new Red Cross sent some of them to Michigan, scene of a disastrous forest fire. This same year (1882) Clara again visited the White House. This time she was told by President Arthur that he was ready to sign the Treaty of Geneva. His action made the American Red Cross a division of the International Red Cross.

Clara served as president of the American Red Cross for 23 years. During her term of office, they organized units all over the country. They dealt with disasters of many types: floods; tornados; earthquakes; epidemics; etc. The Johnstown Flood (Pennsylvania) in 1889 was one of the worst.

Clara and her volunteers nursed sick and injured victims. They also provided money to rebuild homes and replant lost crops.

While she was president of the Red Cross, Clara traveled overseas several times. She re-visited Geneva, Switzerland, went to Turkey to help out during a holy war, and stopped at Armenia with food for the needy during a period of widespread starvation. Closer to home, she and her workers went to Cuba just before the Spanish-American War broke out--she found herself at the age of 77 again caring for wounded American soldiers. (1898)

Clara took time out from Red Cross activities to campaign for womens' right to vote. She spoke to many organized conventions working toward that goal, helping to convince many people that it was a worthy cause.

After she retired in 1904, Clara went on to establish the National First Aid Association. She spent her time writing books about the Red Cross and her childhood. She also made speeches, worked in her garden, repaired furniture, and learned to type.

Clara Barton died in Glen Echo, Maryland of double pneumonia on April 13, 1912. She was buried at her birthplace in North Oxford. The Red Cross flag is her monument.

Clara was small, only five feet tall, but her life was marked with feats of courage and strength.. She conquered her timid nature to become one of the most important women of her time and one of the greatest humanitarians in our history.

Today the American Red Cross has approximately 3,000 chapters and over 20,000 employees. During the nearly 120 years of its existence, it has saved the lives of countless disaster victims and wartime casualties.

This is Clara Barton's legacy.



You might also enjoy these stories by Stan Griffin:

Norman Rockwell : "The People's Artist"

Betsy Ross And The First American Flag

Madame Curie: Woman of Science

Alexander Fleming and Penicillin


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