Barton's father was Captain Stephen Barton, a member of
militia and a
selectman. Barton's mother was Sarah Stone
Barton, a homemaker.
When three years old, Clara was sent to school with her
brother Stephen where she excelled in reading and
spelling. At school, she became close friends with Nancy
Fitts; this is the only known friend Clara Barton had as
a child due to her extreme timidness. Her parents tried
to help cure her of this shyness by sending her to Col.
Stones High School, but their strategy turned out to be
Clara became more timid and
depressed and would not eat. She was
immediately removed from the school and brought back
home to regain her health.
Upon her return, her family relocated to help a family
member, as the nephew of Captain Stephen Barton had died
and left his wife with four children and a farm. The
house that the Barton family was to live in needed to be
painted and repaired. Clara was persistent in offering
her assistance, for which the painter was very grateful.
After the work was done, Clara felt at a loss because
she had nothing else to do to help and not feel like a
burden to her family.
She began to play with her male
cousins, and to their surprise, she was good at keeping
up with such tasks as horseback riding. It was not until
after she had injured herself that Clara's mother began
to question her playing with the boys. Clara's mother
wanted her to become acquainted with her feminine side.
She invited one of Clara's female cousins over to help
develop her femininity. Upon learning from her cousin,
she gained proper social skills as well.
She was just ten when she assigned herself the task of
nursing her brother David back to health after he fell
from the roof of a barn and received a severe injury.
She learned how to distribute the prescribed medication
to her brother, as well as how to place
leeches on his body to bleed him. (This was a
regular treatment during this time.) She continued to
care for David long after doctors had given up. Her
brother made a full recovery.
Clara Barton became an educator in 1838 for a dozen
years in schools in Canada and West Georgia. Barton
fared well as a teacher and knew how to handle
rambunctious children, particularly the boys, since as a
child she enjoyed her male cousins’ and brothers’
company. She learned how to act like them, making it
easier for her to relate to and control the boys in her
classroom since they respected her. In 1850, Barton
decided to further her education by pursuing writing and
languages at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York.
Following these studies, Barton opened a free school in
Bordentown, New Jersey, the first free school to be
opened in the state. The attendance under her leadership
grew to 603, but instead of hiring Barton to head the
school, the board hired a man. Frustrated, in 1855 she
moved to Washington D.C. and began work as a clerk in
this was the first time a woman had
received a substantial clerkship in the federal
government and at a salary equal to a man's salary.
Subsequently, under political opposition to women
working in government offices, her position was reduced
to that of copyist, and in 1856, under the
Buchanan, eliminated entirely. After the
Abraham Lincoln, having lived with relatives
and friends in Massachusetts for three years, she
returned to the patent office in the autumn of 1861, now
as temporary copyist, in the hope she could make way for
more women in government service. She was probably the
first woman to hold a government job in the US.
American Civil War
Clara Barton circa 1866.
Before her father died, Clara Barton was able to talk to
him about the war effort. Her father convinced her that
it was her duty as a Christian to help the soldiers. In
the April following his death, Barton returned to
Washington to gather medical supplies.
Ladies' Aid societies helped in sending
bandages, food, and clothing that would later be
distributed during the Civil War. In the August of 1862,
Barton finally gained permission from
Quartermaster Daniel Rucker to work on the
front lines. She gained support from other people who
believed in her cause. These people became her patrons,
her most supportive being
Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.
She worked to distribute stores, clean field hospitals,
apply dressings, and serve food to wounded soldiers in
close proximity to several battles, including
In 1864 she was appointed by Union General
Benjamin Butler as the "lady in charge" of
the hospitals at the front of the
of the James. Among her more harrowing
experiences was an incident in which a bullet tore
through the sleeve of her dress without striking her and
killed a man to whom she was tending. She is known as
the "Angel of the Battlefield."
American Red Cross
After the war, she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers,
at 437 Seventh Street,
Northwest, Washington, D.C. in the
Gallery Place neighborhood.
The office's purpose was to find or identify soldiers
missing in action.
Barton then achieved widespread recognition by
delivering lectures around the country, which lasted
well over a year, about her war experiences. After her
country wide tour she was both mentally and physically
exhausted and under doctor's orders to go somewhere that
would take her far from her current work; so she packed
up and went on a retreat to Europe for some R&R. She met
B. Anthony and began a long association with
suffrage movement. She also became acquainted
Frederick Douglass and became an activist for
Detail of Clara Barton monument at
Antietam National Battlefield,
with red cross formed of a brick from the home where she
In 1869, during her trip to Geneva, Switzerland, Barton
was introduced to the
Cross and Dr. Appia; who later would invite
her to be the representative for the American branch of
the Red Cross and even help her find financial
beneficiaries for the start of the American Red Cross.
She was also introduced to
Dunant's book A Memory of Solferino,
which called for the formation of national societies to
provide relief voluntarily on a neutral basis.
At the beginning of the
Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, she assisted
Duchess of Baden in the preparation of
military hospitals, and gave the Red Cross society much
aid during the war. At the joint request of the German
authorities and the
Strasbourg Comité de Secours, she
superintended the supplying of work to the poor of
Strasbourg in 1871, after the
of Paris, and in 1871 had charge of the
public distribution of supplies to the destitute people
of Paris. At the close of the war, she received
honorable decorations of the Golden Cross of
and the Prussian
When Barton returned to the United States, she
inaugurated a movement to gain recognition for the
International Committee of the Red Cross by
the United States government. In 1873, she began work on
this project. In 1878, she met with President
Rutherford B. Hayes, who expressed the
opinion of most Americans at that time which was the
U.S. would never again face a calamity like the Civil
War. Barton finally succeeded during the administration
Chester Arthur, using the argument that the
American Red Cross could respond to crises
other than war such as earthquakes, forest fires, and
Barton became President of the American branch of the
society, which held its first official meeting at her I
Street apartment in Washington, DC, May 21, 1881. The
first local society was founded August 22, 1882 in
Dansville, Livingston County, New York, where
she maintained a country home.
The society's role changed with the advent of the
Spanish-American War during which it aided
refugees and prisoners of the civil war. Domestically in
1884 she helped in the floods on the Ohio river,
provided Texas with food and supplies during the famine
of 1887 and took workers to Illinois in 1888 after a
tornado and that same year to Florida for the yellow
Within days after the
Johnstown Flood in 1889, she led her
delegation of 50 doctors and nurses in response.
In 1897, responding to the humanitarian crisis in the
Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the
Hamidian Massacres, Barton sailed to
Constantinople and after long negotiations
Hamid II, opened the first American
International Red Cross headquarters in the heart of
Turkey. Barton herself traveled along with five other
Red Cross expeditions to the Armenian provinces in the
spring of 1896, providing relief and humanitarian aid.
Barton also worked in hospitals in Cuba in 1898 at the
age of seventy-seven.
Barton's last field operation as President of the
American Red Cross was helping victims of the
Galveston hurricane in 1900. The operation
established an orphanage for children. As criticism
arose of her management of the American Red Cross, plus
her advancing age, Barton resigned as president in 1904,
at the age of 83. After resigning, Barton founded the
National First Aid Society.
Her Final Years
She retired to
Echo, Maryland. Barton published her
autobiography in 1907, titled The Story of
My Childhood. On April 12, 1912 at the age of 90 she
died in Glen Echo. The cause of death was
tuberculosis, which she had contracted two
years earlier and with which she had been bedridden for
Clara Barton National Historic Site
Barton National Historic Site, located at
5801 Oxford Road,
Echo, Maryland, was established as a unit of
National Park Service at Barton's home, where
she spent the last 15 years of her life. One of the
National Historic Sites dedicated to the
accomplishments of a woman, it preserves the early
history of the American Red Cross, since the home also
served as an early headquarters of the organization.
North Oxford, Massachusetts, house in which she was born
is now also a museum.
The National Park Service has restored eleven
rooms, including the Red Cross offices, the parlors and
Barton's bedroom. Visitors to Clara Barton National
Historic Site can gain a sense of how Barton lived and
worked. Guides lead tourists through the three levels,
emphasizing Barton's use of her unusual home. Modern
visitors can come to appreciate the site in the same way
visitors did in Clara Barton's lifetime.
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