by Molly Carman
March 26, 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, Fanny Crosby, and Harriet Tubman.
Clara Barton is primarily known for being the founder of the American Red Cross. However, she was also a pioneer for women working in the fields of nursing, government, and humanitarian aid. Throughout her long life, Clara was deeply dedicated to serving those in need. She wasted no time waiting to be told what needed to be done; instead, she took the initiative and saw to the needs of others herself. Today, she is remembered as one of the greatest humanitarians our country has ever known.
Clarissa (“Clara”) Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, the youngest of five children by 10 years. Her two older brothers, Stephen and David, taught her mathematics and how to ride bareback and climb trees. Her two older sisters, Sarah (“Sally”) and Dorothea (“Dolly”), taught her to read and write. Sadly, the Barton home was not a happy one. Mrs. Barton suffered from a mental illness (most likely bipolar disorder) and was unkind to Clara as a child. Older sister Dolly spent most of her life locked away in an upstairs bedroom after suffering a mental breakdown when Clara was six. However, Clara’s father, Captain Stephen Barton, loved Clara and gave her an example of hard work, persistence, and compassion. This example provided a foundation for the humanitarian efforts for which she would later become famous. Clara was raised in the Universalist 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 the roof of the family barn. His injuries rendered him bedridden, and doctors believed that he would not survive. Clara refused to accept their prognosis and spent the next two years nursing her brother back to full health. This was her first exposure to nursing, but it would not be her last.
Clara did not initially pursue a career in nursing, as it was a predominately male profession at the time. Instead, she acquired a teaching license and worked as an educator for 12 years before furthering her education at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York. In 1852, she founded the first free school in the state of New Jersey. The school was successful, so much so that when it expanded and a new building was built, the board hired a male principal to run the school instead of Clara. She continued to teach at the school but suffered from health problems and her first of many mental breakdowns, and eventually resigned.
In 1855, Clara moved to Washington, D.C., and was the first female clerk in the U.S. Patent Office, earning a salary equal to that of her male peers. The adjustment was difficult, and some of her male coworkers harassed and slandered her on account of her being a woman. Her position was later reduced to a copyist, and then her job was terminated altogether with the election of President James Buchanan in 1857. She moved home to Massachusetts but later returned to D.C. when Abraham Lincoln took office, resuming her position at the Patent Office.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Clara was extremely aggravated by the lack of care given to Union soldiers traveling from the northern states to the southern battlegrounds. Many of these men were packed into train cars and not given food, water, or shelter when they stopped in the capital. 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.
Many women served as volunteer nurses during the Civil War, but their services were generally relegated to military hospitals, not the battlefield itself. On August 9, 1862, at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Clara Barton performed her first field duty. As she carried supplies to the wounded, comforted the dying, and stayed calm and collected through it all, the male nurses and surgeons working alongside her marveled at her instincts and gentleness. Clara’s service at the Battle of Antietam earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield,” and her fame began to grow. She would go on to serve on a total of 16 battlefields, including every major 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, Clara coordinated efforts to locate lost soldiers. She and her colleagues received over 63,000 inquiries and were able to locate 22,000 soldiers, bringing closure to their families. The D.C. boarding house that she lived in is now home to the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.
The stress of the war and recoveries of missing persons caused Clara to suffer a second mental breakdown, and she traveled to Europe for rest. While in Europe, she was exposed to the work of the organization that would become known as the International Committee of the Red Cross. Determined to provide similar humanitarian relief in the United States, Clara would later found the American Red Cross on May 21, 1881. The organization’s first relief operation was in response to the Great Michigan Fire of 1881, and it received its first congressional charter in 1900. Clara remained president of the Red Cross until 1904. She would then go on to found the National First Aid Society.
Clara Barton died of pneumonia on April 12, 1912, in Glen Echo, Maryland. Despite suffering from depression and physical 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.