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Clara Barton

The Angel of the Battlefield 

"You must never so much think as whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it."

Born in 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts, Clarissa Harlowe Barton was the youngest of five children. She was shy and timid, but events would soon draw her out of her retiring ways. When Clara was 11, one of her brothers fell from the rafters of a newly built barn and was seriously injured. She spent the next two years caring for him while he recovered. 

Clara Barton -- The Angel of the Battlefield

Much of her education came from her older siblings, and it must have seemed natural to Clara at age 15 to start a school at her father's mill and teach the worker's children. Over the next fifteen years, Clara taught in many schools throughout the Northeast. 

In 1851, some businessmen asked Clara to establish a school in Bordentown, NJ. When enrollment at the school topped 600, the city fathers decided they must hire a man as principal because it was too much for a woman to handle. Clara quit in disgust, and shortly thereafter suffered a nervous breakdown. She soon recovered and moved to Washington, D.C., where she was hired as a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. Clara was the first woman hired by the Patent Office, and she received the same salary as the men working there.

The Civil War began in 1861, and in the first major confrontation between Confederate and Union armies at Bull Run, the Union army was battered and forced into a headlong retreat back to Washington, D.C. When casualties began arriving in local hospitals, it became clear that the Union army hadn't allocated adequate resources to treat them. There were great shortages of medical supplies.

Clara decided to help by advertising for donations of food, clothing, and medical supplies. The response was overwhelming, so Clara set up a warehouse and began distributing the supplies. Women were not allowed anywhere near the battlefields, but in 1862, Clara received permission from the Surgeon General to travel wherever the troops went. She was granted a general pass "for the purpose of distributing comforts for the sick and wounded, and nursing them."

She often rendered assistance to wounded soldiers during the heat of battle. Once, while giving water to one wounded soldier, a bullet passed through her sleeve and killed him. Doctors were usually overwhelmed with the number of casualties, and wounded soldiers had to wait several hours, sometimes even days for treatment. Clara helped out wherever she could; once she removed a bullet from a soldier's face using only her pocketknife.

In 1864, she was named superintendent of nursing for the Union Army, but Clara helped care for the wounded from both sides. She even visited Confederate field hospitals and provided them with supplies and assistance. One newspaper called her, "The true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield" and the latter part of that phrase was used to describe her for the rest of her life.

After the war, President Lincoln asked Clara to set up an office to aid in locating missing soldiers. She ran "The Missing Soldier's Office" for four years, answering over 63,000 letters and determining the fate of over 22,000 men. 

The Missing Soldier's Office

She interviewed returning soldiers in order to obtain information about the missing and she succeeded in reuniting many soldiers with their families. She compiled lists of the killed, wounded, and missing, and had those lists published in newspapers.

She traveled to the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville to identify and mark the locations of buried soldiers. Nearly 13,000 graves were identified and the prison was transformed into a national cemetery.

Clara had worked very hard during the Civil War and the years after, and her health was failing. In 1868, she suffered another nervous breakdown. Her doctor advised her to rest, so she went to Europe in 1869 for a vacation. While in Geneva, she was contacted by the International Red Cross, who wanted her assistance in persuading the United States to sign the Geneva Conventions of 1864, which among other things provided protection to those who cared for the sick and wounded during wartime.

Clara was also asked to aid in the Franco-Prussian war. She distributed supplies and provided relief in war-torn areas of France and Germany and was awarded the Iron Cross by Kaiser Wilhelm. By the time she returned home, she was even more exhausted than she had been before her departure. She suffered a third nervous breakdown, and this time she temporarily lost her eyesight.

By 1877 she was able to begin the fight to have the Geneva Conventions signed by the president and ratified by the Senate. She wrote articles, made speeches, and lobbied Congress. It was an uphill battle because of the Monroe Doctrine, which prohibited treaties and alliances with Europe. President James Garfield promised to sign it, but he died before he got the chance.

In 1881, Clara created the American Red Cross. She organized a national office and local chapters in cities across the U.S. President Chester A. Arthur finally signed the Geneva Conventions in 1882, and the United States officially became a member of the International Red Cross.

Red Cross Poster

She ran the organization for 23 years. She expanded the roll of the Red Cross to help civilians in war and also in natural disasters. She was often at the forefront of relief efforts throughout the United States; during epidemics, tornadoes, droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes.

She also stressed the importance of educating victims to look after themselves. This evolved into what became known as "First Aid" and the original first aid kits. She made first-aid training one of the core responsibilities of the Red Cross.

Clara was 77 when she went to Havana, Cuba, at the start of the Spanish-American War to care for sick and wounded soldiers and provide relief to the civilian population. She worked 16-hour days delivering supplies by mule-wagon and providing medical care to soldiers living in camps rife with diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever.

Clara Barton in Havana, Cuba

She wrote several books including, History of the Red Cross (1882) and The Red Cross in Peace and War (1899). She wrote a famous poem, The Women Who Went to the Field  that was a tribute to the Civil War nurses.

Clara was outspoken and self-reliant. She refused any government funding for the American Red Cross because she didn't want to relinquish any control to government bureaucrats. She came under attack by many of her subordinates and other individuals over her authoritarian management style, and what they said was her mismanagement of Red Cross funds.

Clara Barton resigned as president of the Red Cross in 1904, and was quite bitter about it, "The government I thought I loved and loyally tried to serve has shut every door in my face." She died of pneumonia at the age of 91 in 1912. Her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, is a National Historic Site.

The American Red Cross currently has 8 regional centers, 1,000 local chapters, and 36 blood services regions that collect, process, and distribute blood and blood products to hospitals and medical centers. The American Red Cross supplies nearly 50 percent of the blood and blood products used in the U.S. Quite a legacy for a shy young girl from Massachusetts.


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