Founder of the American Red Cross
When we think of the many and diverse benevolent undertakings and achievements of Clara Barton, one marvels at her seemingly iron and will and devotion to human welfare. In her long career she held a variety of positions. She began as a teacher in New Jersey and went on to become a battlefield nurse, lecturer and, perhaps her greatest work, organizer and president of the American Red Cross.
Despite life-threatening conditions, Clara provided supplies and care to troops in the American Civil War. She also served in the hospitals during the Franco-German War, was superintendent of the reformatory prison for women at Sherborn, Massachusetts, and was president of the American Red Cross Society. Clara ministered to those who suffered from the effects of a variety of disasters. In all her work, Clara Barton gave of herself, unceasingly, without reservation, until relief had been given.
Clara was born on Christmas day in 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts into a family of five children to the Captain Stephen Barton and his wife Sarah. While her father was a farmer, he had also been a soldier. His stories of his army experiences instilled in Clara a lifelong interest in the military.
Early in her life, her gift of mercy was revealed. She would often play nurse, taking care of pets that were sick or injured. When she was eleven, her brother, David, was badly injured in an accident and Clara attended him night and day for nearly two years (King, Woman, p. 437). The lessons she learned in this experience were useful to her later work.
A shy girl, Clara sought to overcome her shyness by entering the field of teaching. She taught school until her health failed. For rest and restoration she went to Washington, DC, and after a time was appointed to a position in the Patent Office. Clara found this job unfulfilling and left that position to go to the front to minister, without pay, to the sick and wounded soldiers of the Civil War, earning her the well deserved title of “Angel of the Battlefield”.
Another invaluable service initiated by Clara was the establishing of a Bureau of Records of missing men of the Union Army, compiled from prison and hospital rolls and burial lists. To this work she gave four years of her time and expended more than $10,000 of her own money. Congress voted to reimburse her, but she declined remuneration for her services.
She was in Europe when the Franco-German war broke out and was immediately asked to go to the front lines to assist in caring for the wounded. In recognition of her services, she received numerous badges of honor from nobility and royalty.
Though broken in health from all her work on behalf of others, Clara returned to America and became the first president of the American Association of the Red Cross in 1881. She served in this capacity until 1904 when she retired to her home at Glen Echo, Maryland. She died on April 12, 1912 at the age of 91.