Information and Articles About Clara Barton, a famous civil war nurse and a prominent woman of the civil war
Clara Barton Facts
December 25, 1821
North Oxford, Massachusetts
April 12, 1912 (aged 90)
Glen Echo, Maryland
First female clerk at U.S. Patent Office
Founder of the American Red Cross
Founder of the National First Aid Association of America
Clara Barton summary: Clara Barton is best known as one of the founders of the American Red Cross and as a pioneer in the field of nursing. She was also a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement and dedicated her life to helping people.
Clarissa "Clara" Harlowe Barton was born December 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, to Captain Stephen and Sarah (Stone) Barton. Her father was a prosperous businessman and community leader who served in the Indian wars and regaled Clara with war stories. Educated mainly at home by her older siblings—she was the youngest of five children—Clara was acutely shy.
When her brother David became seriously ill following a barn-raising accident, 11-year old Clara nursed him for two years. The family enlisted the help of a doctor who used hydrotherapy to cure David within a few weeks. Following David’s recovery, Captain Barton sent Clara to a private boarding school and though she was able to keep up academically, her shyness affected her health and she returned home. Finally, her mother had her examined by a noted phrenologist, who recommended she become a teacher to overcome her shyness.
Clara took the teacher’s exam—a brief oral exam given by a minister, a lawyer, and a judge—and began teaching in May 1838 in North Oxford. As a teacher, she enthralled her students and refused to discipline them physically, though corporal punishment was a common practice in 19th-century schools. She later wrote, "Child that I was, I did not know that the surest test of discipline is its absence." Six years later, she opened her own school.
In 1850, to further her own education, Clara enrolled at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York. After a year of study, she moved with a friend to Bordentown, New Jersey. At the time, New Jersey had no free public schools, but with support from the local community Clara opened a free public school. Although enrollment was initially low, by the end of the year she had about 200 pupils. Her project was such a success that the community built a new school and, much to Clara’s surprise, hired a man to run it— at twice her salary.
Clara resigned and moved to Washington, D.C., where she became the first female clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. After President James Buchanan took office in 1857, her position was eliminated and she was dismissed. She went home to North Oxford but later returned to the Patent Office and was in Washington, D.C. when the American Civil War began.
On April 19, 1861, a mob of Southern sympathizers attacked soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts Regiment in Baltimore. The Baltimore Riot killed and wounded several soldiers and civilians. A makeshift hospital had been set up for the soldiers at the new U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. As soon as she heard about the riots, Clara left the Patent Office to tend the wounded, some of whom she knew personally. She collected food, medicine, clothing, and other supplies for the troops, many of whom arrived with just the clothes they were wearing. Clara wrote friends in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey urging them to help, soon building a volunteer supply network that would last the entirety of the war.
Clara wanted to help with the war effort as much as she could and offered to do the work of two clerks at the Patent Office, drawing only the salary of one, so that two male clerks could be released to fight in the war. With no precedent, the Patent Office refused and Clara resigned, dedicating herself to help with the war by any means she could, initially collecting and dispersing supplies and eventually nursing the wounded.
She met and was one of the first to tend to the routed multitudes from the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 and, in October, the soldiers returning from the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, who included soldiers she knew from Massachusetts. During the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 she went down to the docks to meet the transports returning from the field, tending the wounded and helping to bring them to the hospitals.
In late 1861, she went home to North Oxford to tend her dying father, returning to Washington in March,1862 with renewed conviction to help her country win the war. The neglected wounds of the men, which had weighed on her mind since Bull Run, led her to campaign for the ability to travel to the field hospitals, which were restricted to male-only staffs by both military regulations and societal mores. She finally received official permission on August 3, 1862, to transport supplies to battlefields and arrived in the Union camps four days after the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia. She stayed two days and nights to tend the wounded. On September 1 she arrived at Fairfax Station and tended the wounded from the Second Battle of Bull Run; on September 14, she was on hand in Maryland to tend the wounded from the battles of Harpers Ferry and South Mountain.
Clara then traveled with the army to Antietam Creek outside Sharpsburg, Maryland. Arriving on the field with four wagons before the Battle of Antietam began, she provided surgeons with badly needed supplies and stayed with the army as it pursued the Confederates into Virginia. During the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862, she assisted in a hospital at Chatham, known as the Lacy House, tending wounded from both sides. To assist a physician, she even traveled into Fredericksburg itself to tend the wounded and was able to set up a soup kitchen, returning to Chatham the next day to continue helping the wounded. Because the physicians were too busy to keep records, Clara wrote the names of the men who died at Chatham and where they were buried in her diary.
Being so close to the battlefields, Clara narrowly escaped death herself many times. While tending to a wounded soldier during the Battle of Antietam, she felt her sleeve move—a bullet had gone through it and killed the man she was tending. At the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862, she saw a fragment from an exploding shell sever a soldier’s artery and applied a tourniquet that saved his life. When a shell struck the door of the room she was in, she continued what she was doing as though nothing had happened.
In April, 1863, Clara traveled south to Hilton Head, South Carolina, in anticipation of the bombardment of Charleston, where she joined her brother, Captain David Barton—an Army quartermaster—and her nephew, Steven E. Barton, who was serving in the military telegraph office. She helped establish field hospitals and distribute supplies during siege of nearby Fort Wagner in August.
By June of 1864, Clara was appointed by Army of the James Commander Major General Benjamin F. Butler to be in charge of diet and nursing at the X Corps hospital, dubbed a "flying hospital" because of it’s frequent moves to be close enough to the battle help the wounded but not so close as to be overrun.
In the fall of 1864, Clara’s brother Stephen was released from jail and into her care. He had been arrested on suspicion of treason and violating a blockade. He had moved to South Carolina just before the war and had difficulty maintaining his property and business, ultimately engaging in activities that could have been deemed illegal by both sides. Stephen was later acquitted and allowed to return to Washington, D.C., where he died in early March 1865 in spite of Clara’s ministrations.
Soon after, on March 11, 1865, Clara was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln to "search for missing prisoners of war," helping soldiers separated from the units reunite with those units or their families and helping families learn the fate of missing soldiers. She set up Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army using her own funds and with the assistance of several volunteers, including her sister Sally. When an inquiry about a soldier was received, his name was added to the lists, which were organized by state and published in local newspapers, displayed in post offices, and reviewed by various organizations. The hope was that veterans seeing the list might recognize a name or two and provide Clara with information, which her organization would then provide to whoever had inquired about that soldier.
The search for missing soldiers soon turned to identifying graves. In June 1865, she was contacted by Dorence Atwater, a Union prisoner of war at Andersonville, Georgia, who had been assigned to the Confederate surgeon general to record the deaths at the prison—other Union soldiers had been assigned to burying the dead. He secretly kept his own copy of this list and after returning North, asked Clara for help. She was able to use her connections to have the case presented to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who agreed that the nearly 13,000 graves should be properly marked. In July, Clara and Atwater traveled with the U.S. Army Quartermaster and 40 workmen to Andersonville. Clara had the honor of raising the flag over Andersonville National Cemetery on August 17, 1865, during the dedication ceremony.
In February 1866 she testified before Congress about the Andersonville prison grounds, which still stood, a stockade with no running water or shelter. She also testified about the freed slaves, many of whom had not been told of their freedom, and her observations of the whites in Georgia. In early March, Congress appropriated $15,000 to reimburse her for expenses related to the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, which she would continue to operate until 1869, identifying a total of about 22,000 missing men.
In 1866, Clara began a lecture tour throughout the Northeast and Midwest, describing her Civil War experiences. She often shared the platform with other prominent lecturers of the day. In November 1867, she met woman-suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, forming strong friendships with both and aligning herself firmly with the suffrage movement.
Exhausted from her two-year lecture tour, Clara traveled to Europe in September 1869 on the advice of her doctor. While visiting Switzerland, she met Dr. Louis Appia, a member of the Committee of Five, which would later become the International Committee of the Red Cross, an organization that had come out of the first Geneva Convention, August 1864. In September 1870, with sponsorship from the International Red Cross and the Grand Duchess Louise of Baden, daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm I, Clara organized a relief effort in Strasbourg, France, during the Franco-Prussian War, which had begun July 18. In 1871, she organized a similar relief effort in Paris, though the work had begun to wear on her.
In 1872, nervous exhaustion caused Clara to temporarily lose her eyesight and she went to England to recuperate. The following October, she returned to the United States, though she did not make a full recovery until 1876 after going to a sanitarium in Dansville, New York, where she then made her home.
Following her recovery, Clara focused on publicizing the International Red Cross and garnering support for the American Red Cross, which was established May 21, 1881. She was elected its president a few weeks later. The newly formed organization sprang into action in the fall of 1881 when forest fires ripped through Michigan. It provided relief during many other natural disasters and epidemics in the U.S., including the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood in 1889. Clara directed many of the relief operations herself. The American Red Cross also provided international relief, helping victims of the Russian famine of 1892 and providing relief to Armenians living in Turkish-controlled Armenia in 1896, among other endeavors. In 1898, Clara herself traveled with nurses to Cuba during the Spanish-American War to nurse the wounded and provide supplies and food—she was 76 at the time.
In 1886 Clara moved back to the Washington, D.C., area, to Glen Echo, Maryland. In 1900, after several contentious attempts in the 1890s, the U.S. Congress granted the American Red Cross a charter, making the independent, non-profit organization responsible for fulfilling the provisions of the Geneva Conventions, providing family and other support to the U.S. military, and providing a system for disaster relief.
Clara also directed her last relief operation in 1900, for victims of a hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas. Four years later, bowing to pressure for new, larger centralized leadership of the American Red Cross, she resigned her position. In 1905, she established the National First Aid Association of America, which emphasized basic first aid instruction and emergency preparedness, and served as honorary president for five years. She continued living at her home in Glen Echo, dying at the age of 90 in 1912.
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