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Clara Barton

By Stanley Phillips

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Clara Barton made her reputation in American history during the Civil War, but also was active during the Spanish-American War.  Before the war started, she aided Cubans who were injured or ill during the Cuban Insurrection.  After war broke out between Spain and America, Barton set up Red Cross stations throughout Cuba that not only aided Americans, but Cubans as well.  At the age of 77, she tended to the needs of American soldiers on the battlefronts and behind the lines.


Clarissa (Clara) Harlowe Barton was born on December 25, 1821 in Oxford, Massachusetts to Stephen and Sarah Stone Barton.  Clara, as she was later known, was the youngest of five children.  Her father, Stephen Barton, was a well-respected farmer and state legislator in her community.  Her mother, Sarah Barton, was the typical New England housewife and mother, endowed with practical common sense and a quick temper.  Her family descended from Edward Barton, who came to Salem, Massachusetts during the mid-1600s.

Because Clara was born ten years apart from her next oldest sibling, most of her childhood was spent in solitude. Even though she was the only child left in her household,  Clara devised ways of entertaining herself.  However, she had an advantage over most children her age, which was knowledge she acquired through her older siblings.  Her older brothers and sisters taught her everything from geography to arithmetic.  At the age of four, when she started school she was already able to enunciate and spell three-syllable words.  Finding school easy, she took on more difficult courses such as chemistry, philosophy, and Latin.

Feeling educationally unfilled, Clara, at the age of 29, enrolled in Liberal Institute in Clinton, NY in 1851.  After only a year in Clinton, she left to go work as a schoolteacher in Bordentown, NJ.  Like most schools in New Jersey at that time, parents had to pay tuition for their children to attend.  Clara was upset by the fact that the only way a child could get an education was if their family had the ability to pay, so she decided to give up her salary as a teacher to allow for other children, who did not have enough money, to go to school for free.  Clara’s generous offer caused much opposition in the community; however, it still did not stop Clara.  After just a few months of this experiment, the school was so successful that it had to build another building to fit all the students.  However, as the school grew, people of the community began to oppose Clara’s role as head of the school because of her sex, so a male principal was put in charge of the school.  Clara became furious that she could not run the school she had started simply because she was a woman.  In 1854, Clara resigned as a teacher and she suffered a period of nervous fatigue.

After just a few months of quitting her job as a teacher, Clara moved to Washington, D.C.  There she obtained the position of copyist to the Patent Office and was the first women ever to hold that governmental position.  However, in 1857, Clara was relieved of her position because of the Democratic victory in the presidency, but in 1860 she was recalled back into the Patent Office.  Clara held the position from 1860 until the outbreak of the Civil War, which first hit Washington, D.C. with the Battle of Bull Run in April of 1861.

Clara began working the battlefields in April of 1861, during the Battle of Bull Run.  Her main job was to tend to wounded soldiers with bandages, medicines, and other goods that soldiers would need if injured.  To get enough war supplies for soldiers, Clara advertised in magazines and newspapers asking for socks, foods, extra clothing, and medical supplies.  Soon, hundreds of donations came pouring in, which Clara stored in Washington and later distributed to Union soldiers in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina.  In 1862, Clara was granted the privilege by the U.S. Surgeon General to travel to battlefronts under the guidance of Generals John Pope and James S. Wadsworth.  For the remainder of 1862, Clara stayed in the vicinity of Washington D.C. where she distributed goods and personally aided wounded soldiers.  In 1863, Clara traveled to Charleston, SC, and Fredricksburg, VA to aid wounded Union soldiers.  The next year, Clara received the position of superintendent of Union nurses, which she found to be quite an honor.

In 1865, after the war was finished, Clara began to set up a program to find and gather information about missing Union soldiers to give to the soldiers’ families.  This program started by Barton was funded and under the direct guidance of the federal government.  From 1866 until about 1869, Ms. Barton went to northern and western states to lecture about her experience as a wartime nurse. In 1869, Barton experienced a total mental and physical breakdown forcing her into exile to Europe for a few years.

Barton stayed in Geneva, Switzerland as her body and mind recovered from years of mental stress and physical deterioration.  While in Europe, Clara discovered an organization called the International Red Cross, which was founded on 1863.  The organization was based upon the principles of aiding and helping the wounded during the time of war.  Eleven European nations had ratified the Treaty of Geneva and Clara saw that if America ratified the Treaty of Geneva it to could start its own Red Cross organization.  Before Clara returned to the United States to promote the passing of the Treaty of Geneva, she aided and tended to the needs of soldiers who were fighting the Franco-Prussian War until about 1871.  Upon Clara’s departure from Europe in 1873, she received the Iron Cross of Merit from the emperor and empress of Germany and the Gold Cross of Remembrance from the Duke and Duchess of Baden for her heroics during the war.

After arriving back in America in 1876, she moved to Danville, NY to a sanatorium to improve her health and later bought a house there.  Following her short stay at the spa, Clara began lobbying and promoting the passing of the Treaty of Geneva throughout the U.S.  She wrote numerous letters to government administrators and presidents, notably James Garfield, discussing the passing of the treaty.  In 1878, Clara published a pamphlet, titled The Red Cross of Geneva Convention, What It Is, to persuade the American people into forming its own Red Cross organization.  On May 21, 1881, Clara received a letter from Secretary of State James Blaine saying that President Garfield was interested in adopting the Treaty of Geneva.  So the next day, Clara met with President Garfield and the began to organize the National Society of Red Cross.  In March of 1882 the Senate ratified the Treaty of Geneva.  Clara was than elected president of the America Red Cross at the age of 60 and continued to lead the American Red Cross until 1904.

Once the Red Cross was started, Clara immersed herself into humanity’s problems.  The Red Cross began to aid those in Michigan after a fire in 1882 and in Charleston, SC after an earthquake. She also began to aid those who needed it throughout the world.  In 1891, Barton personally traveled to Russia to help people who were experiencing famine. At the age of 77, Clara traveled to Cuba to aid wounded Cubans during the Cuban Insurrection.  After the outbreak of the Spanish-American War; however, Clara’s attention was turned to both Cubans and American soldiers, whom she personally aided to on the battlefield.

In the early 1900s, the Red Cross began to face many financial problems.  Clara feared that her organization would be taken over by the government if she took government funds, so she based the Red Cross’ income and finances on donations.  However, Clara prudently spent the money made from donations in the time of relief.  In one instance Clara spent $17,341 out of $1.3 million contributed in relief of flood victims in Galveston, TX.  Many people in the organization began to object to the type of leadership Ms. Barton was offering.  Eventually in 1902, Mabel Thorp Boardman led an internal rebellion to overthrow Barton as president of the American Red Cross.  The rebellion was a success and Barton left the Red Cross in 1904 and lived the remainder of her years in Glen Echo, Maryland.  On April 12, 1912, Clara died at the age of 90.

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