Clarissa Harlowe Barton Biography (1821-1912)

teacher, organizer, nurse

Clara Barton was nicknamed "Angel of the Battlefield" for her extraordinary work with wounded soldiers during the Civil War. Her most lasting legacy, however, was the establishment of the American Red Cross, a relief organization which still exists today.

Clara Barton was born on December 25, 1821, the youngest of Stephen Barton and Sally Stone's five children. By all accounts, Barton was a painfully shy child, although always stunningly brilliant. Her older brothers and sisters (the next eldest was 10 years older than Barton) coddled her and taught her, sothat she was able to read and write at a very early age. Barton's first encounter with nursing occurred at age 11, when her brother slipped from a barn roof and suffered catastrophic injuries. Barton cared for him for two years.

At age 15, Barton began her first career as a schoolteacher. Her family had guided her towards this profession, hoping that it would help her overcome herintense shyness. Indeed, it would appear that teaching had its desired affect, given the strength of Barton's later personality, and her ability to speakpublicly, organize, and convince political and governmental officials to address her causes. In 1850, Barton went to Bordentown, New Jersey to teach. Atthis time, all the schools in New Jersey charged their pupils, a situation Barton found abhorrent. She offered to go without pay at the Bordentown schools, if all children were allowed to attend without cost to them. The school system accepted her offer, and Barton is credited with establishing the first free school in the state. The school grew by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, the school administrator's chose to hire a male principal to take Barton's place, angering Barton. Perhaps due to the stress of this situation, Barton suffered the first of many "breakdowns which haunted her life." Barton left teaching to recuperate.

After a period of rest, Barton went to Washington D.C., where she became a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. This was another "first" for Barton, as no other American woman had ever held such a governmental post. Barton kept this until 1861, when she resigned in order to pursue her interest in delivering supplies to the troops during the Civil War.

Barton started her Civil War efforts by collecting items ranging from bandages and medical supplies to socks which were needed by the soldiers in the front lines. After a while, she received permission to actually visit the battlefields to deliver these items personally. She began assisting in the care of the wounded, and worked tirelessly through horrific conditions to provide these wounded and ill soldiers with compassionate nursing care.

In 1865, Barton took an interest in identifying the vast numbers of missing and dead soldiers. She ran a missing person's office (the first woman to heada bureau for the U.S. government), lectured on a circuit about her experiences in the war, and worked for the suffragist movement to gain the right to vote for women.

Unfortunately, Barton's feeble health again interrupted her activities, and she had to withdraw from her work and take a rest. In 1869, she ended up seeking a cure in Switzerland, where she began to familiarize herself with the work of the International Red Cross. Although in Europe to bolster her own help,Barton ended up traveling to France to provide aid during the Franco-Prussian War. She also worked in both Strasbourg and Lyon to try to improve the conditions of impoverished women by providing them with work.

In 1873, Barton returned to the U.S., determined to start a branch of the International Red Cross in the United States, and passionate about convincing the U.S. government to ratify the Geneva Convention, which would set policy forthe treatment of sick and wounded soldiers by the Red Cross. Although her health sent her to a spa in Danville, NY for a time, Barton was able to convince the U.S. government to ratify the Geneva Agreement. The document was signedin 1882.

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