Clarissa "Clara" Harlowe Barton was the founder of the American Red Cross.

Conflict Period:
Civil War (Union) 1
25 Dec 1821 1
North Oxford, Massachusetts 1
12 Apr 1912 1
Glen Echo, Maryland 1

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Personal Details

Full Name:
Clarissa Harlowe Barton 2
Also known as:
Clara Barton 2
25 Dec 1821 2
North Oxford, Massachusetts 2
Female 2
12 Apr 1912 2
Glen Echo, Maryland 2
Cause: Tuberculosis 2
Burial Place: Oxford, Massachusetts 2
Mother: Sarah Stone 2
Father: Stephen Barton 2
Nurse 2
Position: President of the American Red Cross 2
Start Date: 21 May 1881 2
End Date: 1904 2

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The New York Times, 17 Aug 1865, Thu, Page 4

Clara Barton and the Red Cross

Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. Known as the "Angel of the Battlefield," she cared for the wounded during the Civil War and helped gather identification records for the missing and the dead. After becoming familiar with the work of the International Red Cross in Europe, Barton organized a similar group in the United States in 1881.

Jean Henri Dumant, Swiss humanitarian, established and brought recognition to the Red Cross. He first proposed a voluntary relief services operation in 1863. Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. The organization is authorized by congressional charter, requiring it to provide disaster relief. Local offices provide services in their communities. The American Red Cross is privately funded, with headquarters in Washington, DC. Since 1986 the international operation is known as the International Movement of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent. It has independent affiliates, such as the American Red Cross, in most countries of the world. The international operation has headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. It has received the Nobel Peace Prize three times, in 1917, 1944, and 1963.

The Washington Times, 12 Apr 1912, Fri, First Edition

Clara Barton Monument at Antietam

Detail of Clara Barton monument at Antietam National Battlefield, with red cross formed of a brick from the home where she was born.


Monument Text:
Clara Barton
During The Battle of Antietam September 17, 1862 Clara Barton brought supplies and nursing aid to the wounded on this battlefield
This act of love and mercy led to the birth of the present American National Red Cross

This symbolic red cross has been made from a brickfrom the chimney of the home where Clara Barton was born at North Oxford, Massachusetts on Christmas Day, 1821

Clara Barton at Antietam

Arriving at the northern edge of the infamous "Cornfield" at about noon, Clara Barton watched as harried surgeons dressed the soldiers' wounds with corn husks. Army medical supplies were far behind the fast-moving troops at Antietam Battlefield. Miss Barton handed over to grateful surgeons a wagon load of bandages and other medical supplies that she had personally collected over the past year.

Then Miss Barton got down to work. As bullets whizzed overhead and artillery boomed in the distance, Miss Barton cradled the heads of suffering soldiers, prepared food for them in a local farm house, and brought water to the wounded men. As she knelt down to give one man a drink, she felt her sleeve quiver. She looked down, noticed a bullet hole in her sleeve, and then discovered that the bullet had killed the man she was helping.

Undaunted, the unlikely figure in her bonnet, red bow and dark skirt moved on—and on, and on. Working non-stop until dark, Miss Barton comforted the men and assisted the surgeons with their work. When night fell, the surgeons were stymied again—this time by lack of light. But Miss Barton produced some lanterns from her wagon of supplies, and the thankful doctors went back to work.

Miss Barton's timely arrival at the battlefield was no easy task. Only the day before, her wagon was mired near the back of the army's massive supply line. Prodded by Miss Barton, her teamsters drove the mules all night to get closer to the front of the line.

Within a few days after the battle, the Confederates had retreated and wagons of extra medical supplies were rolling into Sharpsburg. Miss Barton collapsed from lack of sleep and a budding case of typhoid fever. She returned to Washington lying in a wagon, exhausted and delirious. She soon regained her strength and returned to the battlefields of the Civil War.


"A ball has passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?" Clara Barton at Antietam


Shy Tomboy

As Clara Barton moved briskly among the maimed and wounded soldiers at Antietam, few could imagine that she was once a shy, retiring child. Born in the central Massachusetts town of North Oxford on Christmas Day, 1821, Clarissa Harlowe Barton was the baby of the family. Her four brothers and sisters were all at least 10 years her senior.

When she was young, Clara‘s father regaled her with his stories of soldiering against the Indians. Her brothers and cousins taught her horseback riding and other boyish hobbies. Although she was a diligent and serious student, Clara preferred outdoor frolics to the indoor pastimes "suitable" for young ladies of that time.

Despite her intelligence, Clara was an intensely shy young girl, so much so that her parents fretted over it. At times, Clara was so overwrought she could not even eat. But the demure girl overcame her shyness in the face of a crisis—a pattern that would repeat itself during her lifetime. When her brother became ill, Clara stayed by his side and learned to administer all his medicine, including the "great, loathsome crawling leeches."



Throughout her life, Clara Barton led by example. In an era when travel was arduous, and many men and almost all women stayed close to home, Miss Barton traveled far and wide looking for new challenges. After teaching for several years in her home town, she opted for additional schooling.

After a year of formal education in western New York state, Miss Barton resumed teaching in Bordentown, N.J. Miss Barton taught a "subscription school," where parents of students chipped in to pay the teacher's salary. On her way to school, Miss Barton noticed dozens of children hanging around on street corners. Their parents could not afford the "subscription." Miss Barton offered to teach in a school for free if the town provided a building. The first day, six students showed up, the next day 20, and within a year there were several hundred students at New Jersey's first free public school.

Having lost her position as head of the school to a man simply because she was a woman, Miss Barton moved to Washington, D.C. She took a job as a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, no mean feat for a women in those days. Even more shocking, she earned the same salary as male clerks.

With the outbreak of war and the cascade of wounded Union soldiers into Washington, Miss Barton quickly recognized the unpreparedness of the Army Medical Department. For nearly a year, she lobbied the Army bureaucracy in vain to bring her own medical supplies to the battlefields. Finally, with the help of sympathetic U. S. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, Miss Barton was permitted to bring her supplies to the battlefield. Her self-appointed military duties brought her to some of the ugliest battlefields of 1862—Cedar Mountain, Va., Second Manassas, Va., Antietam, Md., and Fredericksburg, Va.


"I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay." Clara Barton


Pocket Knife and Case

This knife and case was probably used by Clara Barton and her staff at Glen Echo. Earlier, during the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, Barton performed her first field surgery.  She extracted a bullet from the face of a wounded soldier using a similar pocket knife and another wounded man to hold the patient still.  She later stated, “I do not think a surgeon would have pronounced it a scientific operation, but that it was successful I dared to hope from the gratitude of the patient.

The Angel of the Battlefield

THERE is a scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald's harrowing novel "Tender Is the Night" in which a group of Americans is touring the French countryside near Amiens in 1925. They come upon a trench left over from the Great War, still equipped with periscopes and parapets, and scramble about where the soldiers had huddled a few years before. "See that little stream," says one of the Americans, "we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it -- a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs." The person to whom this man is speaking is unimpressed by the novelty of the case. "General Grant," he says, "invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in '65."

Stephen B. Oates's new book, "A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War," is, among other things, a confirmation of this view: that it was the Americans who showed the world how to kill on a scale never before imagined. Mr. Oates, whose previous works include biographies of Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, has written a fiercely readable book about the Civil War experience of Clara Barton, the brave Massachusetts woman who nursed thousands of Union wounded and, haunted by the experience of witnessing so many begging for the little succor she could provide, went on to found the American Red Cross. Mr. Oates tells us that he came to his subject while working on "a sweeping biographical history of the entire Civil War epoch," a work made up of separate studies of "the intersecting lives of a dozen central characters." Every time Clara Barton appeared in his epic story -- turning up as "the angel of the battlefield" in someone's letter or diary -- he "had the sensation that she was trying hard to keep me from knowing and understanding her. She would float into my consciousness without a face, for example, or give me the strange feeling that she was hiding from me somewhere in my study, or had just bolted out the door." So he "put the biographical work aside and set out to write Clara's Civil War story by itself."

The result is a book that, by attempting a close-up view of one woman's efforts to salve the casualties, reveals just how adept Americans became between 1861 and 1865 at killing one another. Mr. Oates writes vividly, for instance, about the Union attack in the summer of 1863 upon Battery Wagner, one of the fortifications protecting the city of Charleston, S.C. He writes so well that we find ourselves crouching with the sappers as they dig their trenches in 100-degree heat while Confederate mortars burst high above and descend upon them in a shower of mangling fragments. We peer through the looking glass of the commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore, who, after ordering a frontal assault by night (to be led by the black Massachusetts 54th Regiment), watches his soldiers dash "across the killing beach, through the enemy's enfilading and cross fire." In the morning light, piles of corpses (some dismembered, especially those of the blacks) could be seen "stacked up in the moat and along the parapets." In what was truly a dress rehearsal for the First World War, General Gillmore eventually expended more than 2,000 men and two months in order to advance 1,350 yards.

During this and many other battles, we witness Clara Barton, the "American Florence Nightingale," setting up candle lanterns so that the surgeons could amputate all night, or ladling out mouthfuls of soup so that the dying could relieve their thirst, or distributing crackers to the starving or cloaks and blankets to the cold. These were among the ways she tried to improve the odds of the wounded and mitigate the agony of the doomed. We watch her pause to hold a man as he slips into unconsciousness, then bend down to another as he whispers a plea that she write to his mother to report his dying devotion. Eventually we follow her to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia, where, after the war, she led the effort to identify the Union dead.

We also catch glimpses of some of Barton's less attractive features -- such as her rivalry with Dorothea Dix, who worked more willingly within the structures established by relief agencies like the United States Sanitary Commission. And Mr. Oates gives us hints of Barton's vanity: we learn that even amid the carnage, she was not unconscious of fashion and was quick to dye her hair whenever flecks of gray appeared.

But somehow a fully human Clara Barton does not quite come into focus in this book. This is partly because Mr. Oates writes too casually about her most intimate motives and feelings, which ultimately cannot be known. At one point he suggests that she "regarded menopause with relief, since it freed her from menstruation and the risk of pregnancy," though in fact there is little evidence that she had much discomfort from the former or much risk of the latter.

Earlier in the narrative, he concludes that her friendship with a married Union officer, Lieut. Col. John J. Elwell, was sexually consummated -- a surmise based mainly on a letter written years afterward in which the officer said that he had loved her "all the law allows (and a little more perhaps)." Mr. Oates even interjects a paragraph on what kind of contraceptive the lovers might have chosen (a sponge pessary for her or a condom -- a "French secret" -- for him), and later, when Clara witnesses her "lover" being wounded, Mr. Oates presents her running toward him on the strafed beach, "her tiny feet churning in the sand." The fact is (as the author himself acknowledges in the references) that there is no clear evidence that she performed any such bullet-dodging rescue.

This sort of speculation contributes to the page-turning drama, but it also pushes the book close to fiction.

So what Mr. Oates has written is not exactly a biography. Although Barton was 39 when the war began, we get barely a glimpse of her New England childhood, when her shyness was so severe that her mother felt compelled to consult a phrenologist about the girl's condition. In her teens, Clara became fiercely independent and began teaching before she was 20. Later, she founded -- at personal financial sacrifice -- a public school in New Jersey. At the outbreak of war, she was working at the Patent Office in Washington. These early years are glanced over, as is the later life, when Barton made her most important social contribution, organizing the American chapter of the Red Cross.

If he has not written a full biography, Mr. Oates has also not attempted a work of cultural or political history. He does not much develop, beyond the particular case of Clara Barton, the larger theme of how war tends to advance the cause of social equality for women. And perhaps most important, he leaves at the level of implication his own most disturbing motif: the terrible disproportion between the technology of killing and the technology of life-saving during the Civil War years.

With repeating rifles, large-caliber bullets and immensely destructive artillery, the techniques of war had advanced almost to 20th-century standards, while medicine had not yet incorporated even a basic understanding of the transmission of disease, much less the importance of antiseptics. Surgeons used their own saliva to wet their silk stitching thread and, between operations, tossed their blood-caked saws into buckets of water. Maggots, which ate away the dead flesh on the stumps of amputated arms and legs, were sometimes a wounded man's best hope to halt the spread of gangrene.

This disproportion between the technology of killing and the state of medical knowledge was replicated in the disparity between the insouciance of the commanders and the anguish of the commanded. Here is an extraordinary moment in which Mr. Oates recounts a courtesy call that Barton paid upon Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts. She visited him in the company of a veteran named Plunkett, who was swathed in bandages from waist to neck:

"When [ the Senator ] met them in the waiting room, looking 'ruddy and busy,' Clara said, 'Mr. Wilson, permit me to introduce you to Sergeant Plunkett of the Massachusetts 21st.'

" 'How do you do, Sergeant?' Wilson said, instinctively extending a hand.

"It was an embarrassing moment; Wilson apparently hadn't caught the full meaning of Plunkett's bandages. 'You will pardon the Sergeant for not offering you a hand,' Clara said; 'he has none.'

" 'No hands!' Wilson exclaimed. 'No hands!! My God; where are they?' "

What Mr. Oates has written is a kind of chronicle of man-made horror, with one appalled but undaunted woman at the center. His key point -- a perennially pertinent and urgent one -- is expressed by this little story. Perhaps the real reason he found himself drawn to Clara Barton in the midst of his Civil War researches is that she was among the few who tried, even with the puny means available to her, to diminish the gap between the abstraction of war and the reality of human suffering. Whatever the limits of this book, it is a striking view of Barton in silhouette against a vivid background of fire and death. It not only celebrates the life of a healer, but also helps to keep us aware of the moral ignorance that war always entails.


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