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"founder" of the American Red Cross
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born in North Oxford, Massachusetts, on December 25, 1821. At the age of 17, she became a teacher in Massachusett's District 9, located in Worcester County. and taught in several schools over the next six years before establishing her own school in North Oxford. In 1850, she entered the Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, where she took classes in writing and French. After a year at Clinton, she took a teaching position in New Jersey. She subsequently opened a free school in Bordentown. In 1854, she became the first woman clerk in the U.S. Patent Office.
Barton was working in Washington when the first units of federal troops arrived in the city in 1861. She saw the need for immediate personal service to the men in uniform, as many were wounded, some were hungry, and many had little or no clothing except what they had on their backs. She collected some of the necessary articles herself, appealed for more, and learned how to store and distribute them. She also tried to provide personal comfort to the men by reading to them, writing letters for them, listening to their personal problems, and praying with them.
After the Battle at Cedar Mountain, she appeared at a field hospital with a load of supplies. The hospital surgeon wrote: "I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a holy angel, she must be the one, her assistance was so timely." Thereafter she was known as "The Angel of the Battlefield." At Fredericksburg she tended Confederate wounded and then, crossing the Rappahannock on a bridge shaken by artillery fire, went to help a Union surgeon. At Antietam, she delieved much-needed food to the troops, as well as dressings and lanterns to the field surgeons. The federal government at first refused to give her help or encouragement, but in 1864 she was appointed superintendent of nurses for the Army of the James. After the war, she formed a bureau to search for missing men. This bureau ultimately marked over 12,000 graves in the Andersonville (Georgia) National Cemetery.
Barton went to Switzerland for rest and relaxation in 1869. Friends in Geneva introduced her to the Red Cross idea, and she read for the first time the book A Memory of Solferino by Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross movement. That movement called for international agreements for the protection of the sick and wounded during wartime without respect to nationality, and for the formation of voluntary national societies to give aid on a neutral basis. The Geneva Treaty, signed in 1864, was the first treaty embodying Dunant's ideas. During the Franco-Prussian War, she served as a nurse at the battlefront, where she had an opportunity to see first-hand the work being done by the International Committee of the Red Cross. For her work during the war, Barton was honored with the Iron Cross of Germany.
Returning to America in 1873, Barton immediately began working to convice people of the need for taking part in Red Cross work. She helped establish the American branch of the Red Cross in 1881; she became its first president, and served in that capacity until 1904. In 1882, after much lobbying by Barton, the United States Senate ratified the Geneva Convention, and she represented the United States at the International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva in 1884.
Realizing that the Red Cross could be useful to civilians as well as to soldiers, Barton originated the clause in the Red Cross constitution that provides for relief in calamaties other than war. She took charge of the relief work in the yellow-fever epidemic in Florida in 1877; in the 1889 flood at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1889; during the Russian and Armenian famines in 1891 and 1896; during the Spanish-American War of 1898; during the South African War of 1899-1902; and in the1900 flood at Galveston, Texas.
On May 12, 1904, Barton officially resigned from the American Red Cross, believing it was time for the organization to be led by a larger, central administration. Far from becoming inactive, however, Barton continued to take part in charitable and patriotic work for the rest of her life. She died at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, on April 12, 1912.
Clara Barton wrote several books, including The Red Cross in Peace and War (1898), A Story of the Red Cross (1904), and an autobiographical sketch, The Story of My Childhood (1907).
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This page was last updated on January 28, 2019.