Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born in Oxford, Mass.,
on Christmas Day of 1821. A teacher, a civil rights
advocate, and the founder and first president of the
American Red Cross, Clara Barton is still considered
an icon of compassion, justice and courage.
“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.”
Raised as the youngest of five children, Barton was a shy
child but showed early signs of fortitude and compassion.
When her brother David was injured in a farming accident,
his 11-year-old sister served as nurse, dressing his wounds
and applying leeches, as was the accepted medical practice.
Consistent with her self-sacrificing nature, Barton stayed
home from school for two years to care for him.
When she was 16, she started work as a teacher in a one-room
schoolhouse. In 1850, she moved to Bordentown, N.J.
Barton saw a dire need for a local school, so she opened one
with the help of the local education committee. By the end of
the fi rst year, she was teaching more than 200 students while
running the school herself.
In 1853, when the citizens of Bordentown built a larger
school, they appointed a man to be the principal rather than
Barton, despite her excellent service in running the school.
The new principal was hired at twice her salary. Barton, a
supporter of equal pay for equal work and a friend of Susan B.
Anthony, was outraged. Rather than stay on as a teacher and
compromise her principles, she resigned.
“What could I do but go with them [the Civil
War soldiers], or work for them and my
country? The patriot blood of my father was
warm in my veins.”
Growing up, Barton heard stories of the Indian wars in
Ohio and Michigan from her father, Capt. Stephen Barton.
She was thrilled by his tales and learned a great deal about
military tactics, wartime supply needs and geography.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Barton was living
in Washington, D.C., and working as a clerk in a U.S. patent
office. In April, Confederate supporters mobbed a group of
Union soldiers in Baltimore, Md., and the injured were taken
to the U.S. Capitol. Barton rushed to the temporary hospital
and immediately set to work aiding the wounded. She gathered
food, clothing, medicine and other necessary supplies
and distributed them among the soldiers. She sent letters to
friends and relatives across the East Coast and rallied their
support, asking that donations be sent to her in Washington.
Barton’s natural compassion, organizational skills and fearless
temperament were the perfect combination for a relief
worker. She used her talent of persuasion to garner support
from others, increasing her own efforts exponentially.
“I may be compelled to face
danger, but never fear it, and while
our soldiers can stand and fight,
I can stand and feed and nurse
While her brother David served as a captain in
the Union army, Barton provided relief services
to the wounded at battle sites from Maryland
to Virginia to South Carolina. She served at the
Second Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam
and the Battle of Fredericksburg, among others.
In December 1863, she moved to South
Carolina to be closer to David, who was stationed
at Hilton Head. While there, she helped set
up hospitals and distribute supplies to Union
soldiers. Through 1864 and 1865, Barton was
stationed at hospitals throughout South Carolina
Her work in the field was often dangerous and
grueling. But she showed great courage and never
failed to request a location nearer to the front
than others deemed safe for a woman. Barton was
determined to serve, regardless of personal cost.
“It irritates me to be told how things have always
been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go
for anything new that might improve the past.”
At the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln appointed Barton
to lead the search for missing soldiers, and the Office of the Search
for Missing Men was established in her Capitol Hill apartment.
Thousands of families across the nation sent her letters asking for
help. She lectured across the Northeast and the Midwest, telling of
her wartime experiences and publicizing her search.
In 1865, Barton led a mission to the Confederate prison in
Andersonville, Ga., to help identify graves of former captives. While
in Georgia, she was witness to the confusion and turmoil of recently
freed slaves, many of whom were unsure of their freedom. Upon
her return to Washington, D.C., she gave a report to Congress in
February of 1866 detailing the Andersonville expedition.
“We reached Andersonville, Ga., on the 25th of July, and very
soon the colored people there commenced to gather around me,” she
said. “They would travel 20 miles in the night, after their day’s work
was done, and I would find them standing in front of my tent in the
morning to hear me say whether it was true that Abraham Lincoln
was dead, and that they were free.” Barton assuaged fears and used
her considerable influence to help those in the most dire straits.
At the conclusion of her search in late 1866, Barton had helped
locate more than 22,000 missing soldiers.
“A confederation of Relief Societies in different
countries, acting under the Geneva Convention,
carries on its work under the sign of the
After an exhausting lecture tour concluded in 1868, Barton took a
rest in Europe. Officials from the International Red Cross (IRC) had
heard of her Civil War relief work and contacted her for a meeting.
The IRC was founded in 1863 by Swiss businessman Henry
Dunant. In 1864, the first Geneva Convention with representatives
from 16 governments acted on behalf of victims of war by drafting
the Treaty of Geneva, which was signed by all nations present except
Great Britain, Saxony, Sweden and the United States.
Barton quickly became involved in European relief efforts,
providing aid to victims of the Franco-Prussian War. Her hands-on
experience with the IRC helped her see the benefit such an organization
would have in the United States.
After her return home in 1873, Barton spent nearly a decade
spreading the word and preparing for the founding of the American
Red Cross in May 1881. Under her leadership, the Red Cross aided
victims of natural and manmade disasters, such as forest fires,
floods, earthquakes and epidemics. Barton’s indomitable spirit and
strong work ethic inspired the American people to band together and
sacrifice for the sake of others.
“…offering a hand up, not a handout.”
Barton served the American Red Cross until 1904. Over her years
of providing aid, she was decorated with the Order of the Silver Cross
from Imperial Russia, the Order of the Iron Cross from Imperial
Germany and the International Red Cross Medal. She was also
named American Red Cross President for Life.
On April 12, 1912, at the age of 90, Barton passed away at home
in Glenn Echo, Md. She had dedicated her life to “offering a hand up,
not a handout” and remains a stirring example of what courage and
compassion can do in the face of suffering.