Clara Barton | Biography

Quick Wiki

  • Full Name Clarissa Harlowe Barton
  • Nickname Clara Barton
  • Nationality American
  • Birthplace Oxford, Massachusetts
  • Birth Date 25 December 1821
  • Place Of Death Glen Echo, Maryland
  • Death Date 12 April 1912
  • Age At Death 90


Founded the American Red Cross in 1881

Clara Barton | Biography

Worked as Superintendent of the Union of Nurses for the Army of the James of the Union Army

Upon Barton's return to the United States in 1873, she actively advocated for the Geneva Treaty. Geneva's laws incorporated the framework to protect the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked soldiers in times of war. It had immense humanitarian bolster in governing victims of the war. She led a successful campaign for the framework to be signed by America, finally signing in 1882. But before that, in 1881, she successfully established the American Red Cross, associating America with the global network of the Red Cross, with the help of her influential friends such as Fredrick Douglas. The same year the first local Red Cross was established in St. Paul’s United Lutheran Church in Dansville, New York.

A humanitarian activist and nurse, Clara Barton founded American Red Cross in 1881.

Who was Clara Barton? 

Clara Barton is the founder of the American Red Cross. She was initially a teacher who opened the first public school in New Jersey. Later, she became an office clerk at the U.S. Patent Office and eventually traveled with the Union Army to take care of the wounded and sick Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners during the American Civil War. She also played an important role to provide them with supplies. 

Henry Dunant’s humanitarian activities inspired Barton in Geneva. So, she assisted the Red Cross society during the Franco-Germany war. Later, she established American Red Cross in the United States in 1881, mandating the enity to aid during the war and other natural calamities. She was 59 at the time and would lead the entity for the next 23 years. She also campaigned to insist the American government sign the Geneva Convention, an international legal instrument protecting the victims of war.

In addition to humanitarian projects, Barton actively participated in America’s women suffrage movements, providing support and voice for the feminist revolution.

Early Life and Work

Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton on 25 December 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara was her parents’ youngest child. Her four older siblings were relatively older, so they were more like her guardians than playmates during her childhood. When she was eleven, her older brother David got into an accident and was bedridden for almost two years. She helped in tending care to his injuries and nursed him back to health. The situation made her recognize the essence of nursing.

Barton was a shy and timid child, but she excelled in both reading and writing at school. Hence, from the age of eighteen, she started teaching to local people near her home at Oxford. Later, she joined the Liberal Institute at Clinton, New York, from 1850 to 1851 and eventually opened the first free public school in 1852, named Bordertown in New Jersey. 

Bordertown flourished under her leadership. It was so influential that the townsmen insisted on having a male principal instead of Barton. The situation affected her deeply. Eventually, she left teaching entirely and moved to Washington DC. On her leave, she said, “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.”

In Washington, Barton worked at the U.S. Patent Office from 1854 to 1857. During her time at the office, she had to endure deeds of misogyny in her workplace; most of the time, she did not receive equal pay or enough pay for her work done. Due to the political changes in the capital in 1857, she was fired, and she had to go back to Massachusetts. She later returned to Patent Office in 1860, after Abraham Lincoln became the president.

Which side was Clara Barton on in the American Civil War?

The U.S. went through a civil war from 1861 to 1865. Barton was extremely mindful of the war atrocities and was highly involved in aiding the wounded soldiers.

For instance, in 1862, despite the War Department’s objection, she, along with her friends, distributed first aid supplies to the fields where hospitals and camps were shorthanded. She also insisted on caring for the wounded, and due to her graceful presence and support, she was named the ‘the angel of the battlefield’ by her patients. She continued her assistance to the medical officers, and eventually, in 1864, she was appointed as the superintendent of the union of nurses for the Army of the James of the Union Army.

Missing Soldiers in Andersonville, Georgia

Amidst the end of the war, the U.S. government accumulated information on the missing Civil War soldiers. Barton was appointed to set up the records bureau under the president’s request, after which she helped locate the unmarked graves of nearly 13,000 prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia.

During the time, there was no formal mechanism in existence to track down missing or deceased soldiers of the war. So, Barton wrote a letter to the then President Abraham Lincoln in February 1865. She requested him to give her permission to become an official government correspondent and search for individuals who had gone missing during the war.

To her efforts, President Lincoln gave her permission to travel to Annapolis in an official capacity on 24 March 1865. Her responsibilities would include compiling a list of individuals who died in captivity and then notifying their relatives.

The news of Barton’s assignment of going after the missing soldiers swiftly traveled across the country. She began to get letters from relatives seeking information on the whereabouts of loved ones who had not come home. And to investigate and gather intel, she frequently traveled to battlefields to aid the ill and wounded. In addition, she kept track of personal details of the troops she looked after whenever she could. 

In the absence of official reports, Barton resorted to the most acceptable source of information she could find: the troops. She pleaded with the returning troops to inform her about their friends who had died on the way back.

Alongside, she recruited a few employees with her own money to fulfill the huge demand for letters, anticipating the government to compensate her later. Finally, she was successful in developing a comprehensive list of troops. After which, she published the first ‘Roll of Missing Men’ in June 1865, which had 1,533 names. 

Then, by 1868, five different rolls comprising 6,650 names had been released. These lists categorized the names by state and included directions for anybody to contact her about the soldiers’ whereabouts. Finally, due to the urgency and public importance of the work, President Andrew Johnson permitted Barton to print the rolls using the bigger government printing press. 

Subsequently, Barton was approached by Dorence Atwater, a teenage clerk, in June 1865. Atwater was a prisoner at Andersonville, but he was paroled to work in a hospital. There while working, he meticulously kept a copy of the soldiers who died at the hospital.

That was a progressive step in her quest. Overjoyed, Barton contacted the then Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, and requested to join the U.S. Army’s trip to Andersonville to identify the corpses. She was granted the request, and her expedition to Andersonville located the graves of 13,000 missing troops. After that, a national cemetery was created to honor the lives lost in Andersonville. 

Altogether, Barton and her team penned 13,000 families telling their loved ones had died at Andersonville as workers toiled to construct headboards in the cemetery. Later, she was granted the honor of flying the American flag for the first time over the newly built Andersonville National Cemetery at its completion.

After returning from Andersonville in 1865, Barton established Missing Soldiers Office in Washington. She hired a slew of clerks, including Atwater, to handle the over 60,000 letters she received. Barton and her team had identified more than 20,000 missing troops by the time the Missing Soldiers Office closed in 1867, including over 13,000 who had perished at Andersonville Prison.

During the time, she was called the ‘Heroine of Andersonville’ by the newspapers. She even toured the country, presenting objects she had acquired at the prison site and lecturing on the prisoners’ plight. The Congress in 1969 released the statistical report of her four years’ worth of work: she had received 63,182 inquiries, written 41,855 letters, mailed 58,693 printed circulars, distributed 99,057 copies of her printed rolls, and identified 22,000 men. However, she personally believed that at least 40,000 were still missing.

Physical Breakdown and Europe

Eventually, she resumed teaching and then went on sessions to share her war experiences. The crowds adored her, and people came to hear her give speeches on her encounters. She settled in New York during her teaching phase, but she went through a physical breakdown and suggested that the doctors take a leave from all her involvement.

In 1869, she left for Europe to travel. There, she read the book ‘A Memory of Solferino’ by the famous humanitarian Henry Dunant. And subsequently, she found out about the humanitarian initiatives of the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. 

The Red Cross was the first organization to provide aid to the battlefield soldiers irrespective of their nationality. Their sole purpose was to stop the superfluous injury during the time of war and provide medical and other relief to the wounded. 

Dunant’s initiative inspired Barton as it aligned her humanitarian perspective of the war. And during her stay, France and Germany were in the midst of a conflict. As a result, the Red Cross was working actively in the entire European region. So, she assisted the Red Cross while she was staying there from 1870-1871.

Founding the American Red Cross

Upon her return to the United States in 1873, she actively advocated for the Geneva Treaty. Geneva’s laws incorporated a framework to protect the wounded, sick, and shipwrecked soldiers in times of war. It had immense humanitarian bolster in governing victims of the war. She led a successful campaign for the framework to be signed by America, finally signing in 1882.

But before that, in 1881, she successfully established the American Red Cross, associating America with the global network of the Red Cross, with the help of her influential friends such as Fredrick Douglas. The same year, the first local Red Cross was established in St. Paul’s United Lutheran Church in Dansville, New York.

Barton was the first president of the American Red Cross. The committee received its first congressional charter from the government in 1900 on the amendments of the alliance. Barton included the provisions of distributing aid not only in times of war but also in times of calamities such as famines, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and pestilence. Those provisions extended the mandate of the Red Cross society.

Humanitarian Works under her Leadership 

For the first 20 years of the American Red Cross, Barton primarily focused on disaster assistance and relief. 

In 1884, she and 50 other volunteers landed in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to assist the survivors of a dam breach that killed almost 2000 people.

In 1892, Barton was successful in arranging 500 train wagons of cornmeal and flour to the famine-stricken people in Iowa, Russia. 

Then, in 1893, a storm and tidal surge killed over 5,000 people on South Carolina’s Sea Islands. With the Red Cross, Barton then worked there for over ten months to aid the area, which was mainly occupied by the black population. She also helped the population regain their control over the calamity-affected agricultural sector. 

After that, in 1896, she became the first woman and only Red Cross advocate authorized to assist the Turkish government after the Turkey-Armenia conflict. She supervised relief activities on behalf of victims of the conflict.

And in 1900, Barton donated almost $120,000 in financial aid and supplies to survivors of a storm and tidal wave that hit Galveston, Texas. The calamities killed over 6,000 people.

In addition to that, the International Red Cross in 1894 amended its working mandate adding “natural disaster relief” after being inspired by Barton. The amendment was called the ‘American Amendment.’ 

Eventually, after her extensive contribution to Cuba during the Spanish-American war, she resigned at the age of 83 after serving the American Red Cross from 1881 to 1904.


During her time with the American Red Cross and even after her tenure, she published several books—'History of the Red Cross’ in 1882 and ‘The Red Cross in Peace, and War’ in 1899.

In 1904, she published another book ‘A Story of the Red Cross Glimpses of Field Work.’ This particular book accounted for her first-hand experience on the establishment and initial operations of the American Red Cross. She wrote the incidents and stories she came across while providing emergency aids in Florida during chronic yellow fever and also the Texas Flood. In addition to that, she penned Red Cross’ assistance to the Russian famine and America’s other international humanitarian supports she led.  

Barton also published a memoir titled ‘The Story of My Childhood’ in 1907.

Later Years and Death

Although she was active in the suffrage movement while working for the committee, she was dedicated more actively to the movement after leaving the committee. Barton was a friend to Susan B. Anthony, one of the pioneering suffrage activists, and actively spoke during the national women’s suffrage conventions and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Conventions in 1893, 1902, 1904, and 1906.

She even hosted several NAWSA Convention receptions, accommodating hundreds of convention members, at her home, a glorified sanctum of her medals, decorations, and other memorabilia. Then in 1909, she went on to serve on the honorary advisory committee of the national committee on the petition to Congress for women suffrage.

Barton died of pneumonia on 12 April 1912 at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland. Her last words were: "let me go."

Her role in making America sign the Geneva Treaty and establishing the American Red Cross would forever stand as one of the legendary contributions by a woman from a time when women were not conceived as equals.

Clara Barton National Historic Site

In 1974, Barton’s home, where she had initiated many of her philanthropist work, was turned into a National Historic Site. It was also the first headquarters of the American Red cross. 

The historic is located in Glen Echo, Maryland, which is 2 miles northwest of Washington DC. She stayed there for 15 years until her death in 1912. It contained her collected honors and her journey of saving lives in and out of the battlefield.  

Barton’s nephew, Stephen E. Barton, gave a personal inscription to the historic house. He connotes, “Their first view of the home was the fluttering of the United States flag from the tall flagpole above the house, and next, the Red Cross flag floating in the breeze over the central door, which was thrown hospitably open to receive the guests.”

Then, in 1983, the National Parks Service and Harpers Ferry Center introduced a development plan to remodel and restore the historic site. 

Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Museum

In 1996, an employee of the General Services Administration (GSA) found Barton’s working rooms during the 1860s. 

On its ninth room of the third story, the building—which was set for demolition—contained envelopes of letters addressed to Barton for the Missing Soldiers Office. 

The entire third floor was kept shut by the landlord because of the outdated safety legislation. Hence, the contents of the rooms were as Barton used it a hundred years ago. 

Then, the GSA decided not to destruct the building to preserve the artifacts. In 2007 the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM) joined hands with the GSA and worked on establishing a museum of Barton’s work. 

In July of 2015, the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Museum was publicly made available for visits. With modified infrastructure, the letters, the organization of the room, and other artifacts, the room conserved her existence in 437 7th Street N.W. of Washington, DC.

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