As a child, Clara Barton did farm and household chores on the family’s North Oxford, Massachusetts farm. Caring for her bedridden brother David and sick neighbors prepared Barton for nursing during the Civil War. She also did bookkeeping in the family mill, operated looms, and tutored the workers’ children. More...
Barton moved to Washington, D.C. and became a recording clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. A skilled organizer, she coordinated transportation of supplies to wounded soldiers and served as a Civil War “nurse.” Barton established an organization to locate information on missing soldiers after the Civil War. She was an active and well-respected public speaker and a supporter of equal rights and women’s voting rights. She was the superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women.
Barton did field work for the German Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War and founded the American Red Cross. She headed the organization for 23 years. After that, she founded and led the National First Aid Association of America. She remained honorary president until her death in 1912 at the age of 90. Barton was named “The President in Memoriam” after her death.
At 17, Barton became a teacher in North Oxford, MA. In Bordentown, NJ, she established the state’s first free public school. Civil War and American Red Cross's work followed. Barton later established the American Red Cross’s Department of First Aid for the Injured. It taught basic emergency preparedness and first aid care to lay people.More...
After resigning from the American Red Cross in 1904, Barton organized The National First Aid Association of America. This program taught emergency preparedness and first aid response to the masses. Barton noted that “the work of the association will be along the same lines as those followed by the Red Cross Society, except that it will deal with smaller rather than the great calamities of life.” She affirmed, “It is a deplorable weakness of a great people, that they do not know how, in an emergency, to care for the injured.” “The first aid is something to which everyone should belong. Everyday in shops & mills there is some horrible accident, & if there is somebody on hand who knew just what to do & how to act, a great deal of good might be done.”
Mill, factory and railroad workers attended First Aid Association lectures. Classes were conducted at YMCAs and public schools. Fire brigades received training. It was a valuable community service program. Although the American Red Cross originally snubbed the program, by 1910, it offered classes. Barton saw no benefit in competing with the American Red Cross and declared, “It must grow. I want it to, it is my planting. I should rejoice the crop no matter who harvests it.” The American Red Cross still provides this training today.
Civil War, 1861-1865
On April 19, 1861, 6th Massachusetts Regiment soldiers were attacked during riots in Baltimore, MD. Many were former Barton students. When they arrived in Washington, D.C., dirty and beaten, she learned that the U.S. Army had no supplies for their care. Barton assembled food and supplies, even cutting up sheets to make towels. Thus began Clara Barton’s Civil War relief work.More...
Early on, Barton worked in forts and hospitals near Washington, D.C. where she learned of terrible battlefield conditions. Barton went directly to the battlefields with her supplies, saying, “What could I do but go with them, or work for them and my country? The patriot blood of my father was warm in my veins.” Barton came to Culpepper, VA in August 1862, shortly after the battle of Cedar Mountain. Here she tended the wounded and provided supplies to a Confederate prisoner field hospital. Barton provided relief after the battles of Second Manassas (Bull Run), Chantilly, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, the siege of Charleston, South Carolina and Ft. Wagner, the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor. She was a Union supporter, but cared for the wounded of both sides.
Clara Barton provided relief to African American soldiers. She witnessed the horrendous attack on Battery Wagner, South Carolina of the 54th Massachusetts and recalled,“I can never forget the patient bravery with which they endured their wounds received in the cruel assault upon Wagner, as hour after hour they lay in the wet sands, just back of the growling guns waiting their turn for the knife or the splint and bandage, not a murmur, scarce a groan, but ever that patient upturning of the great dark eyes, to your face, in utter silence, which kept one constantly wondering if they knew all they had done, and were doing? and whenever I met one who was giving his life out with his blood, I could not forbear hastening to tell him lest he die in ignorance of the truth, that he was the soldier of Freedom he had sought to be, and that the world as well as Heaven would so record it…”
Locating Missing Soldiers after the Civil War
In Spring 1865, Clara Barton worked with Union soldiers released from Confederate war prisons. She went to Annapolis, MD where the War Department handled prisoner exchanges. Barton found thousands of letters, many unopened, from relatives seeking news of their missing loved ones. More...
Barton corresponded with the families of survivors and gathered information about dead prisoners of war. Most perished without official record of their fate. There were thousands of unmarked graves. Over half of the Union soldiers killed in battle were unidentified. Barton established an Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the U.S. Army to cope with the workload.
Dorence Atwater, a former Union prisoner of war at Andersonville Prison contacted Barton. He had maintained secret records of soldiers who died in camp and were buried in graves marked only by a number. Barton headed the mission that identified and marked the graves of nearly 13,000 soldiers at Andersonville. She led the crusade that established Andersonville National Cemetery.
While in Andersonville, she lost her job at the Patent Office. With her savings exhausted and no income, she returned to Washington, D.C. and struggled to continue her search for missing soldiers. Barton recruited friends to help. Barton’s accomplishments with this program influenced the development of later programs. In 1866, Congress appropriated $15,000 for Barton to continue her work. From 1865 -1869, Barton, not the War Department, responded to 63,182 information requests and was responsible for having over 22,000 soldiers removed from missing lists. Later, she ensured that American Red Cross continued this work. Today, the Armed Forces Emergency Services program of the American Red Cross provides information to the families of military personnel.
Clara Barton experienced discrimination firsthand but she fought for her rights, saying- ...as for my being a woman, [you] will get used to that.... -She refused a teaching position unless she received equal pay, and 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.”More...
Barton believed in, and fought for “perfectly equal rights—human rights. She recognized the hardships faced by former slaves and freed African Americans. Barton promoted the idea of educating former slaves and teaching skills so that they could become self-supporting. While in South Carolina, in 1863, she spent her spare time teaching former slaves reading skills. When several African American churches formed the Freedman’s Commission, for the relief of the “colored troops,” they asked Barton “to manage the reception and disbursement of supplies and also the oversight of nurses and assistants.” She found employment for former slaves as nurses and recommended them for hospital duty whenever possible.
Barton crusaded for women's rights but took a controversial stance over the proposed 15th Constitutional amendment. As proposed, voting rights could not be denied on account of "race, colour, or national origin." There was a campaign to attach the right for women to vote onto the same amendment. Barton feared the Amendment would fail if both issues were attacked at once. She stated, “if the door be not wide enough to admit us all at once-and one must wait - then I am willing.” The 15th Amendment passed granting voting rights to African American men.
Miss Barton spoke at rallies and conventions for women’s rights. She was involved in several suffrage and women’s organizations. Her reputation of fairness and sense of equality won friends such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Barton was briefly superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women. Massachusetts Governor General Benjamin Butler appointed her, noting the prison needed a woman, “of executive ability and kindheartedness, with an honest love of the work of reformation and care of her living fellow creatures.”