Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Clara Barton, Nurse and Founder of the American Red Cross

Clara in 1865, 44 years old.
Clara Barton dedicated her life to helping others. She established New Jersey's first public school for children, provided aid to Civil War soldiers in the battlefield, and founded the American Red Cross. 

"This conflict is one thing I've been waiting for. I'm well and strong and young - young enough to go to the front. If I can't be a soldier, I'll help soldiers." ~ Clara Barton

Clara Barton was born on December 25th, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Her father was Captain Stephen Barton, and her mother was Sarah (Stone) Barton.

Having fought in the Indian war, Clara's father captivated her with his war stories, so much that she would later describe her draw towards the Civil War soldiers with these words: "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."

Clara had four brothers and sisters, all at least 10 years older. With her brothers and cousins she learned how to ride horses and she spent much of her time outside, preferring that to indoor activities considered more suitable for young women of that day.

In historical accounts of Clara's life, her intense shyness during childhood is always noted. In some cases it is described as "affecting her health," at times making her "so overwrought she could not even eat." What is not often mentioned is that Clara had a lisp, and that may have increased her shyness. Clara did write later in life that she remembered "nothing but fear" abut her childhood.

The age gap between Clara and her four older siblings made Clara feel as though she had six parents rather than two, but they did all work together to try help Clara overcome her timid nature. The family decided she should go to boarding school, something Clara welcomed as a new adventure, but once there, she was too shy to talk to the other girls. When one girl played a joke on her by pretending Clara had taken her bracelet, then asking to have it back, Clara fainted. She returned home shortly after.

Clara was close to her brother David; he was the one that had taught her to ride horseback, and to swing from the rafters in the barn. When he fell from a horse and was injured when Clara was 11, Clara  took on the task of caring for him, even working with the leeches that the doctor prescribed in a common practice of the day, that of using leeches to drain "bad blood" from the body.

Clara surprised her family in her lack of fear when caring for David, and discovered something new in herself. After David was well, she went back to school, and had a wonderful time. She also gained a new reputation: that of being the "little nurse" as she cared for injured animals and tended to her cousins   during a diphtheria epidemic.

A Compassionate Educator

When she was seventeen years old, Clara began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse, having been advised by a phrenologist (someone who studies the shape of people's heads and advises them what they are suited for) that she should be a teacher.

She had a class of forty children and taught in North Oxford, Massachusetts, starting in May of 1838. Though corporal punishment was a common practice at the time, Clara refused to discipline the children physically. Clara was successful as a teacher, and six years later, she opened her own school.

In 1850, Clara enrolled in the Clinton Liberal Institute to further her own studies. She took science, French, German, and history. The year following, she began teaching again in a school where her salary was paid by the parents of the students, until noticing one day when walking to school that there were other children outside, hanging around on street corners. These were children whose parents could not afford an education.

Not one to turn away when she saw others in need, Clara told the town that she would provide schooling to these children, if a building could be provided. On the first day of this new free school, six children attended. On the second day, there were twenty - and one year later, the school had several hundred students. It was New Jersey's first free public school.

Pleased with this success, when the community built a new school in Bordentown, Clara expected to run it - but the job was given to a man, at twice the salary Clara had been paid.

Sick with disappointment and feeling discouraged, Clara resigned from teaching and moved to Washington D.C. She became a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, where she was the first female clerk. She enjoyed the work but felt she could offer something more to society, though she didn't yet know what that was.

Civil War

America's Civil War began in April 1860, and Clara wanted a chance to help. She asked the War Department for support to go to the battlefield and provide medicine and food, but they had never sent an unmarried woman to the battlefield before, and they denied her request.

Clara helped in any way she could. When a riot in Baltimore left civilians and soldiers wounded, she went to the makeshift hospital that had been set up for soldiers in Washington D.C. and collected food, clothes, medicine, and other supplies for the troops. Beyond this, Clara wrote to friends in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey, urging them to help, and soon she had developed a volunteer supply network that would last for the entire war.

At the patent office, Clara offered to do the work of two clerks while being paid the salary of one, so that two male clerks might be released to fight the war. The Patent Office refused, and Clara resigned, certain she could better direct her efforts elsewhere.

Clara tended to the soldiers returning home from battle, including some soldiers she knew personally. By 1862 she was going down to the docks to meet soldiers being transported from the field, tending to them and helping bring them to the hospitals. The wounds she saw and the evidence of their neglect led her to campaign for access to the field hospitals, which were at that time restricted to men only, by both military and societal rules.

Clara finally received permission on August 3rd, 1962 to transport supplies to the battlefields. She was on hand in Virginia and Maryland following the Union's greatest battles, ready to tend to the wounded. She drew criticism for tending to the Northern and Southern soldiers alike, but she would only reply, "I am a United States soldier." Clara did not discriminate when giving her aid to any person - if they were wounded and needed her help, she would provide all that she could give.

As she travelled through the battlefields, Clara helped establish soup kitchens and field hospitals to tend to the wounded, and when the physicians were too busy to keep records of the name of the men who died, Clara wrote their names in her diary, with a note about where they were buried.

Clara was labeled by some as a troublemaker for her frequent criticism of the Army - namely, that it lacked adequate supplies and food for its men. Despite this, she was called by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to help in the Sanitary Commission in the battlefield. She was put in charge of nursing and feeding the patients, and came to be known as the "Angle of the Battlefield."

While witnessing death all around her, Clara narrowly escaped it herself several times - in one instance, a bullet passed through her sleeve and into the man that she was tending, killing him. Clara would always continue as is nothing had happened, perhaps pausing for a moment in her mind only to consider the person who had just passed.

Helping the Missing

Clara found another job for herself during wartime, that of locating missing prisoners of war. the families of many soldiers had taken to writing to Clara, asking her for news about their loved ones, and she felt that he could not refuse. She asked President Abraham Lincoln for permission to help find missing prisoners of war.

He agreed, and Clara established Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, to help reunite  soldiers with the units or family they had become separated from during the war. Using her own funds and the help of volunteers, Clara set up a network including newspapers and organizations that would publish the names of missing men, once an inquiry regarding their whereabouts was received.

After the war, the search for soldiers led to the quest to identify their graves. Secretary Stanton again turned to Clara for help, this time in placing markers and identifying the dead.

By the time her work for the Civil War effort was over, Clara had answered 63,000 letters from families, identified 22,000 missing men, and laid markers at the graves of 12,500 fallen soldiers.

Founding the Red Cross

After the war, Clara went on a tour of Europe to rest and recover, but soon found herself caught up again in assisting the war effort, this time in France. She had observed the Red Cross workers in Switzerland and were curious about their organization. She wanted to join, and after France declared was or Prussia and its enemies in 1870, she did exactly that.

With the Red Cross in France, Clara taught refugees to sew, helped them sell the garments they made, and collected money that could be used for their relief. Witnessing the success of such an organization, Clara wondered about introducing it to the United States, and was determined to try.

In May 1877 when she was 56 years old, Clara wrote to Louis Appia, head of the Red Cross in Geneva, asking for permission to establish a Red Cross branch in the United States. He agreed to its formation, and on May 21st, 1877 the American Red Cross was formed. Clara was elected its president several weeks later.

Founding the organization was one thing, but raising funds was another, and Clara quickly found that people needed convincing when it came to giving to such an organization when the country was not at war. Clara toured the country, explaining that the purpose of the Red Cross was not only to help those internationally who were at war, but to help in times of national crisis, like a natural disaster or epidemic, but this was hard for her audiences to grasp.

What brought it home to the American public were the forest fires of Michigan in September 1881. It was the first opportunity for the Red Cross to demonstrate what they could do, and they rushed to provide aid to those devastated by fires across the state. Clara's work with the organization would continue for each national crisis or natural disaster, and she was still traveling at the age of 76 in 1898 with nurses to Cuba, to provide aid to those wounded in the Spanish-American war.

Clara in 1903
Clara would resign her position at the American Red Cross in May of 1904, when she was 82 years old. By that time she had faced criticism over her record keeping and lack of paperwork, but despite the difficulties that marred the end of her service, she is credited with being the first to bring such an organization to the United States, based on the successful model she served with in Switzerland.

In 1905 she established the National First Aid Association of America, which emphasized basic first aid instruction and emergency preparedness, and served as honorary president for five years.

After a very full life of service and dedication to helping others, Clara died on April 12th, 1921. She was 91 years old.


"I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. 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."

"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 them."

"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."

"The surest test of discipline is its absence."

From a letter sent by Clara to her cousin, 1862:

An interesting insight into Clara's experience at that time.
Head Quarters 2nd Div.
9th Army Corps-Army of the Potomac
Camp near Falmouth, Va.
December 12th, 1862 - 2 o'clock A.M.
My dear Cousin Vira:
Five minutes time with you; and God only knows what those five minutes might be worth to the many-doomed thousands sleeping around me.
It is the night before a battle. The enemy, Fredericksburg, and its mighty entrenchments lie before us, the river between - at tomorrow's dawn our troops will assay to cross, and the guns of the enemy will sweep those frail bridges at every breath.
The moon is shining through the soft haze with a brightness almost prophetic. For the last half hour I have stood alone in the awful stillness of its glimmering light gazing upon the strange sad scene around me striving to say, "Thy will Oh God be done."

The camp fires blaze with unwanted brightness, the sentry's tread is still but quick - the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for us as I gazed sorrowfully upon them. I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning. Sleep weary one, sleep and rest for tomorrow toil. Oh! Sleep and visit in dreams once more the loved ones nestling at home. They may yet live to dream of you, cold lifeless and bloody, but this dream soldier is thy last, paint it brightly, dream it well.
Oh northern mothers wives and sisters, all unconscious of the hour, would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow, would that Christ would teach my soul a prayer that would plead to the Father for grace sufficient for you, God pity and strengthen you every one.
Mine are not the only waking hours, the light yet burns brightly in our kind hearted General's tent where he pens what may be a last farewell to his wife and children and thinks sadly of his fated men.
Already the roll of the moving artillery is sounded in my ears. The battle draws near and I must catch one hour's sleep for tomorrow's labor.

Good night near cousin and Heaven grant you strength for your more peaceful and less terrible, but not less weary days than mine.
Yours in love,

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