Portrait of Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross, photo by Matthew Brady

For a long period of history, and even today, women are the ones who tend to take care of the sick. This was true in childhood of Clara Barton, her brother was seriously injured and she took care of him during his long recovery – two years, starting when shew as only 11 years old.

If you’ve heard of Clara Barton, you may have heard her nickname, The Angel of the Battlefield. You may know that the battlefields she worked in were those of the American Civil War.

But how did she become the Angle of the Battlefield? And which part of being a nurse was her biggest contribution to the world?

Clara Barton was born in 1821 on December 25th in North Oxford, Massachusetts, her name was Clarissa Harlowe Barton. She was the youngest of 5 children. She was painfully shy and fearful as a child. She and her family were Unitarian Universalists and her religion influence her lifelong devotion to service to others.

She was the youngest child by many years and later wrote,

“I had no playmates, but in effect six fathers and mothers.” (Source: Notable American Women, 1971)

She was surprisingly well educated for a girl of her time, she studied latin, chemistry, math, literature, philosophy. She was active outdoors, including horseback riding.

She didn’t immediately train as a nurse for her career (and anyway, nursing schools didn’t exist yet). Her first job, at age 18, was as a teacher. Later she worked in the United States Patent office, as a clerk. This made her one of the first women in the U.S. to be appointed to a civil service job. However, she quit when she found out she was being paid less than a man doing the same job.  She later 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.”

During the Civil War

She was shocked when she saw, at the first Battle of Bull Run, an almost complete lack of first aid supplies. She responded to this by advertising in the newspaper to ask for donations of supplies. She collected bandages, medicine and food and “she and a few friends began in the summer of 1862 to distribute these supplies by mule team to ill-equipped hospitals and camps and on the battlefields themselves.” (Source: Notable American Women, 1971)

Served as a nurse during the Second Battle of Bull Run and at the battles of Cedar Mountain, Chantitily, South Mountain, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Served as Superintendent of Nurses for the Union Army.

After the Civil War

In 1865, President Lincoln approved her to run the Missing Persons Bureau and she had the limited cooperation of the War Department. After the war ended, soldiers weren’t taken home, they were just sort of left where they were, and there were prisoner of war camps to deal with. A family back home might not know if their soldier was dead or alive or when they were coming home. So they could go to the Missing Persons Bureau and get help finding them. This is work that’s still done by the Red Cross after a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, when people might get separated during the storm.

To help reunited families, she and a few assistants worked with letters from families. They made lists of missing soldiers and then published those lists in newspapers throughout the northern part of the country.

This was a daunting task, because at the end of the war, there were over 300,00 known Union graves, but about half of them were unmarked.

She worked with a former prisoner of war who had been told to keep a record of everyone who died in the prisoner of war camp in Georgia. She worked to mark the graves of almost 13,000 men who had died in the camp.  In a four year period, she answered 63,000 letters and identified 22,000 missing. soldiers.

She then went on a speaking tour across the country, overcoming her shyness and learning to be persuasive. “Not only the soldiers who she had helped and their grateful families, but the nation as a whole, acclaimed her as a great war heroine.” (Source: Notable American Women, 1971). She was one of the highest paid speakers of her time and the speaking tour provided her with income as well as money that she would use in the future to fund her later work.

Traveled to Europe

After years of public speaking and travel, she was exhausted and lost her voice. A doctor encouraged her to travel to Europe to rest. Her illness from exhaustion is sometimes called a breakdown, and sometimes called depression. While she was resting in Switzerland, she learned of the International Red Cross, which had been formed in 1863. The International Red Cross established the idea that people providing medical care should be allowed to retrieve the injured from a battlefield and that neither side should fire upon them. The Red Cross was “neutral,” it wasn’t on either side in a battle, it was a humanitarian group providing medical care.

The International Red Cross got official recognition in 1864 at an international meeting of countries called the Geneva Convention, where countries agreed to certain rules about fighting wars. Eleven countries signed the Geneva Treaty, which did many other things, including recognizing the Red Cross.

Clara Barton was upset to realize that the United States had not ratified the treaty. Then another war broke out, the Franco-Prussian War, and Barton worked for the International Red Cross. She established a workshop in Strassburg, for women to sew garments to support themselves. The women had become in need of work because of the war. (What country was Strasssburg in? You would think that would be a simple question, but it has changed a lot. After 1871, it became part of the newly formed German empire. Before that, it was in France.)

While there, Barton also distributed relief money from American relief committees in Paris and other French cities.

She then suffered another breakdown, rested for a year in England, then then continued to rest in America.

Flag of the Red Cross. A red cross in a white field.

Establishing the American Red Cross

She later spent 5 years campaigning for the creation of an American Red Cross. She wrote a pamphlet and gave speeches about the Red Cross and what it could do. She promoted the idea that the Red Cross was not only for aid in war, but could also help people in the case of natural disasters or epidemics of diseases.

At last, in 1892, the American National Red Cross was charted in Washington, D.C. In 1900, Congress issued a federal charter to the Red Cross.

From 1881 to 1904, the American Red Cross provided relief in 21 disasters, including floods, forest fires, hurricanes, a disease epidemic; they also provided aid for disasters outside of the United States, including a famine in Russia.

She moved to the Washington, D.C. area permanently in 1884 and served as president of the American Red Cross from 1882 to 1904.

She never took a salary, and even spent her own money to do the work and give the help she wanted to give. Sometimes, this was reimbursed, but not always.

The Red Cross not only provided immediate aid after a disaster, but also gave the local residents assistance in getting back on their own feet. After the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900, the Red Cross “provided 1,500,000 strawberry plants to enable destitute farmers to resume the daily job of making a living.” (Source: Notable American Women, 1971)

The End of Her Time with the Red Cross

She and the Red Cross also did relief work in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and there’s even a statue of her in Santiago, Cuba! At the age of 77, she “took to the fields, both before and during the hostilities, riding mule wagons, as she had in the Civil War, on all but impassable roads under a tropical sun.” (Source: Notable American Women, 1971)

This work brought some criticism. People thought she should be back in Washington, D.C., being the leader of the organization, not in Cuba, working on battlefields. She was very independent and continued to want to work outside of government bodies. During the Civil War, especially at first, there hadn’t been enough government medical care. But by the time of the Spanish-American War, there were new training schools for nurses, nursing had become a profession, and there were departments with in the Army and the government to take care of medical needs.

Within the organization, some of the other workers felt that Barton needed to modernize her methods, particularly around money and records, and to share power with others. She disagreed, and was eventually forced out of the organization that she had founded.

Clara Barton died April 12, 1912 and was buried in North Oxford, Massachusetts.

Notable American Women wrote, “she was, perhaps better known and more frequently honored at home and abroad than other American woman of her generation.”

Though she received more than one proposal of marriage, she never married and never had children. Married women of her time period weren’t able to have careers in the way that she did.  Her identity as a nurse, doing work that was considered essentially womanly, allowed her to do the leadership and administrative work that she might not have been able to otherwise.  (Because that kind of work was considered not proper, or not what women should do.)

Clara Barton’s Role in the History of Nursing Leadership

The book Nursing’s Greatest Leaders addresses Barton’s strengths and weaknesses as a leader. They cite her tendency to want to work alone and be in charge all the time. While she was excellent at getting people to share her vision of the need for aid in disasters, and to get people to donate, the running of a national organization, with the need to manage staff, was not her strength.

“Clara Barton was a true humanitarian. She showed great courage and worked tirelessly for the cause to which she had devoted her life: to bring humanitarian aid to those in need. She was repeatedly described as a person who was patient, diplomatic, calm, persistent, independent, proud, and determined to accomplish her goals. In spite of her weaknesses, her life exemplifies a triumph of the human spirit – the ability to overcome obstacles in the achievement of one’s goals.”


Nursing’s Greatest Leaders by David Anthony Forrester, editor
A History of Nursing by Louise Wyatt
Encyclopedia of American Women in Politics, 1999
Great American History Fact Finder, 2004
Notable American Women, 1971