Happy Birthday Clara Barton!

We are already on day two of the new year but let us go back to December real quick to learn about the life of Clara Barton!

Many of us know the Red Cross but when did it start? How did it start? Who was there? Enter Clara Barton!


Clara Barton was born on December 21st, 1821 in Oxford, Massachusetts. From early on it was clear Barton was destined to help people. When her brother David was in an accident she found a passion in helping him get better.

After that, when she was just 16 years old famous phrenologists (scientists) Fowler brothers came to visit her hometown and studied the bumps on her head to determine her future. They told her that becoming a teacher would rid her of all shyness.

Fueling her passion to help people, shortly after their visit she became a teacher in Oxford. This was during a time that the profession was still dominated by men. Barton was admired when, “she refused to physically punish her student, yet was able to product disciplined scholars. She later wrote, ‘Child that I was, I did not know that the surest test of discipline is its absence.’

After teaching in Oxford for years she decided to open a free public school in Bordentown, New Jersey. In New Jersey there were no free public schools, a scene different than her home state of Massachusetts. Seeing a problem Barton came up with a solution. Starting with only six students her school soon grew to over 200 as word spread of her endeavors.

Sadly it was not long before sexist practices would contribute to the ending of her career. Bordentown was very excited at the possibility of a free public school. The town spent $4000 to build a larger building for Barton’s school. When the school was open she was informed that she would not be principle, they hired a man and paid him twice of what she had started being paid. Barton could not believe it and decided to resign from the school. On the subject she noted, “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”. 

After this devastating loss she moved to Washington D.C. to become a recording clerk in the U.S. patent office. In 1861 the first units of federal troops arrived in the city for the Civil War. She saw a need for better organization of food and medical supplies for troops and a need for more efficient distribution methods.

Barton began taking supplies to men in the Sixth Massachusetts that were attacked by southern sympathizers. She quickly realized she recognized many of the men from growing up with them. She gave clothing, food and numerous supplies the returning soldiers. She worked tirelessly to collect supplies herself, asked the public for help and with the help of organizations such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Not only was Barton giving supplies but she offered support by reading to them, writing letters for them, prayed with them and just becoming their listening ear.

Barton quickly realized she was needed on the battlefields, where suffering was greatest. 

She pushed leaders in the army and government until they would let her leave and bring her voluntary services to the battlefields and hospitals. After a battle in Northern Virginia in 1862 she went to a field hospital late at night with a wagon load of supplies. A surgeon that was on duty that night wrote, “I thought that night if heaven ever sent out an…angel she must be one-her assistance was so timely.” Ever since that night she known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” as she continued to serve troops throughout the war.

She vowed to help find missing people of the war for families that would inquire about their missing family members. President Abraham Lincoln wrote, “To the friends of Missing Persons: Miss Clara Barton has kindly offered to search for the missing prisoners of war. Please address her…giver her the name, regiment and company of any missing prisoner.” This led her to create the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army. Her and her assistants answered over 63,000 men and helped to identity 22,000 missing men. 

In 1969 Barton visited Europe and learned of a service called the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She worked in Europe by fashioning a red cross out of ribbon and fixing it to her clothes, a symbol that would allow people to know who she was working under.

Upon her arrival back in the United States Barton stayed in contact with Red Cross officials in Europe. In 1877, she went to President Rutherford B. Hayes with a proposal of a similar treaty to what Geneva had, an international agreement that would protect the sick and wounded people during wartime that would also give aid voluntarily on a neutral basis. He rejected it. But his successor, President James Garfield, was found of the idea. He was ready to sign it but shortly before was assassinated. His successor, President Chester Arthur, signed the treaty in 1882 and the Senate ratified it only a few days later.

With Barton as President the American Red Cross did a lot of disaster relief work in the United States and abroad. While the American Red Cross was slowly changing and internal conflicts were growing, Barton resigned from the organization to move onto different endeavors in 1904. She established the National First Aid Association of America, an organization that would emphasize first aid instruction, first aid kit development and being prepared for emergencies.

Barton remained an activist for the rest of her years, speaking writing and working in various organizations to improve education, to work on prison reform, improve the lives of women and to highlight civil rights issues. Barton will forever be known as a “symbol of charitable self-sacrice”.

Happy Birthday Clara Barton!







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