Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dec. 25, 1821: Clara Barton, Angel of the Battlefield

"In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield." Dr. James Dunn, surgeon at Antietam battlefield.
Clara Barton, Angel of the Battlefield

"It does not hurt me to pioneer." Clara Barton
When we hear of disasters in the United States, one of the first groups to react – whether it is earthquake, hurricane, or flooding – is the American Red Cross. At home – and overseas – the American Red Cross has provided much-needed support for literally millions of people during times of crisis during the last 120 years.

The founder of this organization in 1881 when she was 60 years old was Clarissa (Clara) Harlow Barton, born on December 25, 1821.

Born the fifth – and youngest – child of Captain Stephen and Sarah (Stone) Barton, Clara was 10 years younger than her next oldest sibling. She grew up in the small farming community of Oxford, Massachusetts. When she was young, Clara's father – a Revolutionary War veteran - regaled her with his stories of soldiering against the Indians with General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Her brothers and cousins taught her horseback riding and other boyish hobbies. Although she was a bright, diligent and serious student, Clara preferred outdoor activities to the indoor pastimes "suitable" for young ladies of the mid-nineteenth century. Yet, she was – by and large – a shy child who would time and again overcome her shyness to accomplish a task.

"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." Clara Barton
Clara evidenced a pioneering spirit early in her life. Her early career revolved around teaching, first in her hometown, then in the early 1850s taught at a Bordertown, N.J., ‘subscription’ school – a school where parents pooled their money to pay the teacher directly. As she walked to class every day she noticed children loitering – children whose parents could not pay for an education. Clara offered to teach them for free if the city would provide a building – which the city did. Within a year, there were 100 students, and several teachers, starting New Jersey’s free public education system. Eventually the school was so successful that a new building was erected, additional teachers hired, and a man brought in to head the school with a salary over twice as great as Clara’s. She left for Washington, D.C., where in 1854 she became the first woman clerk in the Patent Office – at a salary equal to the men’s. As a political appointee, her job ended with James Buchanan’s presidential victory of 1856.

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.” Clara Barton
After Lincoln was elected President and the Civil War broke out, Clara turned to nursing the injured. She was at many of the major battles on the Eastern Theater and became known as the "Angel of the Battlefield" for her efforts in providing medical care and comfortable quarters for the wounded. Clara was often within range of musket-fire as she tended to the wounded.

A ball had passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through the sleeve and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?” Clara Barton
She was appointed the Superintendent of Union Nurses in 1864. In 1865 President Lincoln put Clara in charge of locating missing prisoners of war, a daunting task amid the bureaucratic confusion that followed war's end. She answered hundreds of the letters which poured in, giving or requesting information about the dead and missing. The search for the missing soldiers and her years of intense effort for the soldiers of the War had exhausted her. Clara’s physician ordered her to Europe for rest. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 brought hardship to many French civilians. Miss Barton joined the relief effort, and in the process, was impressed with a new organization--the International Red Cross. Once back in America, she worked tirelessly to organize and fund an American Red Cross. The American Red Cross, with Clara at its head, devoted itself largely to disaster relief for the first 20 years of its existence. The Red Cross flag was flown officially for the first time in this country in 1881 when Clara issued a public appeal for funds and clothing to aid victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan.

Others are writing my biography, and let it rest as they elect to make it. I have lived my life, well and ill, always less well than I wanted it to be but it is, as it is, and as it has been; so small a thing, to have had so much about it!” Clara Barton
In addition to leading the American Red Cross (which she did until 1904), Clara maintained interests in other fields, such as education, prison reform, women's suffrage, civil rights, and even spiritualism. One of her many legacies is a poem about women in war, The Women Who Went To The Field.

Clara died on April 12, 1912, at the age of 90 in Glen Echo, Maryland. She was buried less than a mile from her family home in a family plot in Oxford, Massachusetts.

Local Library Resources:
Cut to the Heart: Clara Barton and the Darkness of War by Dianne Day
Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross by Dorothy Brenner Francis
The Story of Clara Barton by Rachel A. Koestler-Grack
A Woman of Valor : Clara Barton and the Civil War by Stephen B. Oates
Clara Barton: Professional Angel by Elizabeth Brown Pryor

A Selection of Web Resources:
Civil War Women
The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography
National Park Service
Women in History
American Red Cross Museum
Clara Barton Timeline

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