Women of History: Clara Barton

March 25, 2015

Portrait of Clara Barton, circa 1904. Photo by J.E. Purdy.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-75827.

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

Clara Barton and Mary Baker Eddy were contemporaries who shared the common goals of healing people and alleviating their suffering. Although the two women went about their pursuits in different ways, both worked tirelessly for their respective causes, to which they were unstintingly devoted. Barton publicly proclaimed a great admiration for Eddy—and Eddy responded in kind — read it here.

She was born Clarissa Harlowe Barton on Christmas Day 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts. Perhaps the first example of her lifelong devotion to caring for others occurred when she nursed her brother David over a period of years, after he was injured in an accident. He fully recovered, although doctors had given up hope for him.

Barton became a teacher at the age of 15 and started her own school in Bordentown, New Jersey. Following this, she moved to Washington, DC, where she worked as a clerk in the United States Patent Office. There her anti-slavery views made her controversial. She lost the job in 1857, after James Buchanan became president.

At the beginning of the American Civil War in 1861, she was one of the first volunteers at the Washington Infirmary. She left the city hospitals to help soldiers in the field, organizing assistance in gathering first aid supplies, transporting water, and preparing food. Often she used her own money to pay for supplies. Her presence in battlefield situations became commonplace, including service at Fredericksburg, Antietam, and Charleston. Barton’s ability to withstand harsh physical and emotional conditions on the front lines was remarkable, although her own health suffered. She was nicknamed “The Angel of the Battlefield.”

At the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Barton General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. She oversaw the locating of information on over 21,000 missing soldiers, searching for their names on prison rolls and casualty lists, as well as installing grave markers.

Barton continued her service to soldiers in the Franco-Prussian and Spanish-American wars. She also participated in many relief efforts at home and abroad, including the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood, the 1896 Armenian Massacre in Turkey, and the 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane.

Barton became the first president of the American Red Cross in 1881. She was also instrumental in US ratification of the Geneva Convention the following year. She remained active in later years, continuing work for the Red Cross until her resignation in 1904, after which she continued to speak and lecture well into her 80s. She died in Glen Echo, Maryland, on April 12, 1912.

Clifford P. Smith, the first manager of the Christian Science Church’s archives, remembered Barton’s 1906 visit to Mason City, Iowa, where he was then living. “As I talked to her,” he later wrote, “I could not help but feel that she had much in common with Mrs. Eddy, that she might even look something like her, not in features but, rather, in a look of humility and love and selflessness….

“She then added that she was convinced that Christian Science was true in its theory and practice, that she had considered openly espousing the Cause of Christian Science, but that after thinking it over very carefully she had decided against it for this reason. — As the founder of the Red Cross … whatever she would do would affect it greatly. Conscious of this, she felt she would have to believe in Christian Science and use it, but she must not in any way weaken the strength of the Red Cross by seeming to forsake it” (Rem. Clifford P. Smith, 87).

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