Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross

American Red Cross LogoThroughout American history, there are people who decide to put the lives and needs of others ahead of their own and create organizations that change the world. Clara Barton was a nursing professional who was never married because she knew that being a married woman in the United States in the 1800’s would prevent her from following her goal of helping as many people as possible. She went on to play a prominent role in the American Civil War and founded the international aid organization known as the Red Cross. Ms. Barton came from a family where her father was a military man and her mother was a stay-at-home housewife. In that environment, Clara Barton learned the compassion she would need to serve as one of the more dedicated nursing professionals the American military has ever seen.

The Early Life of Clara Barton

Clara Barton was born on Christmas Day in 1821 to Captain Stephen Barton of the Massachusetts state militia and homemaker Sarah Stone Barton. Even though Clara Barton was judged intelligent enough to start regular schooling at the age of three, she was extremely shy and had only one friend throughout all of her school years. Her parents attempted to cure Clara’s shyness by enrolling her in a public high school when she was older, but Clara became so ill that her parents had to pull her out of school. The family moved in with a Barton relative who had lost her husband and needed help. It was when Clara and her parents moved in to help their relative that Clara came out of her shyness and excelled at helping others. At only ten years old, Clara learned the nursing skills necessary to help her brother recover from a serious illness and, at that point, Clara realized what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

Civil War Accomplishments

As the Civil War approached in 1860, Clara Barton began to ask her father about what it meant to be in the military. Captain Barton told his daughter that it was every person’s duty to either be a part of the war effort, or to help the soldiers on the front lines. Captain Barton passed away in 1862 and immediately following his death, Clara Barton set out for Washington, D.C. to assist in the war efforts. She established herself as a resident of Maryland and then eventually received permission to attend to the nursing duties for soldiers on the front lines. She was put in charge of several front line hospitals and earned the nickname of the “Angel of the Battlefield.” A famous story has Clara Barton tending to a soldier on the front line as a bullet ripped through her sleeve and killed the soldier she was attending to.

Establishing the American Red Cross

After the Civil War, Clara Barton was extremely active in giving speeches to large groups about her war experiences. In 1869, she was in Geneva, Switzerland when she was introduced to a group known as the International Committee of the Red Cross. It was a military medical organization established in 1863 that was very active in treating soldiers in European wars such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The ICRC asked Clara Barton to establish the American Red Cross and helped her to find ways to secure financial backers. Ms. Barton spent years trying to convince American presidents that the American Red Cross was an essential organization, but the presidents she talked to refused to believe that there would ever be a crisis like the American Civil War and decided that the American Red Cross was unnecessary. But in 1881, she convinced President Chester Arthur that the American Red Cross could be valuable in assisting in a variety of disasters other than war and the president gave his approval. With federal funding, Clara Barton established the first office of the American Red Cross in her Washington, D.C. apartment on May 21, 1881.

Clara Barton the Activist

Clara Barton’s desire to help others did not stop at the battlefield. She was also active in the causes that she felt to be worthwhile in the course of human history. Early in her career as a nurse, Ms. Barton met Susan B. Anthony and Ms. Barton decided to take up the cause of women’s suffrage. After the Civil War, Clara Barton met Frederick Douglass and he convinced her to become part of the very first civil rights movements. Clara Barton was a very dedicated activist for the causes she believed in and she would give speeches on her civil rights activities throughout her entire life.