This brief essay discusses Clara Barton’s early years at home and in government service, the era in which she lived, factors that shaped her character and future work, Civil War and other military activities and her public health efforts to establish and develop the American Red Cross organization.
Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day in 1821 in Oxford, MA. She was the youngest of six children in her middle-class family and educated at home (Faust). Barton worked as a clerk and book keeper for her oldest brother while in school. She became a teacher at 15, taught for several years and opened the first free public school in the U.S. in New Jersey. At a young age, for two years she cared for her brother during his recovery from an accident. She was one of the first women to work for the U.S. government in any capacity when she was a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in her thirties, from 1854 to 1857; she left when her anti-slavery opinions caused controversy in the agency (Clara Barton: Relief organizer/humanitarian).
Barton was active in the 1830s and 1840s when intellectual and moral liberalism was growing. She was impressed with Horace Mann’s educational reforms, Emerson’s view of human liberty, Garrison’s efforts to free slaves and Stanton’s protests about the current plight of women. She withstood severe gender discrimination that weakened her health (Spiegel, 1995, pp. 505, 507). She developed characteristics evident throughout her life: “a quick and practical response to an immediate need; an aggressive independence; persistence; courage; delight in directing a difficult enterprise; and an intense nervous energy” (Johnson as cited in Spiegel, 1995, p. 508).
According to Spiegel (1995), three factors influenced Barton’s personality and her future: she followed the philosophical principle to “know thyself”; she overcame sex discrimination she encountered to prepare for life in a male-dominated Victorian era; and, using phrenology, she formed philosophies about illness, life and death that “prepared her physically and mentally for the monumental task of moving governments and politicians” to accept her health care initiatives and resolve her innate timidity about herself (pp. 501-502, 504). After surviving in her dysfunctional family, Barton struggled with a lifelong battle against chronic depression and often fantasized about killing herself. Her anxiety disorder and dejection lifted for a time when she recognized there was a need for her services and leadership, but symptoms returned throughout her life (Henneberger).
Public Health Endeavor Barton Positively Affected
Barton served as an active nurse and educator in Civil War zones. She was one of the first volunteers at the Washington Infirmary, caring for wounded soldiers (many of them her former students) (Henneberger) and beginning a lifetime of philanthropy (Faust). After her father died, Barton went to the battlefields. Using her own funds and donations, she personally distributed Union Army supplies and faced danger in several intense battles in the Virginia and South Carolina theaters (Faust), especially the Battle of Antietam where surgeons were using corn husks to make bandages. Barton organized the able-bodied to perform first aid and generally care for Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners. She attracted national notice and became known as “The Angel of the Battlefield.” She was superintendent of nurses in Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s command. Eventually, she became gravely ill (Faust; Clara Barton: Relief organizer/humanitarian). Her exemplary work on the battlefield helped women achieve “a fuller involvement in American Society” (Brumgardt).
After the war, President Lincoln authorized her to find and reunite soldiers and their families and, using prison and parole rolls or casualty lists, locate those who were missing She established the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States and helped mark anonymous graves at Andersonville prison. She became a lecturer, attracting large crowds who wanted to hear her wartime experiences (Clara Barton).
She used her experiences to expand her public health reach beyond the boundaries of the United States. She worked overseas, developed her nursing skills and began the process leading to establishment of one of the world’s foremost public health agencies – the Red Cross (Faust).
After closing her Missing Soldiers Office in 1868, she worked with the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. She saw the benefits and services the organization provided, and soon lobbied for a branch to be established in the U.S. She became the first president of the American Red Cross when it was finally established in 1881. She organized relief efforts for disasters such as floods in Johnston, PA and Galveston, TX and at age 77 worked 16-hour days in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. She left the Red Cross in 1904 amid internal turmoil and claims of fiscal mismanagement. Barton then founded the National First Aid Society to promote local first aid programs; it became part of the American Red Cross (Clara Barton; Clara Barton: Relief organizer/humanitarian; Henneberger).
Her international influence continued as a member of the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She helped convince the United States in 1882 to finally accept Geneva Convention provisions that embodied the objectives and services the Red Cross offered and also allowed freedom of movement across territorial boundaries to provide medical supplies and relief (Clara Barton; Clara Barton: Relief organizer/humanitarian).
Clara Barton’s life centered on helping others worldwide – the wounded, the broken, soldiers and their families. She actively supported emerging contemporary causes (e.g., women’s suffrage, civil rights and prison reform) (Clara Barton). She embodied a key premise of public health – service to others. She responded to needs she saw and used her talents and energy to effect change worldwide. The legacy of Clara Barton rings true with every Red Cross response to a natural disaster or emergency– to help those in need. Her life displayed “courage, overcoming obstacles, never giving up and doing the job that needs doing” (Evans, 2003, p. 75).
Brumgardt, J.R. (1980). Forward and Introduction. In John R. Brumgardt (Ed.), Civil
War nurse: the diary and letters of Hannah Ropes (pp. ix-xiii, 3-46). Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.
Clara Barton. (2015). The Biography.com website. Retrieved Jul 15, 2015,
Clara Barton: Relief organizer/humanitarian. (n.d.). Civil War Trust website. Retrieved
Jul 15, 2015, from http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/clara-barton.html
Evans, G. D., (2003). Clara Barton: Teacher, Nurse, Civil War Heroine, Founder of the
American Red Cross. International History of Nursing Journal, 7(3), 75-82.
Faust, P.L. (Ed.). (1986). Historical times illustrated encyclopedia of the Civil War. New
York, NY: Harper & Row.
Henneberger, M. (2012, Apr 7). Clara Barton’s inner war. The Washington Post. Retrieved Jul
15, 2015 from http://bangordailynews.com/2012/04/07/health/clara-bartons-inner-war/
Spiegel, A. (1995). The role of gender, phrenology, discrimination, and nervous prostration
in Clara Barton’s career. Journal of Community Health, 20(6), 501-526.
OTHER URLs TO SEE AND CONSIDER USING FOR A LONGER PAPER:
Issues and Trends in Nursing: Essential Knowledge for Today and Tomorrow
By Gayle Roux, Judith Halstead (DO A SEARCH AND SEE P. 6 TO GET INSIGHTS ON CIVIL WAR NURSING)
[HER CIVIL WAR “MISSING SOLDIERS” OFFICE TO BE NOTED?]
[MORE THAN JUST RED CROSS B.G. INFO.]
[REPEATS SOME INFO. ALREADY KNOWN]
[AWARDS SHE RECEIVED PLUS OTHER B.G. INFO.
[HER HISTORICAL SITE IN MARYLAND]