Clara Barton (1821-1912) – A three-cent stamp issued in 1948

Clarissa Harlow Barton, called Clara, best known as the founder of the American Red Cross, should also be remembered as a Civil War nurse, a pioneer in military health, a genius of public relations, and the world’s founder of systems for identifying the missing and the dead.

Born in rural Massachusetts, she nursed a seriously ill brother before a beginning career as an educator.  She taught for most of two decades and rose to be principal of one of the first tuition-free schools in New Jersey; it soon grew so large that town officials decided that it required a male head, and she resigned in protest. 

Barton moved to Washington, D.C. in 1854, where she probably was the first woman to physically work in a federal office.  The Patent Office hired many women to make handwritten copies – tedious work that tried the patience of most men – but these women did the work at home.  With support from her congressman, Barton was employed in the Patent Office itself and earned a salary equal to that of her male counterparts.

She thus was living in Washington, D.C. when the Civil War began in 1861.  Union soldiers were badly supplied, and Barton ran ads in newspapers back North, asking women to send food, medicine, blankets, and more.  Mental-health reformer Dorothea Dix was the official superintendent of nurses, but Barton received permission to transport supplies to battlefields in 1862.  She did occasional nursing throughout the war, but her genius was in procurement and supply – and the public relations needed to do that.

At the war’s 1865 end, she traveled to the worst of death sites, especially Georgia’s infamous Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp, to trace missing and dead men.  At her still-extant Washington office, she networked an exchange of information -- primarily between women -- on loved ones whose fate was unknown.  Military leaders never had done this systematically, and Clara Barton can be credited with creation of the world’s first model for identifying what we now call MIAs and POWs.

After closing this office, she traveled to Europe in 1869.  While in Switzerland, she learned about the Red Cross organization that had been established in Geneva in 1864.  Upon returning home, she focused on obtaining support for an American Red Cross.  The lobbying effort was long and difficult, but Congress finally ratified the treaty with the International Red Cross, and from 1882 to 1904, Clara Barton led the American Red Cross.  The new organization first attracted major attention in 1889 because of a horrific flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which killed more than 2,200 people.  Barton’s work there was so efficient that she assumed an icon status with the public, but as her tenure lengthened, many Red Cross board members grew unhappy with her micro-management, especially during the 1898 Spanish-American War.  They quietly forced their founder to resign in 1904, and again, she was replaced by a man.  Clara Barton died eight years later, at age 90, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, and is buried where she was born, in North Oxford, Massachusetts.



back - home - next