Let's Reminisce: Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross

By Jerry Lincecum
Special to the Herald Democrat

Half a century before she founded the American Red Cross, Clara Barton had her first nursing experience at age 11, when her older brother fell off a barn roof. For nearly two years she remained at his bedside, applying leeches and dispensing medicine. He made a full recovery from serious cranial trauma.

Born on Christmas Day 200 years ago, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara was a timid child. But her brothers trained her to be “a superb rider and a crack shot with a revolver,” writes historian S.C. Gwynne, and soon she longed to be a soldier.

Instead, she began teaching school when she was 17 and eventually founded schools of her own, one in her home state and another in New Jersey. Then she moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office, where she was one of the few women on staff.

The week after the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Barton began nursing Union soldiers at an improvised camp inside the U.S. Capitol, and soon took her skills to the front lines. At the Battle of Antietam, where thousands of lives were lost, she was giving water to a soldier when a bullet tore through her sleeve, killing him. She also accepted a young man’s plea to extract a bullet from his face.

A surgeon who was also tending to the wounded that day coined her famous epithet in a letter to his family: “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.” Barton subsequently tended to hundreds of wounded in Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina.

Barton also worked to improve the fortunes of formerly enslaved people, drafting them as nurses in battlefield hospitals and teaching them to read. Near the end of the war, President Abraham Lincoln approved her proposal to open the Missing Soldiers Office, where she identified 22,000 Union servicemen who had died in captivity and notified their families.

She also launched a lecture tour, delivering more than 200 speeches throughout the Northeast and Midwest about her war experiences to raise money for relief efforts. A tiny woman, just five feet tall, she shared platforms with Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth.

In December 1868, she lost her voice, and her doctor advised her to take a break from lecturing and travel to Europe. She first encountered and began volunteering for the International Red Cross in Switzerland in September 1869.

Her time there was a revelation. She was awed by “the work of these Red Cross societies in the field, accomplishing in four months under their systematic organization what we failed to accomplish in four years,” she later said.

As she began petitioning the U.S. government to recognize a domestic chapter of the international organization, she showed the same resolve that had driven her work on the battlefield. President Rutherford B. Hayes turned her down in 1877, but Barton had spent the past five years building national support for the agency and wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

In May of 1881, with Hayes out of office, she established the Red Cross on her own with a small staff. Four months later, forest fires tore through Michigan, leaving 500 dead and thousands more homeless. Without waiting for federal recognition, Barton used the new agency to issue appeals for help nationwide, raising enough money, food and supplies to aid 14,000 survivors. The Red Cross was officially incorporated in Washington, D.C. the next month.

Barton led the agency for the next 23 years, aiding countless victims of floods, hurricanes, tidal waves and typhoid fever, as well as those wounded in the Spanish-American War. She died of pneumonia in April 1912 at the age of 90, three days before her agency rushed to aid survivors of the Titanic.

Barton remains celebrated worldwide, and even in outer space: A crater on Venus bears her name. Along with her vision and courage, it is her deep commitment to helping the weak and disadvantaged that continues to resonate. In September, the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association released a video calling for more caregivers. Its title: “The Next Clara Barton.”

Jerry Lincecum

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories. He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: jlincecum@me.com.