Clara Barton

From Academic Kids

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Famed American nurse Clara Barton, first president of the American Red Cross

Clarissa Harlowe Barton (better known as Clara Barton) (December 25, 1821 (although there is a confusion with her date of birth, as her birth certificate says the 25th, while her family members say that she was born the day before Christmas, the 24th)–April 12, 1912) was a pioneer American teacher, nurse, and humanitarian. She has been described as having had an "indomitable spirit" and is best remembered for organizing the American Red Cross.


Youth, education, family nursing

Clara Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 to Stephen and Sarah Barton in Oxford, Massachusetts. Her father, Captain Stephen Barton, was a farmer and horse breeder. Her mother, Sarah Barton, managed the household. She was the baby of the family. Her four brothers and sisters were all at least 10 years her senior. Young Clara was home-educated and extremely bright. It is said that her older brothers and sisters were kept busy answering her many questions, and each sibling taught her complementary skills. When Clara started school at age 4, she she could already spell 3 syllable words, and surprised her teacher by spelling "artichoke".

As a child, Clara was a shy and retiring little girl, but at the age of 11, when her brother became ill, for 2 years Clara stayed by his side and learned to administer all his medicine, including the "great, loathsome crawling leeches." This was an early indication of what would become Clara's lifework.

Teaching, organizing, learning bureaucracy, a mission

Clara became a teacher at age 15, a post that she was to hold for the next 18 years. For ten years, Barton taught in a small Massachusetts town, where her brother owned a factory. After she was invited to teach in a private school in Bordentown, New Jersey, Barton recognized the community's need for free education, and despite opposition, set up one of the first free public schools in the state.

In 1854 she suffered from a mild nervous breakdown probably brought on by overwork. She took a break from teaching (which would be called a sabbatical in modern times) and attended the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, where she studied analytic geometry, calculus, astronomy, mathematics and natural science in addition to French, German, ancient history, philosophy and religion. Afterward, she was appointed to a job as a clerk in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. where she learned the ins and outs of the federal bureaucracy.

When her father was dying, they had a conversation that she later said changed her life. He gave Clara a command that she would always recall:

"As a patriot he bade me serve my country with all I had, even with my life if need be; as the daughter of an accepted Mason, he bade me seek and comfort the afflicted everywhere, and as a Christian he charged me to honor God and love mankind."

American Civil War

When the American Civil War began, Barton resigned her position in the Patent Office to devote herself to the care of wounded soldiers on the field of battle. With the outbreak of war and the cascade of wounded Union soldiers into Washington, Miss Barton quickly recognized the unpreparedness of the Army Medical Department. In April 1861, after the First Battle of Bull Run, she established an agency to obtain and distribute supplies to wounded soldiers. For nearly a year, she lobbied the U.S. Army bureaucracy in vain to bring her own medical supplies to the battlefields. Finally, in July 1862, she obtained permission to travel behind the lines, eventually reaching some of the grimmest battlefields of the war and serving during the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond. Barton delivered aid to soldiers of both the North and South. In 1864 she was appointed by Union General Benjamin Butler "lady in charge" of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James.

In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln placed her in charge of the search for the missing men of the Union army, and while engaged in this work she traced the fate of 30,000 men. As the War ended, she was sent to Andersonville, Georgia, to identify and mark the graves of Union soldiers buried there. This experience launched her on a nationwide campaign to identify soldiers missing during the Civil War. She published lists of names in newspapers and exchanged letters with veterans and soldiers' families. She also delivered lectures on her war experiences, which were well received. She met Susan B. Anthony and began a long association with the suffrage movement. She also became acquainted with Frederick Douglass and became an activist for black civil rights.

Barton sees the International Red Cross in action

The search for missing soldiers and years of toil during the Civil War physically debilitated Miss Barton. In 1869, her doctors recommended a restful trip to Europe. In 1870, while she was overseas (on "vacation"), she became involved with the International Red Cross and its humanitarian work during the war between France and Prussia. Created in 1864, the International Red Cross had been chartered to provide humane services to all victims during wartime under a flag of neutrality.

Organizing the American Red Cross

When she returned to the United States, she inaugurated a movement to secure recognition of the International Red Cross society by the United States government. When she began this organizing work in 1873, no one thought the U.S. would ever again face an experience like the Civil War, but she finally succeeded during the administration of President James Garfield on the basis that the new American Red Cross organization could also be available to respond to other types of crisis. As Barton expanded the original concept of the Red Cross to include assisting in any great national disaster, this service brought the United States the "Good Samaritan of Nations" label. Barton naturally became President of the American branch of the society, which was founded on May 21, 1881. John D. Rockefeller gave money to create a national headquarters in Washington, DC, located one block from the White House.

Later life, heritage

Clara Barton continued to do relief work in the field until she was well into her 70s. She went to Cuba with a cargo of supplies in 1898, and spent six weeks on the scene of the Galveston, Texas floods, at age 79. She resigned from the American Red Cross in 1904 at the age of 83 and spent her remaining years in Glen Echo, Maryland. She died in 1912 at age 90, and is buried less than a mile from her birthplace in a family plot in Oxford, Massachusetts.

One published source sums her life up thusly: :

Clara Barton was one of America's greatest heroines -- a true patriot and philanthropist who, when she saw a practical need, gave every ounce of her strength to address it. [1] (

The American Red Cross she founded is one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world. Barton herself was the most decorated American woman, receiving the Iron Cross, the Cross of Imperial Russia and the International Red Cross Medal. Her final act was founding the National First Aid Society in 1904.

Clara Barton's Birthplace House and Museum

Clara Barton's Birthplace in North Oxford, Massachusetts [2] ( is operated as a house museum as part of The Barton Center for Diabetes Education, Inc. [3] (, a humanitarian project established in Clara Barton's honor to educate and support children with diabetes and their families.

Clara Barton National Historic Site

In 1975, Clara Barton National Historic Site was established as a unit of the National Park Service at her Glen Echo, Maryland home. The first National Historic Site dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman, it preserves the early history of the American Red Cross and the last home of its founder. Clara Barton spent the last 15 years of her life in her Glen Echo home, and it served as an early headquarters of the American Red Cross as well.

The National Park Service has restored eleven rooms, including the Red Cross offices, parlors and Miss Barton's bedroom. Visitors to Clara Barton National Historic Site can gain a sense of how Miss Barton lived and worked surrounded by all that went into her life's work. Visitors to the site are led through the three levels on a guided tour emphasizing Miss Barton's use of her unusual home, and come to appreciate the site in the same way visitors did in Clara Barton's lifetime. [4] (


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