photo courtesy of the National Park Service
Many consider Clara Barton the mother of the American Red Cross and regard Glen Echo as her home. This trailblazer challenged preconceptions about what women could do on the battlefield and charted the course for future women in healthcare. This year marks the 100th anniversary of her death.
Born in 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, Clarissa “Clara” Barton grew up the youngest of five children. At age 23, Barton founded her own school in her home state and, at 30, established the first public school in Bordentown, New Jersey. However, when the school board eventually selected a man to serve as principal, she resigned.
As an ambitious woman of her time, Barton moved to Washington, DC, where she became the first woman to land an important clerkship in the federal government and receive the same pay as men. It wasn’t long, though, before the secretary of the interior demoted her to a copyist and gave her a substantial pay cut.
Fed up again with the inequality of it all, Barton quit the job and spent the next three years in Massachusetts. Her return to Washington in 1860 to work for the federal government under the Lincoln Administration would put her on the path to her greatest adventure.
In April 1861, just one week after the start of the Civil War, Barton found herself as an impromptu nurse, treating wounded soldiers in the U.S. Capitol with supplies from her own house. Thus began her involvement in war-relief efforts, earning her the nickname “the Angel of the Battlefield.”
A year later, Barton gained official permission to transport supplies to battlefields, providing aid across Maryland—including at South Mountain and Antietam—and in Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, as well as other states.
By the war’s end in 1865, President Lincoln had authorized Barton to lead a four-year search for missing men, an undertaking which ultimately led to the identification of 22,000 soldiers and civilians. Not confining her acts of service to the United States, she even led relief efforts in France.
While in Europe, Barton first learned of the International Red Cross. From 1877 to 1882, she worked tirelessly with two different U.S. presidents to establish an American Red Cross.
Barton continued her life of service and published rather prolifically until her death in 1912 at age 90. Her leadership in male-dominated circles and work with the women’s suffrage movement broke many barriers for the female doctors, nurses, and aid workers who came after her.
Learn more about Clara Barton at the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo. For more information, visit www.nps.gov/clba.