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Educator, nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, Clarissa Harlowe Barton (25 December 1821-12 April 1912), known as Clara, is one of the most honored women in American history. Her father, Stephen Barton (1774-1862), was a prosperous businessman, captain of the local militia and a selectman in Oxford, Massachusetts who inspired his daughter with patriotism and a broad humanitarian interest. Her mother, Sarah Stone Barton (1783-1851), was an independent woman who was known for her thriftiness, eccentricity and volatile temper. A shy, timid child by nature, 11 year-old Clara first found her calling when she tended to David, one of her older brothers, after he fell from the rafters during a barn raising and received a severe injury. Clara stayed home from school for two years to care for him by administering his medicine and even applied and removed leeches when suggested by the doctor. David Barton (1808-1888) later became a captain serving as an Assistant Quartermaster for the Union army during the American Civil War. Clara Barton became a teacher at age 15 and later opened a free public school in New Jersey. She moved to Washington, D.C., to work in the U.S. Patent Office as a recording clerk in the mid-1850s and a copyist in 1860.
Like many women during the American Civil War, Clara Barton sought to help the soldiers in any way she could. She initially helped collect bandages and other much-needed supplies for the Union army, but not content sitting on the sidelines, she felt that she could best support the troops by going directly into the battlefields. During the war, she maintained a home in Washington, D.C., but traveled with the Army of the Potomac, providing care and relief services to the wounded on many battlefields. It was following the battle of Cedar Mountain (Culpepper) in northern Virginia in August 1862 -- the first documented battle at which she served in the field -- that she was thereafter known as the "Angel of the Battlefield". She continued to nurse, comfort or cook for the troops at the battles of: Second Manassas (Bull Run) in August 1862; Chantilly, South Mountain, and Antietam in September 1862; Fredericksburg in December 1862; Charleston in April 1863; the Siege of Fort Wagner in August 1863; as well as Petersburg in June 1864.
In March 1865, Clara Barton received the approval of President Abraham Lincoln to address the problem of large numbers of missing soldiers and established "The Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army", where she directed a four-year search that resulted in having received and answered over 60,000 letters and identified 22,000 men. During this time period, she also delivered hundreds of lectures regarding her Civil War experiences but by December of 1868, due to fatigue and mental exhaustion, she lost her voice while delivering a speech. On the advice of her doctor, she traveled to Europe in September 1869 to regain her health. It was while visiting Switzerland that for the first time, read about the International Red Cross, which called for international agreements to protect the sick and wounded during wartime and for the formation of national societies to give aid voluntarily on a neutral basis. After establishing a wide network of colleagues, friends and supporters in Europe, she returned to the United States in October 1873, determined on educating the public and garnering support for an American society of the Red Cross. When Barton first approached President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, she was met with resistance, but did not give up and went ahead without his support and founded the American Red Cross on 21 May 1881. Barton served as its president until 1904, when she resigned at age 83. Although President-elect James A. Garfield gave her his approval in 1881, Garfield died in September of that year from an assassination attempt. Finally, Garfield's successor, Chester A. Arthur, signed the Declaration of accession ("Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded on the Field of Battle (Red Cross Convention)") on 1 March 1882 and was ratified by the Senate fifteen days later. Clara Barton was a strong advocate for Red Cross societies to provide disaster relief as well as wartime services and was successful in having an amendment (known as the "American Amendment") passed during the Third International Red Cross Conference in Geneva in 1884 to include victims of natural disasters. In April 1905, she also formed the National First Aid Association of America and served as honorary president for five years. The organization emphasized basic first aid instruction, emergency preparedness, and developed first aid kits. Ambulance brigades were formed in conjunction with police and fire departments. This became the second organization in the U.S. to provide laypeople first aid training and is similar to the St. John Ambulance Association that was established in Britain in 1877 and in Canada in 1883. Clara Barton died at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland. Throughout her long life she sought to improve people's lives, by her own words, "offering a hand up, not a handout."
Shown in the photograph is the Clara Barton Monument at the Antietam National Battlefield which was dedicated on 9 September 1962. This granite monument was erected to honour her heroic actions during the Battle of Antietam, when on 17 September 1862, Clara Barton brought supplies and nursing aid to the wounded on this battlefield. As inscribed on the monument's commemorative plaque, "THIS ACT OF LOVE AND MERCY LED TO THE BIRTH OF THE PRESENT AMERICAN NATIONAL RED CROSS". Integrated into the base of the monument is a symbolic red cross that was made from a brick from the chimney of the home where Clara Barton was born at North Oxford, Massachusetts. This farmhouse, built by her father in 1818, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
On this day, 25 December 2020, we commemorate the 199th anniversary the birth of Clara Burton, the "Angel of the Battlefield" during the American Civil War, more than 139 years since she founded the American Red Cross, and mark more than 58 years since the dedication of a monument erected in her honour at the Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland.
André M. Levesque