Women in History—Clara Barton

Women’s History Month: March
Aviators, Educators, Inventors, Journalists, Nurses, Physicians, Scientists, and Soldiers

“History is herstory, too.”  ~Anonymous

Clarissa Harlowe (Clara) Barton (1821-1912) was the last of five children born to Captain Stephen Barton and his wife, Sarah Stone, near Oxford, Massachusetts. At age seventeen (1839) she passed examination and became a schoolteacher in the local one-room schoolhouse and taught there a dozen years; she also established a school (1845) for millworkers. At twenty-eight (1850) she took a sabbatical and enrolled at Clinton Liberal Institute, Clinton, New York, for a year of college training. The following autumn she went to Hightstown, New Jersey, to visit a friend, Mary Norton, and learned that unlike Massachusetts, New Jersey did not offer free public education. So she founded her own school in Bordentown, telling families, “If you will let me try, I will teach the children free for six months.”By the end of the schoolyear, she had over two hundred students. The townfolk were so impressed, they built a school and hired a male teacher at twice a woman’s salary. Clara left.

She moved to Washington, DC, and got a job as a recording secretary at the US Patent Office. After the incident in Bordentown, she demanded and received a man’s salary, $1,400 per annum. That was short-lived. Because Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland did not like women working in government offices, her job was reduced to copyist at the rate of 10¢ a word. When her job was eliminated altogether, under President James Buchanan (1857), she returned to Massachusetts and lived with relatives. She resumed her job as copyist at the US Patent Office after Lincoln was elected (1860).

Of course, it was the Civil War (1861-65) that made Clara Barton famous. Instrumental in supplying Union troops and caring for the wounded, she was called the Angel of the Battlefield. At Antietam (1862), the worst battle of the war—still the bloodiest one-day battle in American history with over 20,000 casualties—she provided surgeons with desperately needed medical supplies and even extracted a bullet from a soldier’s cheek, using her pocket knife. Afterward she traveled with the Army of the Potomac as it crossed the country chasing Confederates. During the war (1864) the first Geneva Convention was held in Geneva, Switzerland, and the International Red Cross was established. Clara did not know and the US did not join.

Near the end of the war (1865) Clara addressed the problem of missing soldiers. By authority of Lincoln himself, she set up a mediation office and directed a four-year search for the missing. She started with Andersonville Prison, Georgia, where Confederates had incarcerated Union troops, many of whom had died of disease, filth, starvation and exposure. She located and marked over 10,000 Union graves. When they heard, survivors by the thousands began writing her. In four years (1865-69) she answered over 60,000 letters and identified 22,000 missing men. As head of the missing person office, she was the first woman to run a government bureau; for her department the US Congress (1866) allotted her $15,000. For several years (1866-68), receiving about $100 per appearance, she lectured about her experiences.

Clara was tired; her health, poor. To recuperate, she traveled to Switzerland, where she learned about the International Red Cross and its logo: a red cross on a white background. She worked with relief efforts in the Franco-Prussian War (1870), but couldn’t stay as long as she had hoped. Still unhealthy, she went, first, to England (1872) to rest, then back to America, where she promoted the International Red Cross. After the first chapter of the American Red Cross was founded (1881), Clara became its first president; but it was not signed into law until 1882 and was not approved by the International Red Cross until the Geneva Convention 1884.  The American Red Cross gave relief after the Michigan forest fire (1881), Mississippi flood (1882), Ohio flood (1884), New York typhoid fever epidemic (1884), Texas fire (1885), Balkan War (1885), Texas drought (1887), Illinois tornado (1888), Florida yellow fever epidemic (1888), Johnstown flood (1889), Wisconsin fire, South Dakota drought, and Midwest storms (1890s), Russian famine relief (1892), South Carolina hurricane (1893), Armenian famine relief (1896), Cuban concentration camps (1898), Spanish-American War (1898), explosion of the USS Maine (1898), Texas hurricane (1900), and Pennsylvania typhoid fever epidemic (1903). There are markers all over the country saying Clara Barton was here.

In 1886 Clara Barton moved to Washington, DC. As representative of the American Red Cross, she traveled to Switzerland, German, France, Russia, Cuba, Turkey, and a number of states; she also spoke at women’s suffrage rallies. She was personally acquainted with every US President from Franklin Pierce through William Howard Taft. She wrote several books, most having to do with her own life or with the Red Cross.

In time (1891) someone constructed her a house in Glen Echo, Maryland, inside the Beltway, near DC; it became her home and Red Cross warehouse. Maybe you have been there; I have. It is a strange house. The interior, called steamboat gothic design, with railed galleries, is shaped like a riverboat with a wide aisle between rooms. The kitchen did not have a door; in cold winters, a curtain was hung to retain heat—hardly sufficient. Above the midsection is a captain’s room suspended in space, with no underpending. \

After twenty-two years as president of the American Red Cross, Clara resigned (1904), but then established the National First Aid Association of America (1905), for which she was honorary president five years. She died at a ripe old age of ninety. She never married. She is featured on a 1948 commemorative stamp.

“History never looks like history when you are living through it.”  ~John W Gardner

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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