Things you may not know about Clara Barton


Clara Barton is widely known as the nurse who carried supplies to soldiers during the Civil War and established the American branch of the Red Cross in 1881.  But, there was much more to this famous nurse than we generally learn about in our brief classes on nursing history.

Born on Christmas Day, 1821 in North Oxford Massachusetts, Clara’s nursing experience actually began at age 11.  Clara nursed her brother David who had been badly injured in an accident. She attended him day and night.

Before the war, Clara was a teacher.  She began her 18 year teaching career at age 15.

In 1854, she made Washington, D.C. her permanent home.  She was one of the first female employees of the federal government, working as a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office.

After the start of the Civil War she became known as an “Angel of the Battlefield”.  The battle of Bull Run triggered her campaign to the government, to accompany the sick transports in any direction, for the purpose of aiding the ill and the wounded. To her, each soldier was an individual and merited the best possible treatment. In the face of danger, she wrote, "I always tried . . . to succor the wounded until medical aid and supplies could come up-I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner."

Clara Barton was also the first missing persons specialist and the first woman to run a government bureau.  In a government office building that sits halfway between the White House and the Capitol sat an office with a sign that read:



Miss Clara Barton

After the Civil War ended, a prisoner of war who had been detained in the Andersonville Confederate Prison camp in Georgia brought Miss Barton a list of dead soldiers who had also been imprisoned there.  With that list, Clara returned to Andersonville and was able to mark the graves of thousands of soldiers.  Miss Barton also published the names of those soldiers she had learned about in newspapers so that their loved ones could learn what had happened to them and where they were buried.  After this, many people began sending Miss Barton letters asking for help finding other missing family members from the war.  Historians say that Clara Barton's efforts helped track down 22,000 men from the years 1865 to 1868.

Barton also proposed that a national cemetery be created around the graves of the Union men who died in the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia.  Barton had helped identify the graves of nearly 13,000 men. She proposed that approximately 400 unidentifiable graves be memorialized: the honor now symbolized by the Tomb of the Unknowns. She helped raise the flag over the Andersonville grounds at their dedication in 1865.

She also delivered lectures on her war experiences, and was said to be an eloquent speaker- bringing many audiences to tears with her stories about the war and the pain of the battlefield.

She met Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass and became an activist for both the suffrage movement and the advancement of black rights.  She also worked for improvements in education and prison reform.

In 1869, Barton went to Europe and quickly found herself working with the International Red Cross. In 1873, she returned home with the Iron Cross of Merit from the German Emperor, which was said to be her most prized possession.

Clara Barton almost single-handedly began the efforts to establish the American Red Cross.  She set about educating the public through brochures and speeches and paying calls to cabinet heads and Congressmen. Her efforts were successful and on May 21, 1881 the National Society of the Red Cross was organized and headquartered one block from the White House.

At the age of 60, Clara Barton was the first president of the American Red Cross.  She directed and actively participated in its relief efforts for the next 23 years.

She was rumored to be somewhat vain about her appearance, particularly her hair, although she did not consider herself a pretty woman. She liked bold colors, especially red. She considered it her signature color.

Clara Barton died in 1912 at the age of 91.  As the Detroit Free Press wrote of Barton shortly after her death in 1912, "She was perhaps the most perfect incarnation of mercy the modern world has known."


Resources accessed December 2007:

Maikell-Thomas, B. “Discovered Historical Documents Uncover The First Official Missing Persons Investigator, Clara Barton” National Association of Investigative Specialists.

Profiles in Caring: Clara Barton.

American Red Cross History.

Copyright 2008- American Society of Registered Nurses (ASRN.ORG)-All Rights Reserved


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