Angel of the Battlefield, Clara Barton

Nick McLean, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross North Texas

The Christmas season brings out the good Samaritan in all of us as we act with an extra bit of generosity and goodwill as the winter holidays pass. Nobody reflects the spirit of a good Samaritan or humanitarian quite like the late Clara Barton who overcame all odds in the face of a chaotic and bloody world.

Circa1865. Matthew Brady portrait of Clara Barton.

Clara Barton was born to a large family in North Oxford, Massachusetts in 1821 on Christmas Day. As a child, she was shy and socially awkward. When her parents sent her away to school, she struggled with feelings of separation anxiety and was soon brought home. The only thing that began to draw Clara out of her self-imposed hermitage was the fulfillment and purpose she felt after helping people.

When she was ten years old, she took it upon herself to nurse her injured brother back to health. At age fifteen she embraced schooling and by seventeen became a teacher. In the 1850’s she worked tirelessly at the U.S. Patent Office with a strong desire to pave the way for more women being allowed into government service.

Clara’s dream was interrupted when the American Civil War broke out in 1861. She was on the scene after the Baltimore riots, nursing wounded militiamen and organizing drives for medical supplies. For the entirety of the war, Clara Barton was an untiring figure, nursing wounded men from both sides, and managing massive donation campaigns to supply her entirely voluntary aid service. By 1864, she was appointed Lady in Charge of the military hospitals in Virginia by General Benjamin Butler and by the end of the war she had come to be known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Her service did not end with the close of the war, however. Unidentified dead numbered in the thousands and with permission from Abraham Lincoln himself, she set to the task of ensuring every one of them were given a proper burial and notice given to their families. At the behest of her doctors, Barton finally took some personal time in 1869, traveling to Switzerland for an extended rest.

May 1902. St. Petersburg, Russia. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, journeyed to St. Petersburg, Russia to attend the International Conference.

While in Switzerland, she met Dr. Louis Appia, one of the founding members of the Red Cross in Europe. He introduced her to the works of Henry Durant, which called for the establishment of an internationally sanctioned organization for the aid of civilian populations in wartime.

Barton soon found herself in the midst of war again during the Frano-Prussian War in 1870. She assisted the Grand Duchess of Baden in preparation of military hospitals across Europe and led civilian relief efforts during the Siege of Paris. For her outstanding humanitarian work, Clara Barton was awarded the Golden Cross of Baden and the Prussian Iron Cross, two of the highest honors a civilian in Europe could receive at the time.

Upon her return to the United States, Barton began work to found the American chapter of the Red Cross. After initial government resistance from the Hayes administration, Barton was able to convince the government under Chester A. Arthur to fund and sanction the American Red Cross with the expanded idea that the society would not only provide aid during wartime, but act during other national disasters as well, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and fires. This new mission to provide relief during any time of need changed the Red Cross organization across the world.

Clara Barton with Group of People May 1887. Washington, DC. “A May 1887 National Guard camp in Washington. Clara Barton, seen standing in front of the American Red Cross flag, was invited to direct the camp’s hospital.” Quote taken from The Washington Post, April 6, 2012 article by writer Melinda Hennebertger

Stemming from a shy young girl on a farm in Massachusetts to an international figure of humanitarianism, Barton fundamentally affected change for the better throughout her lifetime. While her efforts may seem superhuman, her perseverance was met by the efforts of countless individuals who shared in the spirit of service and helped lay the foundation for one of the largest humanitarian societies today. 

1904. Library of Congress Collection. Portrait by J. E. Purdy of Clara Barton.

Simple contributions add up, and our readiness to help is always met with a kindred spirit by others. Clara Barton lives on today in all of our good works at the Red Cross, so let us commit to keeping up her efforts throughout this season and into the coming year.

Learn how you can become part of the Red Cross family at redcross.org/volunteer.

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