Note: Adapted from a post on this date in 2010.
Just the other day we profiled British nurse Florence Nightingale and made a passing comment on how different the two heroine nurses from opposite sides of the Puddle were. Today we take a look at the American, a woman from much more humble circumstances.
By the way, a shout out to all nurses, among my favorite people. For my money the great mass rally of nurses for the Robin Hood Tax held on Saturday was one of the highlights of the protests in Chicago this weekend. They all looked great in bright red scrubs and green Robin Hood caps. Way to go!
On May 21, 1881 Clara Barton, already famed for her tireless work as a Civil War nurse, organized the founding meeting of the Association of the American Red Cross (later the American Red Cross) at her Washington, DC apartment. By August, she had organized the first three local chapters in her summer country home of Danville, New York in the upstate Finger Lakes region and in near-by Rochester, and Syracuse.
Within a month the fledgling chapters were mobilized to aid the victims of a massive forest fire in eastern Michigan. It was living example of Barton’s aim to not only provide aid in time of war, but during domestic disasters as well. It might have quelled opposition in the Senate to ratifying the Treaty of the Geneva Convention which among other things allowed the establishment of an American Chapter of the International Red Cross.
The Senate finally approved the treaty in March of 1882 and chartered the American Red Cross. Barton, who had campaigned to establish the organization for years, was naturally elected the first President, a position she held for the next 23 years.
Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 to an ardent Universalist family in Oxford, one of the western Massachusetts towns that had been a cradle of the denomination. Her beloved father was a Revolutionary War veteran and her high strung mother was subject to fits of abusive rage. The youngest of five children, small for her age and suffering from a lisp, she was teased and tormented by her siblings.
Yet at an early age she had to learn to take care of an older sister who suffered a mental break down and was confined to an upper room of the house and a brother who was severely injured in a fall. She changed his bandages, administered pain killing medicine and tended his needs for two years then suffered deep depression when he recovered sufficiently not to need her.
In her late teens she was put to work, initially against her will, as a school teacher in an effort to overcome her paralyzing shyness. Much to her own and every one else’s amazement she excelled managing a class of 40 including rambunctious young men near her own age.
When her school won a prize for being “most disciplined” she explained to astonished officials that no discipline was ever needed because, “When they [the boys] found that I was as agile and as strong as themselves, that my throw was as sure and as straight as theirs, their respect knew no bounds.”
After that she was a sought after teacher and commanded the same pay as veteran male pedagogs. She taught for more than 10 years before enrolling in the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York state for formal training.
Invited to found the first free public school in New Jersey on the Massachusetts model, she moved to Bordentown. He school was soon so successful that a large new building was constructed and additional instructors hired. But when the trustees brought in a man to run it and paid him $600 a year more then she had received, she angrily resigned and moved to Washington where using some political influence she became the first woman appointed clerk in the Patent Office and made a man’s salary.
But she was harassed by her male co-workers and the subject of rumors of sexual indiscretion as a single woman living alone in the city. When the election of Democrat James Buchanan as President ended her Whig patronage position she was not unhappy.
Returning to Massachusetts she found herself drifting without purpose and unable to find regular employment for four years. She studied French and art and battled bouts of immobilizing depression.
With the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln and the patronage of her friend Senator Henry Wilson she was able to get a temporary appointment as a copyist at the Patent Office making far less than she had as a full clerk in what was regarded as “an experiment” in employing women. She eagerly took up the task of “being a pioneer.”
In April of l865 the men of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, some of them Barton’s former students, arrived in Washington after being attacked by mobs in Baltimore. She and her sister Sally Vassall greeted the men at the train station and took seriously injured men to Vassall’s home to nurse their wounds. And when she discovered that the men’s baggage had been stolen in Baltimore she rounded up donations of food, clothing and supplies for the regiment from local merchants.
She soon was tending New York and New Jersey troops as well, including more former students. When the grateful men wrote home about her efforts, supplies began being sent to her. After tending the casualties from the first big battle, the disastrous engagement at Manassas, she began to systematically appeal for aid to groups like the Worcester Ladies' Relief Committee back home, providing them with detailed lists of what was needed and how to pack it.
She returned home to attend her father’s last illness, but was soon back in Washington and somehow wrangled a Quartermaster’s Pass to get to the front line. She arrived with six wagon loads of supplies shortly after the Battle of Culpepper and spent non-stop days tending the wounded, including captive Confederates.
Soon she considered herself, and was considered by grateful troops, a member of the Army of the Potomac, arriving with her wagons on battlefields including Second Manassas, Antietam and Fredericksburg. The Twenty-first Massachusetts held a dress parade in her honor and made her an honorary member. She often wore a short wasted soldier’s jacket over her long skirts and kepi on her head. She suffered a life threatening bout of typhoid fever but yearned to return to the front.
But when Unitarian minister Henry Whitney Bellows organized the Sanitary Commission to serve the Army and Dorthia Dix, a Unitarian laywoman organized a formal nursing corps, Barton found her individual volunteer efforts were officially discouraged and that female nurses were to be limited to duty in rear echelon hospitals. Barton preferred to work independently and bristled at the restrictions Dix placed on her nurses.
She got special permission to accompany her brother David, the boy she had once nursed who was now Quartermaster of the Eighteenth Army Corps which was dispatched in April 1862 to lay siege to Charleston, South Carolina. At Hilton Head she found the siege and bombardment of the port and its harbor forts to be dull compared to the Virginia and she toyed with leaving but was persuaded to stay by handsome Col. John H. Elwell, a married officer with whom she none-the-less fell in love—a first time experience for the forty year old spinster.
Some biographers have described Barton as “plain,” but contemporary photographs show a trim, attractive woman. She was also spirited and intellectually challenging. An affair, or at least an intense romance, was inevitable.
When the siege of Ft. Wagner turned into an intense battle, Barton moved to the front with fellow Universalist nurse Mary Gage. She saw Elwell wounded and brought him to safety before returning to tend others. But local commanders were not as sympathetic to her as were those of the Army of the Potomac and despite her long hours of service they made her life difficult until she collapsed of exhaustion and was evacuated back to Hilton Head where the recovering Elwell nursed her.
When she tried to return to the front, she was told that only Dix’s nurses would be allowed.
Bitter and disillusioned, she turned to work with Mary Gage’s mother, the Suffragist Frances Dana Gage among freed slaves in the area. Gage expanded her horizons turning her more explicitly to a Feminist social consciousness. They formed a bond that lasted until Gage’s death in 1884.
She returned to Washington in December 1863 and went into one of her periodic depressions that accompanied times of enforced inactivity.
When General Ulysses Grant’s bloody spring offensive in 1864 began to overwhelm the Sanitary Commission, Barton received permission to work in the hospitals at Fredericksburg. Her friend, Massachusetts General Benjamin Butler, finally gave her permission to join a forward field hospital.
At war’s end Barton found herself the most famous woman in America.
In one of his final acts, President Lincoln assigned her the daunting task of locating missing prisoners of war and informing families of their fate. She read and answered thousands of letters from families while pouring over shoddy and incomplete Confederate records.
In 1867 she undertook a nationwide speaking tour presenting her lecture Work and Incidents of Army Life. The tour provided her first personal income since leaving the Patent Office at the outset of the war. She also began collaborating with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in advocating for women’s suffrage. She was especially valued tor her ability to reach veterans and enlisting their support with the appeal, “Soldiers! I have worked for you and I ask you, now, one and all, that you consider the wants of my people. . . . God only knows women were your friends in time of peril and you should be [theirs] now.”
She split with the most militant feminists in support of her friend Fredrick Douglas when she endorsed the Fifteenth Amendment which gave Black men but not women the right to vote.
Financially secure for the first time in her adult life, Barton was traveling in Europe when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. She offered her services to the new International Red Cross. She set up aid centers behind the lines of each combatant, but especially in Strasbourg, Germany and later in Paris.
After the war she was decorated by both governments for her impartial service and her work with prisoners of war. She helped introduce the family reunion methods she had developed after the Civil War to the International Red Cross.
Returning to the U.S. in 1873 with her health broken, Barton spent three years recuperating in the family home at Worcester and in Danville. She corresponded with the President of the International Red Cross to ask how she could form an American section. Dr. Louis Appia replied that she first needed to win public support, get the approval of the President, and finally, get Congress to approve the Geneva Convention. She set to work with her pen placing articles in women’s magazines, veteran’s publications and national newspapers.
But President Rutherford B. Hayes and many Senators were hostile. In 1877 she felt well enough to travel twice to Washington to personally lobby, however fruitlessly. Finally with the election of James Garfield in 1880 she had an ally in the Presidency. Within months of his inauguration, she held her organizing meeting.
Her long stewardship of the Red Cross was not without its difficulties. Although the organization responded to such disasters as the Johnstown Flood and Galveston Hurricane standards of local chapters were uneven, and fundraising a chronic problem. Barton’s go-it-alone style of administration was often ineffective.
In fact like many visionary leaders, she was not a good administrator. Her failings and the failings of the organization were often criticized in the press. Disgruntled former associates challenged her for leadership and set up rival organizations. Despite continuing to recognized and decorated abroad, Barton felt besieged at home.
By 1904 the Red Cross had undergone reorganization, not entirely to her approval, and Barton was carefully eased out as President.
She flirted with a rival organization, The National First Aid Association of America, but it and its functions of training local volunteers were soon absorbed back into the Red Cross.
Responding to requests from children Barton wrote a juvenile book, The Story of My Childhood, which was published in 1907. She enjoyed attending and being honored at Suffrage conventions and Grand Army of the Republic encampments.
Clara Barton died of pneumonia at her home on the grounds of the Red Cross Headquarters she built at Glen Echo, Maryland April 12, 1912 at the age of 90. Pretty good for a “frail waif.”
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