Legendary American Civil War-era nurse Clara Barton was extraordinary in many ways. Not only was she an important nurse in the US Civil War, she also played a key role in bringing the Red Cross to America. Here, Matt Goolsby follows his first ‘nurses in war’ article on Cornelia Hancock (available here) and tells us about the life of Clara Barton.
The United States was a very agrarian based nation in the early part of the 19th century. Travel and communication were typically slow and arduous.
By the time of the Civil War, the northeast region of the U.S. was experiencing the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution that had started in England in the 1700s. Railroad lines were expanding at an exponential rate as the demand for goods transversed the entire region of the rapidly growing country.
Communication was also becoming a transcontinental medium to rapidly transmit information from one region to another through the use of telegraph lines. Newspapers began publishing stories next day instead of relying on couriers delivering accounts that took days if not weeks to send and receive.
One would assume that the rapidly expanding use of technology and industry would have affected how the medical profession cared for the sick, wounded, and dying soldiers who were the casualties of the Civil War during this time. In reality, it exposed the glaring weaknesses and woeful practices utilized in treatment that spawned a desire for improvement of those who were most vulnerable. Against this backdrop, a formidable leader and role model emerged.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts to Captain Stephen Barton and his wife Sarah Stone. She was the youngest of five children: Dorothy - 17, Stephen - 15, David - 13, and Sally – 10 at the time.
Coming from very unpretentious beginnings, Clara as she was fondly known by, was a timid and shy child. Her elder brother David spent much time with Clara riding horses and enjoying the outdoors which helped to relieve some of the timidity she first felt.
The Barton home where Clara was born still exists to this day in its original location and is a museum to her life and testament to the simple yet solid foundations her family was known for.
The Barton family, whose beginnings can be traced back to 11thcentury England in the Domesday book, otherwise known as: ‘A great survey’ commissioned by William the Conqueror, shows that the family was awarded land due to their loyalty to king and country.
The Barton family in America first appears in 1640 in Salem, Massachusetts after Edward Barton emigrated from England as one of the early colonists. After several moves throughout New England, the Barton family finally settled in North Oxford, Massachusetts and took up daily living with their Universalist religious background.
Of particular note are the facts that Clara’s family established the first Universalist church in Oxford and ordained its first Pastor: Hosea Ballou who is considered one of the fathers of American Universalism. As described in the story of Clara’s life by Percy H. Elper: “Yet her father and mother, however liberal in their creed, never relaxed from the deepest habits of all that was best in Pilgrim and Puritan. No matter how snowy, no matter how the winds hurtled over the hilltops — the Barton family not only drove five miles to church every Sunday, but maintained, during the other six days of the week, the deeper fundamentals of conscience and honor peculiar to their forefathers' faith.”
Foundational Nurse Training
In 1832 Clara and her family experienced a significant medical crisis that helped form her future nursing skills and made clear the talent she innately possessed.
Her brother David was severely injured while working on a barn-raising when one of the boards he was standing on at the peak collapsed under him. He fell to the ground sustaining a severe head injury that laid him up in bed for nearly two years.
Clara, perhaps from the closeness she felt to her brother while riding horseback in the woods, spent the entire recovery time caring for David. She also was the one who applied the prescribed treatments of the time for him that consisted of: Leeches, setons (stitches to relieve infection), counter-irritating blisters, and blood-letting to relieve his fever. She is quoted as saying: “For two years I only left his bedside for one half day. I almost forgot that there was an outside to the house.”
After David had finally recovered from his injuries, (when the new treatment of steam baths came into use), Clara had to sequester herself for recovery time from the care she had provided. At the tender age of 11, it was a portent of things to come.
Civil War Service
After spending 18 years teaching and then another 5 years living and working in Washington D.C. for the U.S. Department of the Interior and Patent Office, Clara saw firsthand what many of the men who were involved in the Civil War would experience through its long, arduous journey.
In April of 1861, the Massachusetts 6thregiment heeded the call of Abraham Lincoln for 75,000 troops and proceeded to make its way down to the nation’s capital. On their way they passed through Baltimore, Maryland where a crowd of 10,000 opponents of the beginning conflict assaulted them. This left four dead and 30 wounded.
They fought their way through the crowd and arrived in Washington the following day: April 16, 1861. Clara witnessed the regiment as they arrived by train and was there to greet them.
This was the first time she had worked as a ‘Volunteer Nurse’ and experienced what would become her life’s mission to apply healing to those wounded in conflict. In her own words she testifies: "Among the soldiers, I recognized my own early associates. We bound their wounds, and fed them." There were many from Worcester, Massachusetts including Sergeant J. Stewart Brown and Joseph M. Dyson who she knew by name.
As the war progressed, Clara became acutely aware of the need for frontline care for the wounded and dying. Her desire to care for them put her in mortal danger numerous times. She writes of her time with the soldiers at Antietam in September of 1862: "We were in a slight hollow and all shell which did not break our guns in front, came directly among or over us, bursting above our heads or burying themselves in the hills beyond. A man lying upon the ground asked for a drink, I stopped to give it, and having raised him with my right hand, was holding him. Just at this moment a bullet sped its free and easy way between us, tearing a hole in my sleeve and found its way into his body. He fell back dead. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?”
These experiences as gleaned from her writings, demonstrate the conviction of purpose and character that she had developed since her time caring for her brother’s injuries.
There are several key traits of Clara’s personality that are apparent in both her writings and of those who knew her.
The first is that she was never interested in money, only in solving humanities ill fortunes. This is best described later as she would later become the founder of the American Red Cross and would petition the U.S. Government to have its purpose expanded as a humanitarian relief organization for natural disasters as well as their charter to aid the wounded, sick, and dying in war.
The second trait that also is very apparent is her love for her fellow man and the ability to rise to the occasion when events merit it. I’m reminded fondly of Mother Teresa and her ministering to the poor, sick, and weak ‘untouchables’ of India who she cared for during most of her adult life.
Towards the end of the war Clara was recognized for her gallant service by being named the Superintendent of the Department of Nurses under Surgeon McCormack who was Chief Director of the Army of the James stationed at City Point, Virginia.
As was always the case with Clara, she never settled for comfort in the ‘safe’ zones, but wanted to be attending to the infirm on the frontlines.
Her oldest brother Stephen would also become a victim of the war and perhaps one of her greatest motivations to fulfill her duty as a nurse.
Stephen Barton had been mistakenly identified as a Confederate by the Union due to his living in North Carolina and had been neglected for a long period until Clara got word of him being hospitalized in Washington D.C. By this time, his health had deteriorated beyond hope.
Not long before he passed away in 1865, she wrote of hearing one of his final, moving prayers: "Oh God, whose children we all are, look down with thine eye of justice and mercy upon this terrible conflict, and weaken the wrong, and strengthen the right till this unequal contest close. Oh God, save my country. Bless Abraham and his armies.” She also painted a vivid portrait of what the conditions of where he passed were: "And there under the guns of Richmond, amid the groans of the dying, in the shadows of the smoky rafters of an old negro hut, by the rude chimney where the dusky form of the bondsman had crouched for years, and on the ground, trodden hard by the foot of the slave, I knelt beside that rough couch of boards, and, to the patriot prayer that rose above, sobbed 'Amen.'”
American Red Cross Founder
For four years following the Civil War, Clara Barton helped find those men who were missing in action from the official records of the war’s dead. While still living in Washington D.C., she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers to identify those who were killed or missing in action to try to relieve the suffering of family and friends.
During this time, she met and befriended Susan B. Anthony as well as Frederick Douglas. These relationships would leave a lasting impression on her as she championed women’s suffrage and civil rights for the rest of her life.
The years of Civil War work for others had taken their toll on Clara. After seeing her doctor and following his orders to get rest and recuperation from her many travails, she decided to visit Europe in 1869. Her first visit was to Liverpool, England and then on to Paris. Her final stop was to be where her life’s calling was forever changed.
Arriving in Geneva, Switzerland for the end of her vacation period, she was visited by the president and members of the “International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded in the War”, which would later become the International Committee of the Red Cross. Since Clara had such an outstanding reputation even with the international community, she was asked why America didn’t honor the recently signed ‘Geneva Convention’ and why after such a conflict as theirs, they wouldn’t be interested in it? Her answer was simple: “I listened in silent wonder to all this recital, and when I did reply it was to say that I had never heard of the Convention of Geneva nor of the treaty, and was sure that as a country America did not know she had declined.”
Not long after she had arrived in Geneva, the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Clara was able to see first-hand how the Red Cross in Europe was operating and how it contrasted with her experiences in the Civil War: "As I journeyed on and saw the work of these Red Cross societies in the field, accomplishing in four months under their systematic organization what we failed to accomplish in four years without it — no mistakes, no needless suffering, no starving, no lack of care, no waste, no confusion, but order, plenty, cleanliness and comfort wherever that little flag made its way — a whole continent marshaled under the banner of the Red Cross — as I saw all this, and joined and worked in it, you will not wonder that I said to myself 'if I live to return to my country I will try to make my people understand the Red Cross and that treaty.' But I did more than resolve, I promised other nations I would do it, and other reasons pressed me to remember my promise.”
One is struck with the irony of Clara’s timing in situations where war breaks out. It seems that she was called for just a time as these.
In early 1871 the Franco-Prussian war ended, but the battles continued throughout both Germany and France until the late summer of the same year. Clara stayed through this entire time ministering to the sick, treating the wounded, establishing clothiers who would fashion garments for the poorest, and soliciting funds from aristocratic donors who included Grand Duchess Louise of Baden, Kingdom of Prussia. Her willingness to befriend any class of person is another testament to her savviness and skill.
By 1874 Clara was worn out from her time in Europe and lack of recuperation. She was no stranger to loss having found out that her sister Sally had died before she could see her one final time in Worcester. Her only remaining relative in her family circle was her brother David whom she had nursed back to health as a child.
She spent several more years convalescing and writing friends, family, and officials of her intentions to establish the American Red Cross. With great perseverance, she was finally successful in 1881 with President James Garfield’s administration and it was established. An assassin’s bullet struck down the President and delayed the formal establishment of the association while the nation mourned for 80 days.
Finally, in 1882, the Red Cross was formally established with ratification by Congress and the signing of the Geneva Convention by President Chester Arthur. Its role had expanded from not just treating the wounded and dying from war, but also those who experienced natural disasters.
At a convention of the International Red Cross in Geneva during 1882, the President of the International organization gave Clara the credit for the new American branch: "Its whole history is associated with a name already known to you — that of Miss Clara Barton; without the energy and perseverance of this remarkable woman, we should not for a long time have had the pleasure of seeing the Red Cross received into the United States."
Clara would serve as the President of the American Red Cross until June, 1904. Her tasks of running the organization along with doing fieldwork are unheard of in this day and age.
As the years went by, Clara would write her autobiography titled: ‘The Story of My Childhood’. But the Clara Barton that I read about was gleaned from the book titled: ‘The Life of Clara Barton’, by Percy Elper who was the only authorized biographer of her life by the family. He used her unpublished war diaries, letters, eyewitness accounts, and conversations to write a truly compelling picture of this unique lady.
Clara died in her home in 1912 at the age of 90. Her stature and legacy on American society have had a tremendous impact on so many people. We have much to learn from her compassionate and caring nature for those in need.
What do you think of Clara Barton? Let us know below.
Percy H. Epler, “The Life of Clara Barton”, The Macmillan Company, New York, July 1915.
“Evolution of the Railroad”, https://www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution/videos/evolution-of-railroads
“Nursing History – Clara Barton”,
“Biography of Mother Teresa”, https://www.biography.com/people/mother-teresa-9504160
“The Domesday Book”, http://www.domesdaybook.co.uk/
“Clara Barton – Library of Congress”, https://www.loc.gov/item/2018651854/