Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton, is one of the most honored women in American history. Her contributions in education, during the Civil War, and at The Red Cross made a difference in the lives of an untold number of people.
Clara began teaching at age 18, founded a school for the children of mill workers, and established the first free school in Bordentown, New Jersey when she was 31. She resigned when she discovered that the school had hired a man at twice her salary. “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.”
In 1854, she was hired as a recording clerk at the US Patent Office in Washington, DC, the first woman appointed to such a post. She left in 1857 because her anti-slavery opinions made her too controversial. When the Civil War began in 1861, Barton quit her job to help with the war effort. She organized a team of men to perform first aid, carry water, and prepare food for the wounded. Throughout the war, Barton and her supply wagons traveled with the Union army, helping Union casualties and Confederate prisoners. She was at every major battle in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, and became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
Of her experience at Wagner, December 8, 1865, she wrote, “God in His goodness gave me speed to my feet and strength to my arms through the hours of that fearful night, that I might nourish the fainting, slake the thirst of the dying, and strive to staunch the life stream as it ebbed away.”
In the month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln appointed her General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. Her job was to respond to inquiries from the friends and relatives of missing soldiers. She and her assistants received and answered over 63,000 letters, identified over 22,000 missing men, and marked 13,000 graves.
In 1869, Barton traveled through Europe to rest. While in Switzerland, she learned about the International Red Cross, and when she returned to the US, she lobbied for the creation of an American society of the Red Cross. On May 21, 1881, at 59, the American Association of the Red Cross was born, with Barton as its first president. Besides leading the Red Cross, Barton had interests in other areas, such as education, prison reform, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Although she experienced periods of severe depression throughout her life, she bounced back when a major calamity struck.
She led the organization for the next 23 years and then founded the National First Aid Association of America, an organization that emphasized emergency preparedness and developed first aid kits. She punctuated her life of philanthropy as a volunteer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.
Clara Barton died on April 12, 1912, at ninety-one. Her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, became a National Historic Site in 1975, the first dedicated to the achievements of a woman.