1881- Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross


1881- Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross


Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity.

Robert Alan Silverstein

Clara Barton was born on Christmas day in 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Barton’s father was a notable representative in the state legislature, as well as a humanitarian and businessman, and her mother was said to be a distant parent. From an early age, Barton found joy in helping others. This translated into the various public service careers she held throughout her life. Moreover, she was raised in a fervently abolitionist household, which would have a massive influence on the trajectory of her life. 

In the mid-19th century, there were few professions available to American women, such as teaching and nursing. Consequently, Barton began her career as a teacher in Massachusetts, eventually moving to New Jersey to continue this work. She was a very successful teacher, with a very unusual style of pedagogy for the time. Unlike most of the teachers of this period, Barton refused to use corporal punishment to discipline her students. This success allowed her to establish the first public school in the town of Bordentown, New Jersey. Believing that she would head the school, however, Barton left when a man was hired to serve as its principal instead. 

Upon leaving this position, Barton moved to Washington, D.C. to look for new work. In D.C, Barton took a job as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office, thus becoming the first female clerk in the federal government. She worked for the Patent Office, copying classified papers. She later resigned because she was strongly opposed to slavery, unlike then-President James Buchanan. Her views on slavery caused her to be considered “too controversial” to work in the United States government. She returned to Massachusetts for a brief while, before being called back to D.C. in 1860, after the election of President Abraham Lincoln.

With the onset of the Civil War, Barton decided that she must change her path again. Women who were passionate about the war effort, could really only involve themselves through jobs such as nursing, or cooking. Barton decided that she would put herself to use as a Union Army nurse. She began by using her personal apartment to take care of wounded soldiers. These soldiers occupied the majority of her living space, with the exception of a small space portioned off with a sheet, which served as her bedroom (Scott 2001). Many of these soldiers had been previous students of hers. Eventually, Barton’s nursing work went beyond the space of her apartment. She served in many prominent battles as a nurse for the Union Army. These included the Battle of Antietam in September of 1862, now known as the bloodiest day in America’s military history. As a result of her efforts as a nurse during the Civil War, she earned the nickname “Angel of the battlefield” (Strickler 2018).

After serving as a war nurse, Barton operated an office that aided in finding missing soldiers.  Thousands of soldiers who died in the Civil War were buried in unmarked graves, which resulted in the War Department receiving thousands of letters from relatives inquiring about the whereabouts of their loved ones. However, these letters were not answered because the War Department did not know the location of these missing soldiers. Barton saw this as a “great injustice that men had been called by their Government, patriotically given up by their families, and then no response made to the inquiry as to what it had done with them” (Harper 1912). Barton took it upon herself to begin “The Search for the Missing Men”. Barton went directly to President Lincoln, and he authorized her request, announcing to the United States that any letters regarding missing soldiers should be addressed to Clara Barton.  After Lincoln’s authorization, she continued looking for missing soldiers for three years. After having been given a $15,000 grant from Congress, Barton was able to locate 22,000 men as of 1868 (Scott 2001).

Despite the obvious variety of her achievements, Barton is most well known today for founding the American Red Cross, which continues to be active throughout the country. After the Civil War, Barton traveled to Europe and helped to care for wounded soldiers during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was here that she first saw the International Red Cross at work. Barton then set out to organize an American chapter of the Red Cross. However, this was dependent on the U.S.’s ratification of the Geneva convention; this ratification would allow the American Red Cross to be recognized as an official arm of the international Red Cross (Strickler 2018). Finally, in 1900, the Red Cross was officially recognized by the United States federal government. 

The American Red Cross originally started with just around a dozen doctors and nurses that Barton personally knew. One of the first large-scale relief efforts during the early days of the Red Cross took place in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on May 31, 1889. The city was flooded with twenty million tons of water, leaving 37,000 people either missing or dead. Barton and her team came to the rescue providing food, clothing, and other necessary supplies to the citizens of Johnstown (Jones 2011). Barton held her position as president of the American Red Cross for 23 years, beginning at the age of 60.

By the time Barton passed away on April 12, 1912, she was well known by most Americans. Today, the American Red Cross continues to help Americans during times of need. They continue to provide shelter and food during emergencies, as well as organize blood drives.


"Clara Barton." In Contemporary Heroes and Heroines. Vol. 2. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1992. Gale In Context: Biography (accessed June 23, 2021). https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/K1607000021/BIC?u=mlin_b_suffuniv&sid=bookmark-BIC&xid=48b896d5.

“Clara Barton.” American Battlefield Trust. Accessed July 4, 2021. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/clara-barton. 

“Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.” Clara Barton Museum, April 2, 2020. https://www.clarabartonmuseum.org/. 

Harper, Ida Husted. “The Life and Work of Clara Barton” The North American Review 195, no. 678 (May 1912) 701-712

History.com Editors. “Clara Barton.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, November 9, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/clara-barton. 

Jones, Marian Moser. “Race, Class, and Gender Disparities in Clara Barton’s Late Nineteenth-Century Disaster Relief” Environment and History 17, no. 1 (February 2011) 107- 131

Scott, Gary. “Clara Barton’s Civil War Apartments” Washington History 13, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2001) 24-31

Strickler, Jeff. “Clara Barton Angel of the Battlefield” Nursing (March 2018) 43-45.

Further Reading:

Caldwell, Shirley W. “‘God Help Them All and so Must We’: Clara Barton, Reverend John Brown, and Drought Relief Efforts, 1886-1887” The Southwestern Historical Quarterly 106, no. 4 (April 2003) 507-530

Henle, Ellen Langenheim. “Clara Barton, Soldier or Pacifist? Civil War History 24, no. 2 (June 1978) 152-160

Margaret, Downing Brent. “The Centenary if Clara Barton and Recent Biographical Sketches of her Life and Achievements” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 26 (1924) 121-128

Stewart, Jane A. “The Centennial of Clara Barton” The Journal of Education 94, no. 24 (December 29, 1921) 662


Kaitlin Whalen


1904 - Photograph, 1918 - Poster


Red Cross & Library of Congress


Clara Barton, American Red Cross, Civil War, Red Cross, Women, Geneva Conventions






Kaitlin Whalen, 1881- Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross, Red Cross & Library of Congress, 1904 - Photograph, 1918 - Poster

Cite As

Kaitlin Whalen, “1881- Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross,” Virtual Museum of Public Service, accessed August 19, 2022, https://vmps.omeka.net/items/show/303.