Clara Barton was thirty-nine and on her second career when the Civil War started.
That didn’t stop her from getting involved, making a difference, and ultimately changing the world.
Let’s Back Up a Bit
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born and raised in Massachusetts. Some of her early experiences in Massachusetts would pave the way for her incredible humanitarian career, most notably:
- She loved to hear her father’s war stories.
- When she was ten, her brother fell off the roof of a barn. Clara helped nurse him back to health. This is the sum total of her nurses training.
- When Clara finished school, she went to work as a teacher. She taught and established schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. When the country went to war a few years later, many of her students—“her boys” as she called them—would become soldiers.
Clara stopped teaching in the 1850s, when the powers-that-be in Bordentown, New Jersey appointed a man to be the principal of the school that Clara had established, ignoring the fact that Clara didn’t need a man to tell her how to run a school—she was already doing it.
“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.”
Barton then moved to Washington, DC and began her second career: working for the U.S. Patent Office, where she became one of the earliest women to work for the federal government. Some supervisors supported and believed in her, regardless of her gender. Others didn’t and she was demoted to the lesser-paying position of a copyist. When James Buchanan was elected president, Clara was dismissed for being too fervent a supporter of Buchanan’s opponent. However, when Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated in 1861, Barton returned to DC and to her work as a copyist at the Patent Office. She moved into a boarding house on 7th Street. Today, that boarding house is the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.
The Country Goes to War
When war broke out in 1861, Union troops flooded into Washington, DC. The 6th Massachusetts Infantry was among those volunteering to defend the United States capital.. While switching trains (and train stations) in Baltimore, the 6th Massachusetts was attacked by a mob of Confederate sympathizers armed with everything from paving stones to pistols. The subsequent Baltimore Riot resulted in the first (human) casualties of the Civil War. Eight of the Confederate sympathizers were killed, along with three Union soldiers, and one innocent bystander. Twenty-four Massachusetts soldiers were wounded.
The news of the riot arrived in Washington before the troops involved did. Clara, along with many other women, waited at the train station to meet them. When the soldiers emerged, Clara discovered they were her old friends, school mates, and students from Massachusetts. She sprung into action organizing who should go where for treatment and rest.
In the following days, more and more soldiers arrived in Washington. They were everywhere. Without suitable barracks, soldiers set up camp in government buildings. The Sixth Massachusetts camped on the floor of the Senate Chamber in the Capitol Building. The First Rhode Island regiment slept on the shelves of the Patent Office. Clara visited old friends and made new acquaintances. She also noticed the inadequate and poorly organized efforts to provide for supplies the soldiers once they arrived in the capital.
Clara was determined to fix these problems. She began collecting supplies, first in her neighborhood, then from her friends in Massachusetts and New Jersey. Soon, Barton had acquired three warehouses full of supplies, and had to figure out how to get them to the soldiers.
Clara Goes to War
Getting the supplies to the soldiers was easier said than done. Clara wanted to deliver the supplies herself, fearful of Army bureaucracy and incompetence, but was apprehensive how the soldiers would treat her. After all, there were names for the women that hung around camp … and not nice ones. After much soul-searching, and even more permission seeking, Clara had gathered both the permission and resolve to deliver supplies to the troops at the field hospitals set up after the Battle of Cedar
Mountain near Culpeper, Virginia in August 1862. She arrived at the camp and immediately got to work. She was not an official Army nurse (she couldn’t stand Dorothea Dix). Like Emma Green, she was a volunteer … and what a volunteer she was.
Barton worked for days on end, without rest, then collapsed with exhaustion when she returned home. Throughout the war, Clara continued this pattern: collect supplies, visit field hospitals (and later on the battlefields themselves) and work fervently, then collapse, exhausted, ill, and at times depressed. Repeat.
As the Civil War drew to a close, Clara Barton was not ready to end her war work. She loved being useful and serving those in need. She had to find a new way to help. Her solution was the Missing Soldiers Office. Tens of thousands of men were missing after the Civil War. Their friends and families wrote to Clara, asking, have you seen Wilber? Joseph? Thomas? Clara Barton and her small staff received over 63,000 requests for help. Through years of hard work, Clara Barton and her assistants were able to locate over 22,000 men, some of whom were still alive.
Clara Barton’s Civil War work indirectly lead her to start the American Red Cross. In 1868, Clara was exhausted from years of working for soldiers. Her doctors recommended she go on a European vacation to rest and relax. Clara went to Europe, but she didn’t relax.
Instead, she met representatives from the International Red Cross. She learned that the United States had the opportunity to sign the Geneva Convention and establish an American Red Cross during the Civil War … and didn’t. Clara was enraged. She’d experienced firsthand the suffering and loss of the Civil War. She knew that rules of war, guidelines for the humanitarian treatment of the wounded and the captured, and an organization dedicated to provide relief could have alleviated much suffering. Clara decided to do something about it.
Clara Barton went on not only to found the American Red Cross and lobby for the United States to ratify the Geneva Convention, she made the Red Cross what it is today. It was Clara Barton who decided that the Red Cross would respond to natural disasters. It was Clara Barton who established the National First Aid Association of America, a forerunner to the Red Cross’ first aid training, still offered today. Who was one of the most influential women of Civil War medicine? It was Clara Barton.Tags: Clara Barton, Geneva Convention, Nursing, Real Characters, Real Characters of Civil War Medicine, Red Cross, Women Posted in: Mercy Street PBS, People