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Clarissa Harlowe Barton (December 25, 1821 – April 12, 1912) was a pioneer American teacher, nurse, and humanitarian. She has been described as having a "strong and independent spirit" and is best remembered for organizing the American Red Cross.

Clara Barton

1821 - 1912

Founder American Red Cross

Handwriting sample provided by Stan Klos Collection

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". . .seldom that a line of historic truth of the old Red Cross is written. . ."

Autograph Letter Signed, 4 pages 8vo, Glen Echo, [Maryland], May 10, 1906, to Miss Kensel. Clara writes about organizational mattes, probably of the Red Cross, and thanks the correspondent "for many favors received." The letter reads in part:

"I now remember that I forgot to enclose the clipping . . . It will be all right in any case to let it come back. It is so seldom that a line of historic truth of the Old Red Cross is written, that it drew my attention. You will be glad to know that something must have stirred up the call for the little book--at Appleton's, as they write me that it has paid its cost of publishing and enclose me a comfortable little check as royalty--No one was ever more astonished than I . . ."

At this time, Barton had authored three books about the Red Cross. After he experiences as a relief worker in the Franco-Prussian War, connected with the International Red Cross, Barton returned to the United States in 1873 and began working on the establishment of the American Red Cross organization. It came into formal existence in 1881-1882 with Barton as President, in which position she remained until 1904.


First red Cross  Engraving © Stan Klos

First Red Cross Headquarters
—1882-1892. 1915 Vermont Avenue, Washington, D.C


Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,—
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and Me.

" A CHRISTMAS baby! Now isn't that the Ji\ best kind of a Christmas gift for us all?" cried Captain Stephen Barton, who took the interesting flannel bundle from the nurse's arms and held it out proudly to the assembled family.

No longed-for heir to a waiting kingdom could have received a more royal welcome than did that little girl who appeared at the Barton home in Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day, 1821. Ten years had passed since a child had come to the comfortable farm-house, and the four big brothers and sisters were very sure that they could not have had a more precious gift than this Christmas baby. No one doubted that she deserved a distinguished name, but it was due to Sister Dorothy, who was a young lady of romantic seventeen and something of a reader, that she was called Clarissa Harlowe, after a well-known heroine of fiction. The name which this heroine of real life actually bore and made famous, however, was Clara Barton; for the Christmas baby proved to be a gift not only to a little group of loving friends, but also to a great nation and to humanity.

The sisters and brothers were teachers rather than playmates for Clara, and her education began so early that she had no recollection of the way they led her toddling steps through the beginnings of book-learning. On her first day at school she announced to the amazed teacher who tried to put a primer into her hands that she could spell the "artichoke words." The teacher had other surprises besides the discovery that this mite of three was acquainted with three-syllabled lore.


Brother Stephen, who was a wizard with figures, had made the sums with which he covered her slate seem a fascinating sort of play at a period when most infants are content with counting the fingers of one hand. All other interests, however, paled before the stories that her father told her of great men and their splendid deeds.

Captain Barton was amused one day at the discovery that his precocious daughter, who always eagerly encored his tales of conquerors and leaders, thought of their greatness in images of quite literal and realistic bigness. A president must, for instance, be as large as a house, and a vice-president as spacious as a barn door at the very least. But these somewhat crude conceptions did not put a check on the epic recitals of the retired officer, who, in the intervals of active service in plowed fields or in pastures where his thoroughbreds grazed with their mettlesome colts, liked to live over the days when he served under "Mad Anthony" Wayne in the Revolutionary War, and had a share in the thrilling adventures of the Western frontier.

Clara was only five years old when Brother David taught her to ride. "Learning to ride is just learning a horse," said this daring youth, who was the "Buffalo Bill" of the surrounding country.

"How can I learn a horse, David?" quavered the child, as the high-spirited animals came whinnying to the pasture bars at her brother's call.

"Catch hold of his mane, Clara, and just feel the horse a part of yourself—the big half for the time being," said David, as he put her on the back of a colt that was broken only to bit and halter, and, easily springing on his favorite, held the reins of both in one hand, while he steadied the small sister with the other by seizing hold of one excited foot.

They went over the fields at a gallop that first day, and soon little Clara and her mount understood each other so well that her riding feats became almost as far-famed as those of her brother. The time came when her skill and confidence on horseback—her power to feel the animal she rode a part of herself and keep her place in any sort of saddle through night-long gallops —meant the saving of many lives.

David taught her many other practical things that helped to make her steady and self-reliant in the face of emergencies. She learned, for instance, to drive a nail straight, and to tie a knot that would hold. Eye and hand were trained to work together with quick decision that made for readiness and efficiency in dealing with a situation, whether it meant the packing of a box, or first-aid measures after an accident on the skating-pond.

She was always an outdoor child, with dogs, horses, and ducks for playfellows. The fuzzy ducklings were the best sort of dolls. Sometimes when wild ducks visited the pond and all her waddling favorites began to flap their wings excitedly, it seemed that her young heart felt, too, the call of large, free spaces.

"The only real fun is to do things," she used to say.


She rode after the cows, helped in the milking and churning, and followed her father about, dropping potatoes in their holes or helping weed the garden. Once, when the house was being painted, she begged to be allowed to assist in the work, even learning to grind the pigments and mix the colors. The family was at first amused and then amazed at the persistency of her application as day after day she donned her apron and fell to work.

They were not less astonished when she wanted to learn the work of the weavers in her brothers' satinet mills. At first, her mother refused this extraordinary request; but Stephen, who understood the intensity of her craving to do things, took her part; and at the end of her first week at the flying shuttle Clara had the satisfaction of finding that her cloth was passed as first-quality goods. Her career as a weaver was of short duration, however, owing to a fire which destroyed the mills.

The young girl was as enthusiastic in play as at work. Whether it was a canter over the fields on Billy while her dog, Button, dashed along at her side, his curly white tail bohbing ecstatically, or a coast down the rolling hills in winter, she entered into the sport of the moment with her whole heart.

When there was no outlet for her superabundant energy, she was genuinely unhappy. Then it was that a self-consciousness and morbid sensitiveness became so evident that it was a source of real concern to her friends.

"People say that I must have been born brave," said Clara Barton. "Why, I seem to remember nothing but terrors in my early days. I was a shrinking little bundle of fears—fears of thunder, fears of strange faces, fears of my strange self." It was only when thought and feeling were merged in the zest of some interesting activity that she lost her painful shyness and found herself.

When she was eleven years old she had her s first experience as a nurse. A fall which gave * David a serious blow on the head, together with the bungling ministrations of doctors, who, when in doubt, had recourse only to the heroic treatment of bleeding and leeches, brought the vigorous young brother to a protracted invalidism. For two years Clara was his constant and devoted attendant. She schooled herself to remain calm, cheerful, and resourceful in the presence of suffering and exacting demands. When others gave way to fatigue or "nerves," her wonderful instinct for action kept her, child though she was, at her post. Her sympathy expressed itself in untiring service.

In the years that followed her brother's recovery Clara became a real problem to herself and her friends. The old blighting sensitiveness made her school-days restless and unhappy in spite of her alert mind and many interests.

At length her mother, at her wit's end because of this baffling, morbid strain in her remarkable

the confidence of those in command, and, though it was against all traditions, to say nothing of iron-clad army regulations, she obtained permission to go with her stores of food, bandages, and medicines to the firing-line, where relief might be given on the battle-field at the time of // direst need. The girl who had been a "bundle of fears'' had grown into the woman who braved every danger and any suffering to carry help to her fellow-countrymen.

People who spoke of her rare initiative and practical judgment had little comprehension of the absolute simplicity and directness of her methods. She managed the sulky, rebellious drivers of her army-wagons, who had little respect for orders that placed a woman in control, in the same way that she had managed children in school. Without relaxing her firmness, she spoke to them courteously, and called them to share the warm dinner she had prepared and spread out in appetizing fashion. When, after clearing away the dishes, she was sitting alone by the fire, the men returned in an awkward, self-conscious group.

"We didn't come to get warm," said their spokesman, as she kindly moved to make room for them at the flames, "we come to tell you we are ashamed. The truth is we didn't want to come. We know there is fighting ahead, and we 've seen enough of that for men who don't carry muskets, only whips; and then we 've never seen a train under charge of a woman before, and we couldn't understand it. "We 've been mean and contrary all day, and you Ve treated us as if we 'd been the general and his staff, and given us the best meal we 've had in two years. We want to ask your forgiveness, and we sha'n't trouble you again."

She found that a comfortable bed had been arranged for her in her ambulance, a lantern was hanging from the roof, and when next morning she emerged from her shelter, a steaming breakfast awaited her and a devoted corps of assistants stood ready for orders.

"I had cooked my last meal for my drivers," said Clara Barton. '' These men remained with me six months through frost and snow and march and camp and battle; they nursed the sick, dressed the wounded, soothed the dying, and buried the dead; and, if possible, they grew kinder and gentler every day."

An incident that occurred at Antietam is typical of her quiet efficiency. According to her directions, the wounded were being fed with bread and crackers moistened in wine, when one of her assistants came to report that the entire supply was exhausted, while many helpless ones lay on the field unfed. Miss Barton's quick eye had noted that the boxes from which the wine was taken had fine Indian meal as packing. Six large kettles were at once unearthed from the farm-house in which they had taken quarters, and soon her men were carrying buckets of hot gruel for miles over the fields where lay hundreds of wounded and dying. Suddenly, in the midst of her labors, Miss Barton came upon the surgeon in charge sitting alone, gazing at a small piece of tallow candle which flickered uncertainly in the middle of the table.

"Tired, Doctor?" she asked sympathetically.

"Tired indeed!" he replied bitterly; "tired of such heartless neglect and carelessness. What am I to do for my thousand wounded men with night here and that inch of candle all the light I have or can get?"

Miss Barton took him by the arm and led him to the door, where he could see near the barn scores of lanterns gleaming like stars.

"What is that?" he asked amazedly.

"The barn is lighted," she replied, "and the house will be directly.''

"Where did you get them?" he gasped.

"Brought them with me."

"How many have you?"

"All you want—four boxes."

The surgeon looked at her for a moment as if he were waking from a dream; and then, as if it were the only answer he could make, fell to work. And so it was invariably that she won her complete command of people as she did of situations, by always proving herself equal to the emergency of the moment.

Though, as she said in explaining the tardiness of a letter, "my hands complain a little of unaccustomed hardships," she never complained of any ill, nor allowed any danger or difficulty to interrupt her work.

"What are my puny ailments beside the agony of our poor shattered boys lying helpless on the field?" she said. And so, while doctors and officers wondered at her unlimited capacity for prompt and effective action, the men who had felt her sympathetic touch and effectual aid loved and revered her as "The Angel of the Battlefield."

One incident well illustrates the characteristic confidence with which she moved about amid scenes of terror and panic. At Fredericksburg, when "every street was a firing-line and every house a hospital," she was passing along when she had to step aside to allow a regiment of infantry to sweep by. At that moment General Patrick caught sight of her, and, thinking she was a bewildered resident of the city who had been left behind in the general exodus, leaned from his saddle and said reassuringly:

"You are alone and in great danger, madam. Do you want protection ?"

Miss Barton thanked him with a smile, and said, looking about at the ranks, "I believe I am the best-protected woman in the United States."

The soldiers near overheard and cried out,

"That's so! that's so!" And the cheer that they gave was echoed by line after line until a mighty shout went up as for a victory.

The courtly old general looked about comprehendingly, and, bowing low, said as he galloped away, "I believe you are right, madam.''

Clara Barton was present on sixteen battlefields; she was eight months at the siege of Charleston, and served for a considerable period in the hospitals of Richmond.

When the war was ended and the survivors of the great armies were marching homeward, her heart was touched by the distress in many homes where sons and fathers and brothers were among those listed as "missing." In all, there were 80,000 men of whom no definite report could be given to their friends. She was assisting President Lincoln in answering the hundreds of heartbroken letters, imploring news, which poured in from all over the land when his tragic death left her alone with the task. Then, as no funds were available to finance a thorough investigation of every sort of record of States, hospitals, prisons, and battle-fields, she maintained out of her own means a bureau to prosecute the search.

Four years were spent in this great labor, during which time Miss Barton made many public addresses, the proceeds of which were devoted to the cause. One evening in the winter of 1868, while in the midst of a lecture, her voice suddenly left her. This was the beginning of a complete nervous collapse. The hardships and prolonged strain had, in spite of her robust constitution and iron will, told at last on the endurance of that loyal worker.

When able to travel, she went to Geneva, Switzerland, in the hope of winning back her health and strength. Soon after her arrival she was visited by the president and members of the "International Committee for the Belief of the Wounded in War," who came to learn why the United States had refused to sign the Treaty of Geneva, providing for the relief of sick and wounded soldiers. Of all the civilized nations, our great republic alone most unaccountably held aloof.

Miss Barton at once set herself to learn all she could about the ideals and methods of the International Red Cross, and during the FrancoPrussian War she had abundant opportunity to see and experience its practical working on the battle-field.

At the outbreak of the war in 1870 she was urged to go as a leader, taking the same part that she had borne in the Civil War.

"I had not strength to trust for that," said Clara Barton, "and declined with thanks, promising to follow in my own time and way; and I did follow within a week. As I journeyed on," she continued, "I 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 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.' "

Months of service in caring for the wounded 

Instead of peace, I was to participate in war; instead of the sweetness of home, I was to become a wanderer on the face of the earth; but I have felt that a great promotion came to me when I was counted worthy to be a worker in the organized crusade for "God and Home and Native Land." ... If I were asked the mission of the ideal woman, I would say it is to make the whole world homelike. The true woman will make every place she enters homelike—and she will enter every place in this wide world.

Frances E. Willard.



Be Sure To Visit The
Clara Barton National Historic Site

Clara Barton National Historic Site commemorates the life of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. The house in Glen Echo served as her home, headquarters for the American Red Cross and a warehouse for disaster relief supplies. From this house, she organized and directed American Red Cross relief efforts for victims of natural disasters and war. Clara Barton National Historic Site was established in the National Park Service in 1975 and is administered by the George Washington Memorial Parkway.

The site is open daily and shown by guided tour. Tours start on the hour between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm. There is no admission charge.

The site is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Years Day.

You may call 301-492-6245 for additional information.

Clara Barton Homestead

Clara Barton Homestead Clara Barton Homestead
Courtesy of The Barton Center for Diabetes Education.
Clara Barton, (1821-1912), reformer

This simple Cape style farm was the childhood home of Clara Barton, future founder and president of the American Red Cross, and served as a safe haven later in her busy career. As the youngest of five children, Barton lived a quiet life in her family’s home, and at the age of 11, acted as a nurse to her older brother for two years during a stubborn illness. She enjoyed a thorough education and later worked as a schoolteacher in the nearby town of Oxford. Restless, Barton left home in 1850. In 1852, she persuaded the Bordentown, New Jersey, school board to let her found one of the state’s first public schools. It was a great success, and soon the board decided a man should be in charge. Two years later she resigned her position and took a job at the U.S. Patent Office, where, unfortunately, her male co-workers made her feel uncomfortable. She was let go for political reasons and returned to her home in North Oxford for three years. Moving back to Washington, DC in 1860, Barton befriended homesick Massachusetts Civil War soldiers and soon became aware of the inadequate medical care at the battlefields. She advertised for donations of medical supplies, and in 1862, began distributing the supplies directly to the battlefields with a mule team. After the war, Barton set up an office to reunite families and missing men. On a trip to Switzerland, Barton learned of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and despite a lack of interest in the U.S., Barton founded the American Association of the Red Cross in 1881. Throughout her presidency, 1881-1904, Barton worked in the field during disasters and foreign wars and traveled on a busy lecture tour. Barton died in 1912 at the age of 91 and is buried in North Oxford. -- by the National Park Service

The Clara Barton Homestead is located three miles west of Oxford on Clara Barton Road. The Clara Barton Birthplace Museum will be open during the summer of 1998. Please call The Barton Center for Diabetes Education at 508-987-2056 for hours of operation and tour schedule.


  • Scope of Collection:

    Historic furnishings and objects associated with the Clara Barton House (c. 1891-1912); objects that belonged to Clara Barton; historic objects and archival materials relating to the formation and activities of the American Red Cross during the years when Clara Barton served as its President (c. 1881-1904); architectural objects and archival materials that document the restoration of the house; photographic material that documents the house, its furnishings, occupants, major events or individuals in Clara Barton's life.

  • Collection Size by Type:

    Some archival and manuscript materials listed in the "Scope of Collection" are counted under the discipline "History," rather than under "Total Archival Documents."

    Type Item Count
    Archeology 2,604
    Ethnology 0
    History 5,301
    Biology 0
    Paleontology 0
    Geology 0

    Total Objects and Specimens: 7,905

    Total Archival Documents: 0
    (or 0.0 lf)

  • For Information on the Museum Collection Contact:

    Museum Technician
    Clara Barton National Historic Site
    5801 Oxford Road
    Glen Echo, MD 20812

    (301) 492-6245

Clara Barton NHS Home Page

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