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.
1821 - 1912
Founder American Red Cross
Handwriting sample provided by Stan Klos Collection
". . .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
First Red Cross Headquarters—1882-1892. 1915
Vermont Avenue, Washington, D.C
OUR LADY OF THE RED CROSS:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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 Courtesy of The Barton
Center for Diabetes Education.
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
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.
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
Total Objects and Specimens:
Total Archival Documents:
(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
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