Women’s History Month Honoree: Celebrating Clara Barton

Final of a Series

By Allan Jamail

March 26, 2024 ~ Women’s History Month is from March 1st thru March 31st. ~ Clara Barton deserves recognition for her contributions as a battlefield nurse in saving lives and later establishing the American Red Cross. Contributions to this story came from hours of research from numerous sources.

As a Boy Scout, I remember being given a Red Cross identification card for my taking the Red Cross Swimming Safety Class. In later years I took the Red Cross emergency life saving classes and training so I would be able to locate artery pressure points to prevent a person from bleeding to death. The Red Cross, thanks to Clara Barton, is the world’s most responsive organization in the time of a disaster and or tragedy.

Barton is noteworthy for doing humanitarian work and civil rights advocacy at a time before women had the right to vote. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973.

Today, the American Red Cross responds to more than 60,000 disasters every year, providing food, shelter, relief supplies and other assistance. It collects more than 4.5 million blood donations each year, and delivers CPR and water safety education to more than 4.6 million people. It also provides more than 540,000 services to support the military and their families annually.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day in 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, a small farming community. Her mother was Sarah Stone Barton, and her father was Captain Stephen Barton, a member of the local militia who influenced his daughter’s patriotism and humanitarianism.

Clara became an educator in 1838 and served for 11 years in schools in Canada and West Georgia. She fared well as a teacher; she knew how to handle children, particularly the boys since as a child she enjoyed her boy cousins’ and brothers’ company. After her mother’s death in 1851, the family home closed down.

While teaching in Hightstown, Barton learned about the lack of public schools in Bordentown, the neighboring city. In 1852, she was contracted to open a free school in Bordentown, which was the first ever free school in New Jersey. She was successful, and after a year she had hired another woman to help teach over 600 people. Both women were making $250 a year.

This accomplishment compelled the town to raise nearly $4,000 for a new school building. Once it was completed, Barton was replaced as principal by a man elected by the school board. They saw the position as head of a large institution to be unfitting for a woman. She was demoted to “female assistant” and worked in a harsh environment until she had a nervous breakdown along with other health ailments, and quit.

In 1855, she moved to Washington, D.C., and began work as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office; this was the first time a woman had received a substantial clerkship in the federal government and at a salary equal to a man’s salary. For three years, she received much abuse and slander from male clerks. Subsequently, under political opposition to women working in government offices, her position was reduced to that of copyist, and in 1858, under the administration of President James Buchanan, she was fired because of her “Black Republicanism.” After the election of Abraham Lincoln and her having to live with relatives and friends in Massachusetts for three years, she returned to the D. C. patent office in the autumn of 1860, now as temporary copyist, in the hope she could make way for more women in government service.

On April 19, 1861, the Baltimore Riot resulted in the first bloodshed of the American Civil War. The victims, members of the 6th Massachusetts Militia, were transported after the violence to the unfinished Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., where Barton lived at the time. Wanting to serve her country, she went to the railroad station when the victims arrived and nursed 40 men. Barton provided crucial, personal assistance to the men in uniform, many of whom were wounded, hungry and without supplies other than what they carried on their backs. She personally took supplies to the building to help the soldiers.

She along with other women, personally provided clothing, food, and supplies for the sick and wounded soldiers. She learned how to store and distribute medical supplies and offered emotional support to the soldiers by keeping their spirits high. She would read books to them, write letters to their families for them, talk to them, and support them.

In August 1862, Barton finally gained permission from Quartermaster Daniel Rucker to work on the front lines. She gained support from other people who believed in her cause. These people became her patrons, her most supportive being Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.

After the First Battle of Bull Run, Barton placed an ad in a Massachusetts newspaper for supplies; the response was a profound influx of supplies. She worked to distribute stores, clean field hospitals, apply dressings, and serve food to wounded soldiers in close proximity to several battles, including Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg.

She helped both Union and Confederate soldiers. Supplies were not always readily available though. At the battle of Antietam, for example, she used cornhusks in place of bandages. Today there’s a Clara Barton monument at the Antietam National Battlefield.

Clara never married nor had any children, although in 1863 she began a romantic relationship with an officer, Colonel John J. Elwell.

In 1864, she was appointed by Union General Benjamin Butler as the “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James. Among her more harrowing experiences was an incident in which a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress without striking her and killed a man to whom she was tending.

She was also known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” after she came to the aid of the overwhelmed surgeon on duty following the battle of Cedar Mountain in Northern Virginia in August 1862. She arrived at a field hospital at midnight with a large number of supplies to help the severely wounded soldiers. This naming came from her frequent timely assistance as she served troops at the battles of Fairfax Station, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Charleston, Petersburg and Cold Harbor.

After the end of the American Civil War, Barton discovered that thousands of letters from distraught relatives to the War Department were going unanswered because the soldiers they were asking about were buried in unmarked graves. Many of the soldiers were labeled as “missing.” Motivated to do more about the situation, Barton contacted President Lincoln in hopes that she would be allowed to respond officially to the unanswered inquiries. She was given permission, and “The Search for the Missing Men” commenced.

She died at the age of 91.

Thousands of tourists visit the American Red Cross Museum annually. Free tours of the Museum & National Headquarters is available at 431, 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC. Call 800-733-2767.

To volunteer or find services needed at the Houston American Red Cross, call 713-526-8300 or visit 2700 Southwest Fwy, Houston, TX 77098.

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