Clara Barton

By: Mick Yates

Clara Barton was born on Christmas day in 1821 in Massachusetts. Her father had served in the Revolutionary War against the British and his stories made combat familiar to her.


At age 15 she began school teaching. Later she established the first free school in New Jersey but resigned when officials appointed a male administrator as her boss (despite the fact she'd raised child enrollment in Bordentown from 6 to 600).


In 1853 she worked in the Patent Office in Washington DC, becoming the first woman to hold such a post. She continued until April 1861, when the Civil War began and she decided to help the troops. Barton was with Union forces during the siege of Charleston and at many other engagements, often at the front line. She became increasingly good at finding and distributing provisions, and in 1865 she started a project to locate missing soldiers, which led to setting up the Bureau of Records in Washington.

Barton's health continued to trouble her, so in 1869 she went to Geneva to recuperate. Officials of the International Red Cross (started in 1864) urged her to help secure US agreement to the Geneva Convention which recognized the Red Cross, even though the U.S. Sanitary Commission had failed to gain this agreement.

But before Barton could help, the Franco-Prussian War began and she offered her services in administering military hospitals. One of her creative ideas was to pay needy Strasbourg women for sewing garments. Later, with the French defeated and Paris held by the Commune, she entered the starving city to distribute food and clothing. She was awarded the Iron Cross of Merit by the German emperor, William I, in 1873.

Having returned to New York as a semi-invalid, in 1877 she contacted the International Red Cross and offered to lead the US organization. In 1881 Barton incorporated the American Red Cross, with herself as president (a post she held for 23 years). In 1882 she helped gain US ratification of the Geneva Convention.

As a Red Cross worker, she went to Michigan, which had been ravaged by fires and to Charleston, S.C., which had suffered an earthquake. In 1884 she traveled the Ohio River, supplying flood victims. In 1891 Barton went to Russia, which had a major famine, and in 1896 she was in Turkey following Armenian massacres.

In 1900 Congress re-incorporated the Red Cross, demanding an accounting of funds. By 1904 public pressures and debate within the Red Cross had become too much for Barton, and she resigned from the organization. Despite being a respected international prescence, she retired instead to Maryland, where she died in April 1912.

Truly, a leader driven by compassion and yet one with extraordinary organizational skills.