Founder of the US Red Cross
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born in North Oxford, Massachusetts on December 25, 1821 to Stephen and Sarah Barton. Her father, a farmer and miller who provided a modest income for the family, was charitable, socially aware, and a believer in abolitionism and the importance of education. Her mother, while in agreement with her husband on abolitionism, was outspoken on women's rights, eccentric, thrifty, and possessed a fiery temperament and strong will. Frequently at odds with one another, the stormy couple created a volatile home for their three daughters and two sons. As a result of growing up as the youngest child in an uncertain environment, Clara was timid and withdrawn and throughout her life she would always seek acceptance and confirmation of her worth.
Clara started school at age three and immediately showed that she was an excellent student. Her parents instilled a strong work ethic, and Clara tried hard to met or exceed their expectations. Her first nursing experience came when her brother fell from the rafters of the barn; Clara devoted two years to caring for him. Her parents encouraged her to help others who were less fortunate, and Clara spent most of her early teens helping others. Clara found great satisfaction in comforting and assisting others, and throughout her life she would always feel most fulfilled when she was helping people.
During her late teens and early twenties, Clara taught at many different one-room schools in the poorest areas of the state. She would stay in one place long enough to get the school running properly, seeing to it that there were enough text books for the children, and instilling a love of learning in her charges before moving on to the next school that needed help.
After a brief time in college, and establishing more schools, Clara became discouraged by the fact that men were paid more than she for doing the same job. Eventually, she and a friend decided to try their luck at finding work in Washington, DC, and in July 1854, Clara found a job in the US Patent Office, where her pay was as same as the pay the male workers received.
In 1861, the American Civil War started. Clara avidly supported the Union war effort from the start, gathering supplies and organizing their delivery to the soldiers. After the first Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), Clara saw first hand how ill-prepared the Government was in regards to taking care of the wounded, and she began to devote herself to caring for the wounded fulltime. The government kept her on the payroll in light of her staunch support of the Union army.
At first the army was reluctant to accept Clara's assistance. It was highly unusual for an unmarried woman to work outside of the home; the army leaders believed that she should stay and organize women behind the lines, that she would be a hindrance in the field rather than a helper. But at the Battle of Fredericksburg she showed her worth, assisting many injured men, helping field surgeons, cleaning up, rolling bandages, comforting the injured and supplying them with food and water. As the war dragged on, she administered to the wounded at many battles.
Through all she endured in the war, Clara had become a stronger, more confident woman. The appreciation she received from those she nursed gratified her and gave her a feeling of self-worth. Watching her perform her tasks tirelessly, compassionately, and without fear, the wife of one of the field doctors remarked that Clara was "the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”
After the battle at Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863, Clara remained in the region, helping the newly emancipated blacks on a contraband plantation at Port Royal. Under the influence of Frances ("Aunt Fanny") Gage, a woman from Ohio in charge of the plantation, Clara came to realize her feminist beliefs, and also became aware of the plight of the black residents there. By teaching the blacks to read, and by bringing them food and clothing, Clara came to understand that while they were now free, they had no education or property. They had no way to earn a living beyond what they had been taught by their masters while they were in bondage.
At different points during the Civil War, controversy surrounded Clara. She had an affair with a married colonel (though it was kept quiet). Other nursing organizations resented Clara's work, saying that they should be the only ones to provide nursing services, but Clara's supporters won out and she was able to continue her tireless efforts.
After the war was over, Clara continued her work, switching from nursing to the difficult task of finding missing soldiers. She assisted men returning from prisoner of war camps, recording their names and also using them as sources of information about other missing men. She used the names she got from these returnees to publish lists in numerous newspapers, and to post lists in train stations and post offices, resulting in many reunions. She was also responsible for putting names on many of the graves at the infamous POW camp in Andersonville. Eventually she and her small group were able to put names to 22,000 of the dead.
In the fall of 1866 Clara began lecturing on her Civil War experiences in lyceum halls, churches, town halls and schoolrooms. Though she never felt comfortable in front of an audience, wherever she spoke she was well received, and soon the tales of her work on the battlefields became widely known and even legendary. Clara was even asked to speak on behalf of women's rights.
When she was 48, Clara embarked on a tour of Europe with her sister Sally, and remained overseas after Sally returned home to the United States. While in Switzerland, Clara was visited by Dr. Louis Appia of the International Convention of Geneva (otherwise known as the Red Cross) who had heard of her work during the Civil War and hoped that she could persuade the U.S. government to acknowledge the articles of the Geneva Convention. These articles-which legally bound the signatory nations to an agreement that impartial relief would be provided to the wounded, sick, and homeless during wartime-formed the basis of the Red Cross, founded in 1864 by Swiss businessman (Jean) Henri Dunant.
In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. Clara enlisted with the Red Cross, helping many refugees of the war. The efficiency of Red Cross operations impressed her, and her work with the Red Cross in Germany impressed the Germans so much that she became the first woman ever to receive the Iron Cross. But her personal life took a turn for the worse later in 1874 when her sister Sally died; as a result, Clara suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time recovering in Danville, New York.
By 1877, Clara was again lobbying the US government to form an American Red Cross Society. But the U.S. government still had not accepted the Treaty of Geneva due to the interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine regarding international intervention in American affairs, which the doctrine prohibits. So Clara worked on further expanding the concept of the American Red Cross to include aid to citizens during natural and manmade disasters. She also wrote and published a pamphlet, The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention: What It Is, to educate the public and to generate more support for her cause. After many years of persistence-lobbying against a bureaucracy that believed the acceptance of the International Red Cross would jeopardize the autonomy of the United States-on May 21, 1881 the American Red Cross finally was born. And on March 16, 1882, the Treaty of Geneva passed the Senate and was signed by President Chester Alan Arthur, signifying a major milestone in the lifework of Clara Barton.
In the following years Clara worked on developing and expanding local Red Cross chapters. In September 1884, she attended the Third International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva as the first female diplomat to represent the United States. The conference voted to adopt the principles Clara had instituted in the American Red Cross; the international organization also would serve during peacetime to assist victims of natural and manmade disasters. Following the Conference, Clara received the Augusta Medal by Empress Augusta of Baden (Germany) for her outstanding humanitarian work.
In the subsequent years of the 1880s, victims of fires, an earthquake, drought, tornado, flood, and a yellow fever epidemic received aid and assistance from the Red Cross. Clara learned the importance of educating victims to look after themselves and to take precautions, so that they would be able to rebuild their homes and lives again after Red Cross workers had left. This concept of teaching first aid in the home would later be realized in the formation of first aid classes-a vital part of the American Red Cross's service today.
In the 1890s, in addition to the ongoing work of providing disaster relief to needy parts of the US, the American Red Cross also provided famine relief abroad to Russia and Turkey-Armenia. Despite the danger of the wartime situation, Clara personally assisted Christian Armenians and Turkish Muslims by impartially distributing food and medical aid on the battlefield. For her exceptional service to the Ottoman Empire, she was awarded the second order of Shekafet by the pasha of Constantinople-the first of its kind to be given to a woman. And at age 77, Clara went to Cuba to personally assist Red Cross relief efforts during the Spanish-American War.
In her final years, she helped launch a first aid movement, something that has become a vital element of the Red Cross. She died of pneumonia in 1912 at the age of 90.
Clara Barton was a woman who defied traditions, a woman who dared to do what she thought was right without caring about what others thought of her. From her early days of school reform, to her time on the battlefields to her fight to get the United States to accept the Geneva Convention and establish the American Red Cross, Clara was surrounded by controversy. But in the end, she outlasted her critics, and she always will be remembered for her compassionate work in the field, as well as for her legacy of the Red Cross, which thrives today.
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