By Blaine Whipple, © 1998
Clarissa Harlowe Barton (Clara), American humanitarian whose good deeds were known throughout America and Europe and as the organizer of the American Red Cross, was born in North Oxford, Worcester Co., MA, Christmas Day, 1821. She was a granddaughter (5 great) of Elder John Whipple, who was born in Bocking, Essex Co., England, and was settled in Ipswich, MA, by 1638. She never married and was successively a school teacher, clerk, battlefield heroine, lecturer, organizer, and author.
While she attended rural schools in the North Oxford area, she was chiefly educated at home by two older brothers and two older sisters. She also attended the Liberal Institute at Clinton, NY. She taught school in Massachusetts and New Jersey from 1839 to 1854. Among her teaching assignments in New Jersey was at the Bordentown school, the first public school in that state. Her teaching career was ended by a series of nervous collapses and voice failure.
She moved to Washington, D.C. in 1854, where until 1861 she worked intermittently for the U.S. Patent Office as a copyist. Distressed at the lack of supplies and "comforts" for wounded Civil War soldiers, she resigned in 1861 and began, without official organization or affiliation, to minister to casualties on battle sites in Virginia, where she soon became known as the "Angel of the Battlefield." In addition to aiding army surgeons and bandaging the wounded, she fed and nursed dying men. She rented a warehouse to house the "comforts" solicited from friends in New England and New Jersey and given to the soldiers. She saw herself more as a provider than a nurse and her hot gruel and mush, sense of humor, and practical methods endeared her to the battlefield soldiers. She was appointed Superintendent of the Department of Nurses for the Army of the James in 1864 and nearly lost her life at the battles of Fredericksburg and Antietam when fragments of shell ripped through her clothing.
Nearly 13,000 of 45,000 Union soldiers confined at Andersonville, the Confederate prison in Georgia, died from disease, filth, starvation, and exposure. After obtaining a list of dead from the prison, she began a missing soldier's operation, which resulted in identifying and marking thousands of graves there. After publishing a list of their names, she received thousands of letters from mothers and wives seeking information on lost sons and husbands. Occasionally she found people who didn't want to be found. Andersonville prison later became a National Cemetery.
President Abraham Lincoln commissioned her in 1865 to officially compile records of missing Union soldiers and thus she became the first woman to run a government bureau. The Congress appropriated $15,000 for the work. The lists she and her staff compiled were sent to post offices across the country, and resulted in the identification of 22,000 soldiers between 1865 and 1868. While engaged in this work, she began a nationwide lecture tour and became nationally famous. Her voice failed while lecturing in Portland, ME, in 1869, and she went to Europe to recuperate.
While in Geneva visiting a Swiss soldier she had nursed on the battlefield, officials of the International Red Cross (founded by J. Henri Dunant in 1864) called to solicit her aid in introducing the movement to the U.S. Twenty-two nations had enrolled in the organization under terms of the Treaty of Geneva. Based on the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. chose not to join. During her time in Europe, she did volunteer work with the Red Cross, assisting civilian victims of the Franco-Prussian War, and was honored by Germany, who presented her with the Iron Cross.
She returned to Washington in 1873 and began a long struggle to organize the American Red Cross. She called on politicians, diplomats, generals, professors, and editors; appealed to three presidents for support; distributed brochures and pamphlets at every opportunity; and eventually overcame objections to the organization and its relief work. During this period she remained in close contact with the parent organization in Geneva and was invited by it in 1877 to affiliate. She incorporated the American Association of the Red Cross in Dansville, NY, in 1881, and after the U.S. Senate ratified the Geneva Treaty in 1882, she became the first president of the American Red Cross.
She became internationally famous for her work. She attended international conferences, was honored at European courts, received medals from foreign governments, and wrote and lectured on such a large scale she became one of the world's best known women. Aided by a few devoted assistants but with no formal organization, she expanded the role of the Red Cross to include relief programs for victims of major disasters. She issued appeals for help and personally led many relief expeditions into devastated areas: the Michigan forest fire (1881), the Mississippi and Ohio River floods (1884), the tornado at Mount Vernon, IL (1883), the yellow fever epidemic in Florida (1888), the Johnstown, PA, floods (1889), the Sea Island hurricane in Georgia and South Carolina (1893), and the Galveston tidal wave (1900). She directed relief operations for the Russian (1891) and Armenian (1896) famine suffers and aided the U.S. army during the Spanish-American War.
Her personal leadership came under attack in 1900, and the organization was reincorporated as the American Red Cross by Congress. She remained as president until 1904, when she resigned. She had outlived the era when one pioneer could manage a growing entity, but her name rests securely among the great and imaginative pioneers in philanthropic accomplishments. In the fall of 1997, Gary Scott, National Park Service regional historian, found records of her work in the attic of the government building (about to be demolished) that housed her Missing Persons Office. Rescued were one of the lists containing hundreds of names of missing soldiers, government records, Civil War newspapers, leftover wallpaper remnants and 19th century clothes from embroidered slippers to a frock coat that looked like something President Lincoln would have worn. The Park Service gave everything to Ford's Theater, site of Lincoln's assassination in 1865, to be displayed.
Her books: The Red Cross: A History of This Remarkable International Movement in the Interest of Humanity (1898); The Red Cross in Peace and War (1899); A Story of the Red Cross: Glimpses of Field Work (1904); The Story of My Childhood (1907).