Barton, Clara

Teacher, self-taught nurse, humanitarian, lobbyist, writer and founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton worked tenaciously for volunteer efforts her entire life.


Clara Barton was a teacher, self-taught nurse, humanitarian, lobbyist, writer, philanthropist, and founder of the American Red Cross. She was known as the "angel of the battlefield" for her volunteer efforts during the Civil War. Her life was dedicated to her work. She never married or had children of her own. Although she was tenacious and tough, she had periods of emotional breakdown throughout much of her life. She worked tirelessly until she died at the age of ninety.

Historic Roots

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the fifth child of Stephen and Sarah Barton. Her father was a farmer and state legislator and had served in the Revolutionary War. Her mother was a homemaker, though Clara was often under the care of her older brothers and sisters.

As a young girl, Barton cared for her brother who suffered an injury and neighbors who contracted smallpox. While still a teenager, she began teaching in nearby schools and moved to Bordentown, New Jersey, for a teaching position in 1850. She later established the first free school in New Jersey, raising enrollment from an initial six students to six hundred. She left New Jersey when town officials bypassed her for the high paying school administrator position, instead, giving it to a man.

It was after this disappointment that Clara suffered the first of several emotional breakdowns. She moved to Washington D.C. to recover and find employment. Once there, she decided to leave teaching and obtained an appointment as a copyist in the Patent Office. She was the first woman in the U.S. to work in that capacity. She resigned this position after the outbreak of the Civil War.

Clara, like many other American women inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale, wanted to volunteer to care for sick and wounded soldiers. She used connections with people (developed through her work in the Patent Office) to collect food and medical supplies for the war effort. She used the supplies as a negotiating tool convincing the assistant quartermaster of the Union Army, Col. Daniel H. Rucker, to let her go to the battlefields.

Clara's childhood experience taking care of her brother and ill neighbors provided skills she carried with her as she aided the soldiers. During the war, twice as many men died from disease and wound infection as died from a bullet in the battlefield; this was due to unsanitary and crowded conditions at the campsites. Clara cared for both the northern and southern soldiers, feeding them, dressing wounds, and comforting the dying on the battlefield. She worked cooperatively with the Sanitary Commission, the Christian Commission, and Dorothea Dix's professional nurses, although she was never officially affiliated with these organizations. Clara served on the front line from 1862 to 1864.

Near the end of the war, exhausted from her battlefield work and disappointed over a failed wartime romance with a married Colonel, she moved back to Washington D.C. In Washington, she obtained President Lincoln's approval to search for missing soldiers. She began publishing lists of missing men and invited the public to write to her if they knew what had happened to the men. She used money made through public speaking engagements (where she discussed her experiences on the battlefield) to fund her search. At times, Barton located men who did not want to go back to their old lives and they were angry she had found them. Through her efforts over 20,000 men were found.

In 1868, she suffered a severe emotional and physical breakdown and traveled to Europe to recuperate. After resting and recovering, she volunteered for the Red Cross' efforts in the Franco-Prussian war. She learned about the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Barton was amazed at how much was accomplished through systematic organization. She also learned about the Treaty of Geneva that set guidelines for humane treatment of the wounded in wartime. The treaty was accepted by many countries but not the United States. Clara returned home in 1873 after receiving news of her sister's illness.

Following her sister's death the following year, Clara suffered a debilitating nervous breakdown from which she was unable to recover on her own. She admitted herself to a sanitarium in Dansville, New York, in 1876. Treatment consisted of therapeutic baths, fresh air, sunshine and rest. It was after this lengthy illness, at the age of sixty, Barton began the work for which she would be most remembered the founding of the American Red Cross.

In May of 1877, with the support of the International Red Cross, she began her crusade for ratification of the Treaty of Geneva and establishment of the American Red Cross. She spent months lobbying senators and congressmen.

She gave speeches and published a pamphlet titled "The Red Cross of the Geneva Convention: What It Is." This effort increased public awareness and support for her work. She also determined the role of the American Red Cross in peacetime to assist victims of natural disasters. By publicizing this expanded mission of the organization, Barton hoped to win political support.

She became involved with any organization or person she thought could further her cause. The Associated Press assisted with publicity. The GAR (an association of Union army veterans) provided political power. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (who saw the Red Cross as an opportunity for women to hold positions of importance within a large organization) assured her the support of feminists.

In 1881, the American Red Cross was formed with Clara Barton as president. The next year, the Treaty of Geneva was ratified by the U.S. Congress. This allowed the American Red Cross to become a formal member of the international organization. Clara believed the ratification of the treaty was the most important achievement of her life's work.

Clara Barton spoke at the Third International Conference of the Red Cross in 1884. She discussed the peacetime work of the American Red Cross helping victims of natural disasters; her organization's mission was to fill the gap immediately after the disaster, before government was able to respond, providing victims with food, shelter, and clothing. After Barton's speech, an amendment to the treaty was made stating "Red Cross societies engage in time of peace in humanitarian work—such as taking care of the sick and rendering relief in extraordinary calamities where, as in war, prompt and organized relief is demanded." In tribute to Clara Barton, this is known as the American Amendment.

Clara Barton's leadership and management style were often criticized. Although she believed that she needed assistance and support, those working for her often left due to frustrations over her dictatorial style. She kept poor records, particularly financial records, and failed to keep her personal income separate from donations to the Red Cross. Many within the organization thought she was too old to lead it. This infuriated her and she frequently lied about her age and used makeup and dress to present the image of a younger, healthier woman.

Mabel Boardman and other Red Cross members dissatisfied with Miss Barton's leadership wrote President Theodore Roosevelt expressing their concerns. The President agreed, as he was not impressed with the response of the Red Cross under her leadership in the Spanish-American War. In 1904, a Senate investigation of the American Red Cross cleared Clara Barton of any intentional wrong-doing; though there had been a great deal of internal pressure for her resignation prior to the outcome of the investigation, she waited to resign until after her name was cleared. Extremely hurt and disappointed by her departure from the Red Cross, Barton knew that keeping busy was the best way to handle her depression.

So, in 1905, she started the National First Aid Society. Based on an unsuccessful first aid program she had initiated within the Red Cross, the National First Aid Society did succeed. The society developed the original "First Aid Kits" used in homes, schools and businesses; it also distributed information and supervised first aid classes. Clara Barton served primarily in a public role and left the finances and operations to other staff members.

In 1905, she published A Story of the Red Cross, and, two years later, The Story of My Childhood. Her health began to slowly decline and she was saddened by the loss of many friends. In 1910, even though eighty-eight years old and in fragile health, she traveled alone from Massachusetts to Chicago, Illinois, to attend a social science conference. Upon returning, weakened by the trip, Barton suffered two bouts of pneumonia. She died in 1912, at the age of 90, in her home in Glen Echo, Maryland.


Through her life's work, Clara Barton became a powerful politician, negotiator, public personality, humanitarian, and American legend. She was not perfect. Her determination, tenacity and single-mindedness often offended others. But, she was charming and persuasive, too. Though emotionally fragile, she possessed a steely determination to accomplish whatever she set out to do. She was a complex woman in a time when most women lived simple lives of caring for home, husband and children. Clara chose to be a pioneer, affecting education, health care, organizational management, and feminist opportunity. She helped countless Americans through her individual action and the work of the organizations she began.

Miss Barton's achievements were unprecedented for a woman of her, or any, time. She established a free public school, worked in the U.S. Patent Office, instigated the ratification of the Treaty of Geneva, published, lectured, lobbied, and founded and led the American Red Cross. Although she was never formally associated with feminist organizations, her attitude about what women could achieve and were capable of was expressed by the way she lived her life.

She also left a legacy regarding the importance of accountability, disclosure, and transparency in nonprofit organizations. Although Clara Barton achieved many goals, she resigned from the organization that she worked so hard to establish under a cloud of controversy. Poor record keeping, failure to file reports, falsification of dates, and suspicion that donated funds were used for her personal benefit created a loss of public trust. Although the Senate cleared her of any intentional wrongdoing, donations to the Red Cross temporarily suffered a decline after the investigation. This lesson was an important one for the health of organizations in the philanthropic sector.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Though many of Barton's accomplishments were ones achieved as an individual philanthropic citizen, she is best known for the establishment of one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in the world, the American Red Cross. Clara Barton's work has influenced the nonprofit sector dramatically. Through her expansion of the Red Cross' mission in peacetime, she exemplified the importance of the alignment of organizational mission with the needs of the people it serves. She used networking to obtain supplies she needed in order to attain a mission. Fundraising and publicity for the Red Cross was achieved through her tireless travel and public speaking. With these accomplishments, Barton set an example of how to meet one's goals and how tireless commitment can build an organization.

Key Related Ideas

  • Disaster relief

  • Feminism

  • First aid

  • Organizational mission

  • Treaty of Geneva

  • Wartime relief

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Susan B. Anthony

  • Mabel Boardman

  • Dorothea Lynde Dix

  • Julian Hubbell

  • Gustave Moynier

  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton

  • Henry Wilson

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The United States Sanitary Commission (USSC): USSC served as a centralized organization created for the relief of northern soldiers which functioned as an umbrella organization to coordinate efforts of local relief groups and to provide food, clothing and nurses for the war

The Christian Commission: An evangelical civilian relief agency that provided aid and comfort to the sick and wounded Civil War soldiers.

National First Aid Association of America: Founded by Clara Baron, the association developed and distributed the first "first aid kits," taught emergency preparedness and promoted basic first aid instruction.

Daughters of the American Revolution: The objectives of the DAR are to continue the spirit of the Americans who achieved our independence; to promote "institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge" to develop "an enlightened public opinion"; and "to cherish, maintain and extend the institutions of American freedom, to foster true patriotism and love of country, and to aid in securing for mankind all the blessings of liberty" (

National Women Suffrage Association: The NWSA's main goal was to secure the right of women to vote. The organization was created by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Grand Army of the Republic: The largest and most powerful organization of Civil War veterans to arise after the war. Members had belonged to the Union Army, Navy, Marine Corps or the Revenue Cutter Service. The last member of the GAR died in 1956.

Women's Relief Corps: In 1883, the WRC organized to serve the veterans of the Civil War. Members decorated veteran's graves on Decoration Day, cared for disabled veterans, and assisted widows and orphans of veterans. The patriotic organization was incorporated as an act of congress in 1962 and teaches about the duties of citizenship and the history of the country, particularly that of the Grand Army of the Republic.

Women's Christian Temperance Union: The oldest women's organization, began in 1874, was formed to combat the destructive power of alcohol and continues today to involve families in rejecting what is harmful to the body.

Bibliography and Internet Resources

American Red Cross. "Museum: A Brief History of the Red Cross" [online]. Available: (15 May 2002).

Dubowski, Cathy East. Clara Barton Healing the Wounds, History of the Civil War Series. Silver Burdett Press, 1991. ISBN: 0382240499.

Frantz, Ann K. "Nursing Pride: Clara Barton in the Spanish-American War." American Journal of Nursing 98 (October 1998): 39-41.

Nolan, Jeannette Covert. The Story of Clara Barton of the Red Cross. Julian Messner, 1941. ISBN: 0671843303.

Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. ISBN: 0812212738.

Ross, Ishbel. Angel of the Battlefield, The Life of Clara Barton. Harper and Brothers, 1956. ISBN: B00005VECY.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.