Nursing and humanitarian aid is standard and necessary to modern societies in times of need. Both have become what they are today courtesy of individuals throughout history such as Clara Barton, whose contributions in these areas have left a profound and enduring mark. In terms of nursing, Clara Barton had a significant impact on where and how women are able to provide medical care and support during times of war. As a humanitarian, she also introduced the country to the Red Cross, which is one of the most important humanitarian and disaster aid organizations in the world. Over the course of her life, she also made many forward steps for women in other areas.

Pre-Civil War

Clara Barton was born in Massachusetts in 1821.  She was a woman who had several careers prior to the Civil War and the actions that would make her famous. She worked as a teacher from a young age and as an educator, founded a free school in Bordentown, NJ. Eventually, as the school grew, its board elected a male principal at a higher pay level with the belief that a man was more appropriate for the position. As a result, Clara resigned her position. She moved on to become one of the first women to become a clerk for the Federal government when she was hired to work in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington DC in 1854.

Civil War

Barton became personally involved in the events of the Civil War while still working at the patent office in Washington DC. At the beginning of the war, men with war injuries were sent to the city following the Baltimore Riot of 1861. Offering her assistance, Clara recognized some of the wounded men as former students or acquaintances and made note of the lack of supplies including food and clothing. She began to collect the needed provisions and even used her own home to store medical supplies. Soon, she began to deliver these supplies to field hospitals, however, women were not allowed close to battles and she did not have a permit to be near the actual fighting. Not content with her inability to help where needed, she eventually made her way to battlefields and subsequently gained permission. At the Battle of Cedar Mountain and a number of additional battles, Barton, who was not a formally trained nurse, was able to provide additional care and comfort to the wounded and dying as a result, her own life was often at risk. At times, she even provided care to wounded Confederate soldiers at field hospitals. For her assistance and timely delivery of much-needed supplies, she became known as the Angel of the Battlefield. Eventually, she gained support and was even appointed the Superintendent of Nurses for the Army of James.

  • The Civil War in America Biography: Clara Barton: Vist the Library of Congress website to read about the famous Civil War-era nurse and the American Red Cross founder Clara Barton.
  • Clara’s Story: The Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum provides information on the life of Clara Barton, particularly about her efforts during the Civil War.
  • Biography: Clara Barton: People who visit this page will primarily learn about Clara Barton’s Civil War accomplishments; however, the page also briefly outlines her life before the war begins and after it ends.
  • Hall of Governor’s: Clara Barton: This is a brief outline of Clara Barton’s efforts, including why she was called the Angel of the Battlefield.
  • Healthcare Hall of Fame: Clara Barton: This Modern Healthcare article offers its readers a quick profile on Clara Barton’s impressive life including her work during the Civil War.
  • Clara Barton Timeline: Students and their teachers can visit this page for a timeline of Clara Barton’s life and accomplishments.
  • Women of History Clara Barton: On this page of the Mary Baker Eddy Library site, visitors can read about Clara Barton from her time as a teacher through the Civil War and her founding of the American Red Cross.
  • Ten Most Famous Nurses in History: Clarissa “Clara” Barton: Clara Barton is considered one of the most famous nurses in history and individuals can read a short overview of why by clicking on this link.
  • PBS: Clara Barton: PBS explains how Clara Barton began, and continued to provide aid during the Civil War.

The Office of Missing Soldiers and American Red Cross

Near the end of the War in 1865, Clara Barton found that her work was not done. She began to receive letters from the families of soldiers who were looking for their missing loved ones. She was appointed by President Lincoln to start the Office of Correspondence with Friends of Missing Men of the United States Army. In this position, she was able to open an office meant to aid families in finding their loved ones. Over a four year period, she was able to locate the unmarked graves of roughly 13,000 Union soldiers and ultimately helped identify 22,000 missing men in response to over 63,000 letters.

When stress and exhaustion began to impact her health, she was sent to Europe to recuperate and relax. While there she became involved with the Franco-Prussian War and was introduced to the International Red Cross. She was so impressed by the organization that upon her return to the United States, she fought to introduce the U.S. to the Red Cross network. In 1881, her efforts were met with success and founded the American Association of the Red Cross to which she was appointed president. A year later in 1882, it joined the International Red Cross. She served as the American Red Cross until 1904 when she resigned as president. In 1905, she formed the National First Aid Association of America, which offered first aid kits and emergency preparedness instruction. She served as president of the organization, which would eventually become a part of the American Red Cross. In 1912, Clara Barton died at home at 90 years old.