Clara Barton: Angel of the Battlefield

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The grave of Clara Barton

I arrived in Oxford, Massachusetts, happy to finally be out of the rain that had been a constant on this trip. Arriving in town, I made my way to the northern edge of the community towards North Cemetery. Entering the cemetery I turned right at the first road and as I made the turn, I heard mom announce she saw the family plot I sought. Seconds later I was standing before a six-foot-tall memorial that marks the resting place of the community’s noted daughter and humanitarian.

Studying the marker, I noted there was no information on it for the woman buried here. Though the stone only had a stone wreath on it – no names are engraved on it – the red cross topping the memorial revealed whose resting place this was. This was the grave of Clara Barton, the founder of the American Branch of the Red Cross.

Walking past the headstone, I paused at the footstone that was marked with “C B” before turning my attention to the family stone in the middle of the plot. The monument, located a couple feet from the grave, records her story: “Clara Barton / “Angel of the Battlefield” / Civil War 1861-1865 / Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 /  Spanish-American War 1898 / Organizer and President of the / American Red Cross / 1881-1904 / Dec. 25, 1821 – April 12, 1912.”

Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton in Oxford, Massachusetts on December 25, 1821, Clara was the youngest of five children to Stephen and Sarah Barton. Clara discovered her calling at the age of eleven, when her brother David was injured from a fall from the family’s barn roof. Over the next two years Clara spent much of her time nursing him back to health. Despite being good at nursing, she was not able to pursue that career due to nursing being a male profession at the time.

By the age of eighteen, Clara was teaching in Oxford. She took a short break from teaching in 1850 and enrolled at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York. She was there for a year before moving to Bordentown, New Jersey. In 1852, she opened the first free public school in the state of New Jersey. Despite the time she spent growing the school, Clara would leave the school – and teaching – in 1854, when a male principal was hired at twice her salary to take control of the education of the youngsters.

After Clara left teaching, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she took a position as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. When President Buchanan took office in 1857, he cleansed all of his opponent’s supporters for government positions, which included Clara. In 1861, President Lincoln took office and Clara returned to Washington, D.C. and to the U.S. Patent Office. She would not retake her position as clerk as the nation would go to war.

In the early stages of the war, Clara gathered supplies for the soldiers who were stationed in the nation’s capital. In 1862, Clara would serve as an independent nurse and first attended to the wounded at Fredericksburg, Virginia and later that year at Antietam, Maryland. Barton would soon earn the nickname “The Angel of the Battlefield.” After Antietam, Clara moved to Hilton Head and spent most of 1863 there to be close to her brother. In the final years of the war, she provided aid to the wounded in the battles around Fredericksburg and Petersburg, Virginia.

In the aftermath of the war, Barton would help reunite missing soldiers with their families. She was instrumental in helping to identify and mark the graves of Union soldiers who had died at the Andersonville Prisoner of War camp in Georgia.

In 1868, Clara left America for a relaxing tour of Europe. Her vacation was cut short as she began working with an organization known as the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). When she returned to the United States she worked at creating the American Association of the Red Cross, which was formed on May 21, 1881, with Barton elected as its first president that June. The following year, the American Red Cross officially joined the International Red Cross.

As the first president of the organization, she wanted to help more than those involved in war – she wanted to help those suffering from the aftermath of disasters. Most notably in its early years, the American Red Cross provided relief for the victims of the Johnstown Flood (Pennsylvania, 1889) and the Galveston Hurricane and Flood (Texas, 1900). In 1898, Clara, who was in her late seventies, went to Cuba to help the wounded during the Spanish-American War. One of her last acts as the president of the American Red Cross was helping with the Typhoid fever outbreak in Butler, Pennsylvania (winter of 1903-1904).

Barton headed the American Red Cross for twenty-three years and during her time as president, Clara, Barton never took a salary and sometimes used her own funds to support the efforts of the organization. In 1904, Clara resigned as the president of the American Red Cross after claims of mismanaging the organization’s funds.

She went on to found the National First Aid Association of America, which worked at developing first aid kits for emergencies. This organization would later become a part of the American Red Cross Society.

Clara continued touring on a lecture circuit, giving speeches and lectures. She also wrote a number of books about the Red Cross and published her autobiography, The Story of My Childhood, in 1907. Barton died at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, on April 21, 1912 and would be buried in the family plot in Oxford, Massachusetts.

I finished paying my respects to the founder of the American Red Cross. I quietly walked back to the vehicle in awe of the lady whose desire to help lead to the founding of a world-wide, disaster-relief organization that continues to make a difference in the lives of those in need around the world today.

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