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The Biography of

Clara Barton

Page 2, continued

The Birth of the Red Cross

In the fall of 1866, at the suggestion of Fanny Gage, 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, and at a Universal Franchise Convention in 1868 proclaimed that blacks had suffered far greater wrongs than women in their oppression.

When she was 48, Clara embarked on a whirlwind 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 1859, Dunant had witnessed the horrors of the bloody aftermath at the Battle of Solferino, Italy, and was inspired by the compassionate acts of the peasant women who bound the wounds of their soldiers as well as the enemy's while murmuring that "all are brothers." (See the article about the
Battle of Solferino.)

On July 18, 1870, France had declared war on Prussia and its German allies, and by the end of the month Clara signed up with the Red Cross. She was paired with a young Swiss woman to assist refugees at the French and German border in Mulhausen and Strasbourg. Clara was impressed with the effectiveness of the Red Cross and the training of its members. In four months they had accomplished what could not be done in four years during the Civil War. Her work in Strasbourg continued until June 1, 1871, prior to which time Clara met another admirer of her wartime accomplishments, Grand Duchess Louise, daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm. She and the grand duchess (founder of the German branch of the Red Cross) became friends, and for awhile Clara worked at the Red Cross Hospital in Baden. In 1873, Clara was the first woman to receive the Iron Cross of Germany by Kaiser Wilhelm for her services. But her fortune would soon take a turn for the worse. By the end of that year her sister Sally became gravely ill, and Clara returned home to America. Depressed by Sally's death in spring 1874, Clara suffered from a nervous breakdown and spent time in recuperation at a sanitarium in Dansville, New York.

Three years later, at the outbreak of the war between Russia and Turkey in spring 1877, Clara thought of forming an American Red Cross Society which would provide relief to the sufferers, but her dream did not materialize. 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. 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.

The Legacy of the American Red Cross

Clara Barton in Cuba, 1898

Clara Barton in Cuba, 1898, prior to the Spanish-American War. Image care of Elizabeth Brown Pryor's book.


The first auxiliary chapter of the American Red Cross opened in Dansville on August 22, 1881, and the second one opened in nearby Rochester a few weeks later with the help of Susan B. Anthony. By next spring, 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.

A year later, with new Red Cross chapters opening in other states, President Barton could step back a little from expending all her efforts in advertising for the organization and building up its membership. At the request of Governor Benjamin F. Butler (former Civil War general), she fulfilled a temporary position as superintendent at the Woman's Reformatory Prison of Massachusetts in Sherborn, beginning in May 1883. For more than six months Clara oversaw the activities at this institution and made suggestions for improvements. Though she had little personal contact with the prisoners, with her dignity, poise, and personal magnetism she served as an inspiration to them.

Returning to the Red Cross in February 1884, Clara assisted the flood victims of the Ohio River, then the Mississippi River. In September, 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.

The 1890s found Clara pursuing activities with the women's auxiliaries of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), the Potomac Corps, and Women's Relief Corps, as well as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). At the final gala meeting of the Potomac Corps of the Women's Relief Corps, she recited a poem she had written only hours before the event. This poem, "
The Women Who Went to the Field," honors those who served in the same capacity as she had in the Civil War. During this decade Clara also established the Red Cross headquarters at the corner of 17th and F Streets in Washington, then relocated the operations five years later in 1897 to her home in Glen Echo, Maryland. In addition to the ongoing work of providing disaster relief to needy parts of the nation, 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.

The Spanish-American War marked the first war-related mission in which Miss Barton's organization assisted the U.S. military. As tensions mounted between Cuba and Spain, President William McKinley named the American Red Cross as part of the Central Cuban Relief Committee (CCRC) to assist the Cubans (who were under Spanish rule). On February 9, 1898, Clara arrived in Havana with some of her members and faced a bleak situation that was worsened by drought. The circumstances were further exacerbated with the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine in the Havana harbor days later on the 15th. The American Red Cross team set up soup kitchens, provided supplies to hospitals, distributed clothing, and helped to establish orphanages before the inevitable war began at the end of April. Despite America's declaration of war on Spain, Clara was still committed to providing relief to civilians, and at age 77, worked 16 hours a day preparing food and applying ice to feverish victims. She even cooked gruel for a few of Teddy Roosevelt's wounded Rough Riders who had engaged in some bloody skirmishes at Santiago. The Red Cross also had other important matters to attend to with the outbreak of malaria, typhoid, dysentery, and yellow fever in the recruit camps and American bases in Cuba.

At the turn of the century Miss Barton lived frugally and modestly as before and still maintained a youthful attitude, keeping up with the times and welcoming new technology in her home and office. Her continued role as president of the Red Cross brought her accolades and praise, and conversely an equal amount of criticism and complaints. In 1902 she was presented the Silver Cross of Imperial Russia, the nation's highest civilian honor, awarded her by Czar Nicholas II in memory of her relief work in Russia many years ago. During this time her presidency and administration also fell under scrutiny and attack, with the management of the organization's finances a source of debate. Finally, at age 82, without the energy to fight her critics any longer, Clara resigned from her presidency on May 14, 1904 and retired to her home in Glen Echo. Her final work for relief efforts was with the short-lived National First Aid Association of America, established in 1905. First aid classes were taught, and the original first aid kits were also developed at this time. Though the association would founder, by 1909 first aid training would be incorporated as one of the essential functions of the American Red Cross. With the passage of time, Clara's vision would prove to be true: first aid practiced in the home would help more people than the Red Cross ever could, and emergency preparedness would prove to be the most important element of disaster relief.

In the final years of her life, Clara wrote a short autobiography entitled The Story of My Childhood, published in 1907. But she would not live to write the story of her incredible lifework. For a woman who had endured and accomplished so much—who had devoted so much of her life in helping others to live—the force of life within her had become so strong that even her death had become a struggle. At the age of 90 and battling pneumonia, on April 12, 1912 she finally succumbed to death at her home in Glen Echo and would be buried in the family cemetery plot in Oxford, Massachusetts. Though she had been the center of controversy in all of her work throughout her long life, in the end Clara outlasted her critics, and always would be remembered for her compassionate work in the field, as well as for her legacy of the Red Cross which thrives today. In 1903, when a case of typhoid fever broke out in Butler, Pennsylvania, Clara was there to help, as she had been for others for so many years. A young man who witnessed her work commented on Miss Barton's presence there that night in a way that sums up what so many persons she assisted had thought of her:

And we pictured the light (of the lantern) going on and on through the night until it should stop over the stricken town of Butler, and the suffering people there would look upon it as the light of a great soul that had come to them out of the darkness, bringing comfort and healing and the calm spirit that banishes all fear.


Books Used in Writing This Essay

Civil War Medicine: Care and Comfort of the Wounded, by Robert E. Denney, Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., New York, NY, 1994.

Clara Barton, Professional Angel, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, The University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1987.

Hospital Days: Reminiscence of a Civil War Nurse, by Jane Stuart Woolsey, Edinborough Press, Roseville, MN, 1996.

A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, by Stephen B. Oates, The Free Press, New York, NY, 1994.


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