top of page
  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

To Battle, and Battle, and Battle: The Many Struggles of American Red Cross Founder Clara Barton.

Clara Barton resided on this planet for nine decades, and spent roughly seven of those locked in institutional struggles that would have broken and gutted a person of lesser determination and drive. Whether it was her attempt to open the door for women as government employees, or her three years of exposing herself to gunfire on the battlefields of the Civil War to bring adequate frontline care to the Union’s soldiers, or her long attempt to compel the United States government to devote proper resources to finding the War’s missing soldiers, or her even longer drive to forge the American Red Cross into a neutral, non-partisan, non-sectarian force to meet worldwide humanitarian needs, Barton always found herself as a lone human facing down societal expectations, governmental agencies, and the very nature of war itself to do those things she felt honor-bound to accomplish.

This is not to say that the story of Clara Barton is one of clear-cut heroism. She was a far too complex figure to fit such a simple mold, and as is typical of intensely driven figures with over-sized virtues, Barton had a full complement of character flaws to accompany them. Her fierce independence, such a virtue to a human being attempting to accomplish goals that no other person had yet contemplated, turned into a major liability as her lone wolf heroics attracted followers and led to an institutionalization that required task delegation and bureaucratic formalization, and so it was that the individual who came out of the Civil War as America’s best known and most respected woman of action ended her life a persecuted and publicly disdained old woman, driven from the very organization she had founded.

Born on Christmas Day 1821 in Massachusetts, Barton was on the defensive from virtually day one. As the youngest child in a group of five siblings, she was often the guinea pig for her older brothers’ various forms of rough-housing/mild sadism. Her refuge from the physical pummeling she received from her siblings was her father, a veteran of the “Indian Wars” whose tales of service in the American wilderness left young Clara spellbound. Growing up with overbearing brothers and a military father, it was perhaps unavoidable that young Clara grew up in a rather less ladylike manner than was the norm for her time. She was an excellent horseman, a crack shot with a gun, and was physically fearless in games with her male cousins. 

All of this worried her mother, who was a distant figure in her life, and who took the step of inviting over a respectable young lady relative to teach her daughter some basics of social etiquette. And that was the Clara who emerged from adolescence - a determined and vibrant mix of drive and accomplishment who could put on social graces when she needed to, but whose basic essence lay in action and a total indifference to the expectations of her gender. She was also highly gifted intellectually, which gave her access to the only occupation regularly available to American women of the mid-Nineteenth Century, that of a teacher.

She received her teaching credential in 1839, and found quickly that she had an aptitude and passion for the work. Her years of rough-tumble relations with her siblings and spirited cavorting with her cousins had given her a familiarity and even ease in dealing with rambunctious young males unique among teachers in that era, and she formed ready rapports with her students that lasted lifetimes. In 1852, on the strength of her record as an educator, she was asked to found a free school for the children of mill workers in Bordentown. That school was such a runaway success, attracting over 600 students, that it  was moved to a location where expanded premises could be built. This should have been a happy moment, a grand culmination of the singularly amazing work Clara had done as an educator, but instead it was to become Clara’s first great institutional struggle. 

The school board of Bordentown believed that, now that the school was going to be a more major affair, with a larger student body and more expansive campus, the time had come to replace Barton, who had done all the work in making the school successful, with a man as principal. Women were fine for experimental start-up affairs, but a serious and established school, they felt, needed a male at the helm. Barton was livid at the decision, but as of yet lacked the political experience to combat it, and so was faced with the choice of continuing in education, which she had an affinity and talent for but where her advancement would always be limited, or to strike out into unknown territory.

Since she was, in fact, Clara Barton, of course she chose the second path, and made the smart decision to move to Washington DC, which at the time was still very much a work in progress, with most of its distinctive landmarks in scattered states of semi-construction. The somewhat ramshackle outer appearance of the nation’s capital was mirrored by the state of its administrative apparatus - there simply weren’t enough people of intellectual talent and self-discipline who were willing to locate to unglamorous Washington and run the government as it ought to be run, a problem compounded by the corrupt political structure of the time, which saw departments gutted by mass firings and politically motivated appointments each time a new political party seized the Presidency. 

Barton, with her education, work ethic, and fine penmanship, was just what the capital needed, and in 1854 she took up a position as a clerk in the US Patent Office, where her job consisted largely in copying out patent claims. Here, her powers of concentration and habit of hard work served her in good stead, as she produced copies at many times the rate of her fellow male employees, who made a habit of verbally and emotionally abusing her at every opportunity, even making up false stories about her sex life in order to get her fired, all for the three great sins of Working Faster Than Them, Being a Different Gender Than Them, and, most unforgivably, Being Paid the Same as Them. 

Yes, it’s true - Barton demanded, and received, equal pay for her work at a time when women were almost universally paid significantly less than men for doing the same job.  Indeed, she was so good at her job that the Patent Office Commissioner, Charles Mason, promoted her to Regular Temporary Clerk, with an annual salary of $1400 at a time when women teachers could count on about $250 a year, and women store clerks a mere $156. Unfortunately, in this time before the great anti-corruption legislation of the 1870s, government jobs hung ever tenuously in the political wind, and with the change in 1857 to the grossly ill-equipped administration of James Buchanan, the vocally Republican Barton found herself released from her position. 

For the next three years, Barton experienced an aimlessness that was entirely at odds with her dynamic, action-based character, and which drove her into fits of depression bordering on a complete lack of interest in the content of her life. Fortunately, the election of 1860 brought Lincoln to the White House, which meant for Clara a chance of returning to her work at the Patent Office. Her political friends were indeed able to get her a position at the Patent Office, though not her old job. Instead of receiving a steady salary, she now was paid on the basis of her volume of work, which brought in from $35 to $60 a month, or from about a quarter to a half of what she was earning in 1856. 

It was vaguely insulting, and certainly small recompense for the loyalty-unto-unemployment she had shown to the party, but it was work, and had there never been a Civil War, Barton might still be remembered to this day as one of the first women to obtain an official, equal-paid position in the government of the United States. The election of Lincoln, however, made war all but inevitable, and when it came in April of 1861, Barton, her head full of her father’s stories of combat, and her nature ever leaning towards action, wanted to do her utmost to contribute. She spent her personal money buying medical supplies and food for the often poorly equipped armies of the Union that happened to be passing through Washington, and organized her friends and acquaintances to augment her stores of available goods.

It was good work, important work, but as reports filtered in of the casualties inflicted on the Union armies in battle, Barton felt a deep desire to go to the front and minister to the wounded directly. In June of 1861, Dorothea Dix was appointed Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army, promulgating a series of requirements for prospective nurses aimed at weeding out the young, attractive, and adventure-seeking. Whether because she felt the Army Nurses (of whom there would eventually be over 3000) would likely be restricted to positions far from the front, or because she personally bristled at having to serve under someone else, Barton never seriously considered working in Dix’s organization.

Instead, Barton developed her own entirely idiosyncratic approach to getting involved in the war - time and again over the next three years she would take time to amass an irresistible amount of medical supplies, which she would use to entice people with political or military power to grant her access to the front lines, where she was in charge of distributing her goods to the makeshift frontline hospitals that stood in dire need of them, and where she also served as a combat nurse, assisting the surgeons with amputations, seeing to the comfort of the wounded who were lying on open ground awaiting admittance to the hospital, and attending to the dietary and often emotional needs of men facing death and recovering from dismemberment. In this capacity, she served during some of the hottest fighting of the Civil War, at Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, The Wilderness, and the ill-starred campaign of the Army of the James to take Battery Wagner. 

It was on these battlefields, often working under fire that tore through her clothes and riddled the walls around her, that she earned the titles of “The Angel of the Battlefield” and “The American Florence Nightingale” while she perfected her methodology. On the homefront, she combined astute cultivation of political contacts with powerful appeals to the public to secure the power to run her operation as she saw fit and a steady stream of supplies from the Northern interior, while on the battlefield she developed the ability to turn a scene of carnage and chaos into an organized system of care which yet still retained an attention to individualized psychological needs. This appreciation for the importance of psychological care in the midst of disaster would also be a hallmark of the Barton era of the American Red Cross, and was a solid century and a half ahead of its time as an approach to health care.

By war’s end, Clara Barton was perhaps the most well-known and well-regarded woman in America, who had brought relief to thousands of poor soldiers by dint of pure personal effort and willpower. For a person who had spent three years deeply experiencing all the drama and fulfillment of battlefield medicine, a return to the humdrum regularity of the Patent Office seemed an unthinkable reduction of life intensity, and it was not long before Barton found the next focal point for her profound energies: the search for the war’s Lost Men. By the time the dust of combat settled, tens of thousands of soldiers remained unaccounted for, with their families agonizingly unaware of whether their loved ones had survived. Barton made it her work to set up a system that coordinated incoming inquiries from anxious families, information from soldiers returning from war, and information from prison rolls (including a treasure trove of some 13,000 deceased soldiers recorded by Dorence Atwater during his time as a prisoner in the infamous Confederate Andersonville prison). By the end of her efforts, she had fielded some 42,000 inquiries, and located some 22,000 soldiers.

She had also, however, driven herself into bankruptcy, funding the entirety of the effort’s early days from her own pocket until she had used up all of her personal savings, and all but a couple hundred dollars of her inheritance from her father. To put herself back in the black, Barton hit the lecture circuit, presenting her experiences from the war to capacity crowds who paid handsomely to hear the heart-rending battle anecdotes from one of the conflict’s unambiguously heroic individuals. Her appearance on the circuit refilled her coffers, as she routinely received the highest going prices for her lectures, but also took a toll on her physically, and within a few years she was compelled to give up her speaking career and head to Europe for some much earned recuperation.

It was here in Europe that she encountered the Red Cross, which was the brainchild of Henri Dunant. After witnessing the misery that the Battle of Solferino left in its wake in 1859, he developed the idea of a new organization, devoted to the treatment of those wounded in war, and a new set of international rules that recognized medical workers as non combatants.  Those ideas would find their way into the founding of the Red Cross in 1864, and the signing of the Geneva conventions in that same year by eleven nations. Barton, famous from her battlefield work in the Civil War, was approached by a member of the Red Cross in 1869, and by 1870 she was back in the thick of action, directing Red Cross units in the Franco-Prussian War.

Returning to America in 1873, ill health prevented Barton from assuming any new grand projects for four years, and thus it was not until 1877 that she began the process of forming the American Red Cross. Her vision for the Red Cross, however, differed substantially from that of its European originators. Instead of devoting the organization entirely to the battlefield care of wounded soldiers, she felt that the Red Cross should also have a peacetime role, using its resources and organizational prowess to funnel aid to areas struck by natural disasters. Years of working with the army had taught her that, though the government could bring significant assets to bear on the solving of systemic problems (the wartime reform of the ambulance corps being a singular example of success), its machinery often took too long to get going, and that in the space between disaster and government response, a more flexible organization could do a great deal of good. Barton’s goal was to mold her American Red Cross into just that type of institution.

Nobody could argue with the nobility or utility of Barton’s goal, nor with her unique suitability to assume leadership of such an enterprise, and at least in the beginning of her tenure, all of that faith in her mission proved more than justified. During the flooding at Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1889, the great Sea Islands storm of 1893, and the Galveston hurricane of 1900, Barton’s deployment of Red Cross resources on the ground played a crucial role in stabilizing thousands of families. More than that, her system of employing local workmen to produce goods needed by families brought to the forefront a crucial realization in relief work, namely that whatever could be done to normalize the local economy and employ the people’s existing skill sets in their own relief effort could ease the path towards recovery. 

Barton’s Red Cross went into rural districts where the federal government didn’t penetrate, and offered support not only to the people who suffered there, but to the livestock that were their livelihoods, a form of care almost entirely neglected by the official governmental agencies, and Barton took care to make sure that people’s psychological needs were being met by the establishment of temporary schools to give the children a touchstone of normalcy, and individualized family care that involved actually listening to each family’s story as part of their path to recovery.  It was a highly individual system, with Barton’s particular personality at its center, a unique configuration that resulted not only in the breath-taking innovations Barton was able to will into existence, but also the institutional weaknesses that increasingly dragged on the ARC as the new century dawned.

Barton essentially believed that, fiscally, she should have a free hand to do whatever she felt needed doing at a disaster site without the need to micromanage and report every detail to some centralized treasurer. This was an understandable instinct to somebody whose life’s success had always stemmed from her on-the-ground freedom of action, but proved an increasingly embarrassing and slipshod method of accounting for a national organization seeking to secure steady funding from the government and public. Further, Barton’s insistence on being present, front and center, at the locations where the ARC did work meant that the organization was fundamentally limited to how many threats it could deal with at once, while her suspicion that others were constantly trying to usurp her role led her to neglect the development of local branches of the ARC, which again limited the organization’s ability to fundraise and quickly deploy resources, both human and material, where they needed to go.

By the early 20th century, Barton was heading into her ninth decade of life, and factions began coalescing around the figure of Mabel Boardman to nudge the ARC’s founder into a golden retirement. Barton refused to go, however, compelling Boardman, a wealthy anti-suffrage socialite heiress who fundamentally could not understand Barton’s personal frugality, indifference to Victorian gender roles, and Yankee work ethic, to appeal to the government to force her out, even going so far as to knowingly fabricate evidence against her in an attempt to portray her as corrupt and incompetent. Battered from all sides, Barton finally resigned her position as president in 1904, making way for a new era of professional organization for the ARC that quietly allowed her attention to the full needs of the individual to fade away in the hunt for administrative efficiency.

Her last years at the ARC were a time of deep personal trauma for Barton, but somehow, aged 83, she still found the energy and will to one last effort, founding the National First Aid Society in 1905, which was an extension of her Red Cross program to provide local first aid training throughout the nation.  She also employed these twilight years of her life to complete a memoir of her childhood, which was published in 1907. Barton’s long life of service finally came to an end in 1912, but the impression she left on the American public has proved an enduring one. In 1885, when she was at the height of her international acclaim, 1.4% of all children born in the United States were named Clara, and today there are 25 schools dotted across the nation named in her honor. We esteem her in posterity to a degree she merited but often did not receive in life, America’s Angel of the Battlefield, grown old in its service, often pummeled, but never broken. 


A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War (1995) by Stephen Oates is a great book that focuses on Barton’s efforts both on the battlefield and in the search for the Civil War’s lost soldiers. I had to be very careful when I sat down to read it, because it’s the sort of book that just propels you forward and forward until before you know it the half hour of time you had set aside for reading has ballooned into three. Meanwhile, for Barton’s work after the war, and the ongoing story of the ARC, Marian Moser Jones’s The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal (2013) is a work that starts off frustratingly engaging in that great sin of modern academic history - overapplication of a single analytic category as the lens through which a far too broad array of phenomena are viewed, in Jones’s case, the theory of post-Enlightenment humanitarianism. The book settles down pretty quickly, however, and the story of Barton adapting her Civil War methods to peacetime, and in particular the high drama of her final years with the ARC, are every bit as gripping as Oates’s wartime narrative.


bottom of page