The Battle of Antietam had been raging for what seemed like days. The battlefield was loud, chaotic, dirty, and filled with the sounds of suffering from wounded soldiers. Through the haze of musket fire and smoke, a young woman in a red bonnet called Clara made her way to every injured man she could find, providing care and supplies. While offering a dying man a drink of water, Clara felt a tug in the sleeve of her dark dress. When she looked down to see what it was, she found a perfectly formed hole in the fabric near her elbow. A musket ball had gone through her dress and hit the man lying beside her, killing him instantly. Clara could afford herself only a moment to grieve before moving on to the next person in need of her help.
Clara was born Clarissa Harlow Barton on Christmas Day, 1821, in the central Massachusetts town of North Oxford. The youngest of four siblings by at least ten years, Clara grew up as a tomboy, learning “unladylike” activities and games from her older brothers and preferring school to domestic chores. She also grew up painfully shy, sometimes getting so anxious and overwrought that she refused to eat. However, in a pattern that would continue for the rest of her life, Clara was able to overcome her shyness completely whenever someone was in need. When her brother became ill, she stayed by his side and learned to administer his medication, including what she thought of as “great, loathsome, crawling leeches.”
Despite this early inclination towards nursing, Clara’s inner drive to help first lead her towards being a schoolteacher. She taught for several years in her hometown before moving to New Jersey, where she taught at a so-called “subscription” school. Such schools operated on fees paid by student’s parents, and there were many children denied from receiving an education because their parents couldn’t pay the fees. Clara believed this was wrong, and offered to teach school for free if the town would provide her a building. During her first week of running the first free public school in New Jersey, six students showed up; by the end of the year, there were over a hundred. Despite capably founding and leading the school for over a year, Clara was let go in favor of a male candidate. Undeterred, she moved to Washington D.C, where she worked as a clerk in the U.S Patent Office, during a time when it was rare for women to have government jobs. Soon after, the civil war broke out, and Clara’s life changed forever.
As wounded soldiers began appearing in the capital in droves, Clara saw firsthand the desperate need for supplies. She petitioned the army for the right to bring her own supplies to the battlefield. As a woman, it would be easier for her to bring relief working from outside the system then from the inside. In 1862 her pleas found a sympathetic senator, and Clara received permission to bring wagons of supplies to doctors and generals in battle. Clara and her volunteer service were at the front lines of some of the worst battles seen during the Civil War, including Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, and Antietam.
Those who might’ve known Clara as an anxious and shy young girl likely wouldn’t have recognized the single minded, confident woman dodging gunfire as she brought relief to hundreds of soldiers. Her toughness, spirit, grace, and timeliness on the front lines earned her the nickname “angel of the battlefield.” After the war was over, Clara lent her extensive knowledge of the soldiers and regiments she treated to help identify some 30,000 soldiers graves.
Her time with the army had taught her the importance of neutrality when it came to field nursing. Clara took what she had learned and traveled to Europe, where she worked with the International Red Cross based in Switzerland. She spent time providing aid during the Franco-Prussian war, and the experience galvanized her to action again. Upon returning to America, Clara began advocating tirelessly for the creation of a Red Cross branch in the United States. It took three presidents, but Clara finally got her wish in 1881. She served as its first president until 1903. During the first twenty years of it’s existence, the American Red Cross was largely devoted to disaster relief. Clara and her volunteers assisted in crises like a forest fire in Michigan and hurricanes in South Carolina and Galveston, Texas.
Clara Barton’s incredible legacy extended even further than the barriers she broke as a female combat nurse. She opened up new paths in the emerging field of volunteer service, and created an agency for service that would outlast her. Despite her accomplishments, she remained humble and committed to the service of others above her own well being. Of her time as a Civil War nurse, Clara wrote “I always tried… to succor the wounded until the medical aid and supplies could come up. I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.”