Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross

The founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, was born on Christmas Day 190 years ago in 1821. A pioneer teacher, nurse and humanitarian, Barton began nursing at the age of eleven when her brother, David, was injured in a fall. She tended to him for three years, learning to administer his medications and the art of leeching.

Barton began caring for civil war patients from the outset of the American Civil War. The US Senate chamber in Washington DC had become a makeshift hospital where she tended soldiers from Massachusetts. It was after the First Battle of Bull Run that she established an agency for acquiring and distributing medical supplies to the wounded. In 1862, she finally received permission to travel in ambulances to the battlefields where she was to witness some of the bloodiest scenes of the war.

The ‘Atwater List’ 

In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Barton to search for missing Union soldiers. It was a former inmate of Fort Sumter in Andersonville, Dorence Atwater, who made it possible to find the remains of so many Union soldiers who died at Andersonville. Fearing that families of the dead would never be notified, Atwater had copied a list of their names that he managed to conceal from the officials at the notorious prison. He still had it when he was released. The ‘Atwater List’ provided the names of 13,000 soldiers, and Atwater and Barton travelled to Andersonville to mark the graves of the dead. The two became known as the ‘Angels of Andersonville’.

The American Red Cross

After the war, Barton travelled extensively, giving lectures about her experiences. She supported women’s suffrage and was active on behalf of civil rights for African-Americans. On a visit to Geneva, Switzerland, she encountered the Red Cross and Henry Durant’s book, A Memory of Solferino, which encouraged neutral voluntary relief efforts. Barton realized that such an organization was needed in the US. The American branch of the Red Cross was founded on 21 May 1881 in Dansville, New York.

Barton continued to travel the world, encouraging formation of Red Cross operations and tending to wounded soldiers, refugees, and victims of catastrophe. Her last relief effort as president of the American Red Cross was the Galveston, Texas hurricane of September 1900.

In 1904, at the age of 85 and after 72 years of nursing, Barton finally resigned. Seven years later, on 12 April 1912, she died in Glen Echo, Maryland, at the age of 90.

Kat Smutz
See also Louisa May Alcott
Read more about the civil war in American Civil War In An Hour