You must never think about whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need and how to meet it.” Clara Barton
Christmas Day 1821 – Oxford, Massachusetts: She was born on Christmas Day, her parent’s special “Christmas Angel.” Forty years later, the Christmas Angel would become the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
The youngest of five children, it was apparent that Clarissa Harlowe Barton was going to be an “uncommonly willful” child. It was in her DNA. She challenged the norm and was irritated when things had to be done a certain way.
At age 16, Barton became a schoolteacher in Oxford. In 1854, she became one of the nation’s first women to start a public school. Within two years, the school located in Bordentown, New Jersey, increased from a handful of students to 600. When town officials took exception to a woman being the principal and hired a man, 34-year-old Barton quit and moved to Washington, D.C.
In Washington, she found employment in the U.S. Patent Office where her excellent work received the attention of Patent Office Commissioner Charles Mason. He promoted her to be his assistant, making Barton the first woman to hold a white-collar position in the U.S. government.
When the Civil War began in April 1861, Barton discovered that some of the wounded Union soldiers receiving treatment near her office were her former students. After work and on her lunch breaks, she slipped away to bring them blankets, towels, bandages and food. In the unlikeliest of places, the horrors of the Civil War, Clara Barton found her calling.
Barton quit her job at the Patent Office and placed a newspaper ad asking for medical supplies. She filled her house and an abandoned building as the supplies poured in. In July 1861, when the report of 3,000 Union casualties at the first battle of Bull Run reached Washington, Barton could not stand by. She took her request to go to the front lines to the War Department. She received an emphatic, “No! War is no place for women.”
For more than a year, Barton badgered and begged Union officers to allow her to take supplies to the battlefield. Finally, Quartermaster Daniel Rucker, in desperate need of help, violated army protocol and wrote her a pass to take a mule-drawn wagon loaded with supplies to the front.
At midnight on August 9, 1862, Barton arrived with a wagonload of supplies at a field hospital following the battle of Cedar Mountain in northern Virginia. So welcomed was her arrival that an astounded surgeon told his commanding officer, “I thought that night, if heaven ever sent out an angel, she must be the one.”
Stories about the “Angel of the Battlefield” spread quickly throughout Virginia. Union officers requested Barton’s help following the second battle of Bull Run. Later, she arranged the delivery of rail cars of supplies for the battles at Antietam and Fredericksburg. In 1864 Union General Benjamin Butler appointed Barton as “the lady in charge” of all the field hospitals of the Army of the James. She served in this position tirelessly until the end of the war.
After the war, while vacationing in Geneva, Switzerland, Barton met International Red Cross officials. She returned home determined to bring the Red Cross to America. Barton lobbied Congress for 13 years to start a U.S. chapter. Refusing to give up, she finally persuaded President Chester Arthur to appeal to Congress to establish the American Red Cross. On May 21, 1881, Clara Barton became president of the first American Red Cross chapter. She served as president of the Red Cross until her retirement in 1904 at age 83.
Today, more than 140 years after Clara Barton established the American Red Cross, the organization has 20,000 employees and more than 300,000 volunteers. The Red Cross collects 50% of the nation’s blood supply, provides disaster relief and performs emergency services for military personnel. In 2021, the Red Cross raised $2.5 billion. Each year, March is Red Cross Month, a time to celebrate and support Barton’s humanitarian effort.