Clara (Clarissa Harlowe) Barton, humanitarian and founder of the American Red Cross, was born on December 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Named after the heroine of a Samuel Richardson novel, she was the youngest of five children of Captain Stephen Barton (1774-1861), and Sarah (Stone) Barton (1784-1851). Learning to spell and read at the age of three, Barton began her formal education both outside the home, under the instruction of Richard Stone, and inside, under the guidance of her much older siblings. At the age of eight, Barton left home to attend high school, but returned after a year. Her education then continued three years later under private tutors, Lucian Burleigh and Jonathan Dana. Her long career in humanitarian service also began at an early age, when from 1832 to 1834, she was the devoted nurse and companion of her brother David, who was an invalid due to a riding accident.
From 1839 to 1850, Barton taught in local schools in the North Oxford, Massachusetts, area. Then, in 1851, she attended the Clinton Liberal Institute, a coeducational academy managed by the Universalist Church of Clinton, New York. After her term at Clinton, Barton taught at Highstown, New Jersey (1851-1852), and then at Bordentown, New Jersey (1852-1854), where she established the first free public school in the community. When Bordentown officials hired a male president to run the successful school, Barton resigned. She then went to Washington, DC, where, with the help of Alexander DeWitt, a congressman from her home district, she got a job as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office, as one of the first regularly appointed female civil servants. She held this position from 1854 to 1857, and then again from 1860 to 1861; the intervening years, during Buchanan's presidency, she spent at home.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 began for Barton a long career in providing care for the sick and wounded. Remembered later as the "Angel of the Battlefield," Barton saw the need for women's help in nursing and caring for the sick and wounded, but until she got the necessary permission, women were not allowed in hospitals or on battlefields. In April 1861, she provided nursing care and supplies for the wounded of the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, involved in a Baltimore riot. After securing permission from Surgeon-General William A. Hammond to visit battlefields and to cross enemy lines, Barton brought aid and supplies to the wounded on sixteen battlefields, including those of Antietam, Fredericksburg, the siege of Charleston, and the Wilderness campaign.
Following the conclusion of the Civil War and until 1869, Barton held the position of the superintendent of the Missing Persons Bureau, during which time she located many of the bodies of Union soldiers who died as prisoners at Andersonville, Georgia, where she rebuilt the cemetery. Meanwhile, from 1866 to 1868, she traveled extensively, giving public lectures throughout the North and West. When her voice gave out, she went to Europe to rest, and there first learned of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In 1863, inspired by Jean Henri Dunant's view that relief societies were needed to help the wounded in war, Gustave Moynier joined Dunant to gather support for a meeting of nations to form such a body. As a result, the International Committee of the Red Cross was formed and gained official status in 1864 at a convention in Geneva, Switzerland. By the time Barton learned of the Treaty of Geneva of 1864, 32 nations had signed the document, proclaiming that medical teams and facilities should be treated as neutrals in a conflict situation, and that the wounded deserved care. Before returning home to urge the United States to sign, Barton became involved with the International Committee during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1872). Besides caring for soldiers, she showed her inclination to move beyond simple handouts to help rebuild lives, as she set helped civilian women in Strasbourg, France, earn money for food by setting up an exchange system in which the women sewed needed clothes and received money for food in return.
While resting in England and Dansville, New York, during the years 1872 to 1881, Barton worked towards American affiliation with the International Red Cross. Finally, on March 1, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Geneva Treaty; the year before, Barton had organized the American Association of the Red Cross. President James A. Garfield appointed her its first president. Barton also served as the American governmental delegate to the international Red Cross conferences in Geneva, Switzerland (1884); Carlsruhe, Germany (1887); Rome, Italy (1890); Vienna, Austria (1897); and St. Petersburg, Russia (1902). At the 1884 conference in Geneva, Barton secured the adoption of an "American amendment" which authorized the Red Cross to help not only in times of war, but in times of natural disaster and calamity during peace.
Nine years after the United States signed the Geneva Treaty, Barton began urging Congress to both incorporate the Red Cross as an official national body, with political and economic support, and pass a bill, which would protect the organization's insignia from fraudulent uses by others. Unfortunately, both bills died in committee. Barton then met with her advisors, and at the first board meeting in almost ten years, reached decisions regarding the executive committee, the local societies, and membership, and drafted a new constitution. At this time, the name was changed from the American Association of the Red Cross to the American National Red Cross.
During her presidency, Barton also personally led the organization's assistance in the aftermath of numerous disasters, including the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood (1889) and the Armenian massacre (1893), and provided aid and supplies to Cuban rebels before and during Spanish-American War (1894-1899). Her mission was not only to grant immediate relief but also to supply materials for rebuilding houses and lives.
In 1897, Clara Barton set up the Red Cross Headquarters in Glen Echo, Maryland. Three years later, in 1900, President William McKinley finally signed a bill, which both incorporated the American National Red Cross under a federal charter and, to some degree, protected the insignia. By this time, disagreements over Barton's inability to delegate authority and her insistence upon total control of the organization's finances led to a revolt of the board of directors in 1902, started by Mabel Thorp Boardman. Then, in 1903, after a U.S. Senate investigation, which revealed poor business practices, President Theodore Roosevelt withdrew federal patronage from the American National Red Cross. The following year, Barton resigned, and Mabel Thorp Boardman became the new president. Barton then served as president of the National First Aid Association, which endeavored to teach first aid to people nationwide, from 1905 to 1912.
Clara Barton died on April 12, 1912 of chronic pneumonia, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland. Joint funeral services were held in Glen Echo and in Oxford, Massachusetts, where she is buried.