Clara Barton – Dec. 25, 1821 (Mass) – April 12,1912
When Hurricane Katrina broke levees in New Orleans in 2005 or Hurricane Sandy destroyed much of the Eastern Seaboard in 20012, or the hundreds of natural disasters since the organization’s inception, the American Red Cross was there offering the victims food, shelter and medical and mental health services. The red and white emblem is a fixture in the minds of our culture as a beacon of safety and assistance in times of great need. That the organization also collects and donates “Life-saving blood” to those in vital need or that it offers first-aid, CPR, and lifeguard certifications may not come as a surprise. It is the Red Cross’ work with military personnel and their families, however, that the organization grew its roots.
Though the American branch of the Red Cross was founded by Ms. Clara Barton in 1881, it is her work during the Civil War that created the essential foundation for the organization’s formation. It seems almost irreverent to reduce Ms. Barton’s 40 years of achievements prior to the war with the broad brush-stroke of mere bullet points: teacher, founder of the first free school on New Jersey, patent office clerk. It is said that her ability to handle rowdy school boys combined, perhaps, with her experience nursing her sick brother back to health as a young girl, along with her spiritual beliefs in selfless giving to those in need, that lead her to nursing.
At the start of the war in 1861, she relocated to Washington, D.C. to volunteer as a nurse for wounded soldiers at the city’s infirmary. After a conversation between her and her father, prior to his death, he encouraged her to leave the safety of the hospital for the dangerous front lines of battle, where her skills would be most needed. With his blessing, she joined the Union army, equipped with three supply wagons. Though a portion of the supplies she brought with her over her course of service over the years was funded by the U.S. Government, much of it was paid for out of her own pocket. After the war, it is noted that Congress reimbursed her expenditures. Today, the organization is non-governmental and relies on donations of time and money for the services it provides.
After the war, Abraham Lincoln charged her as the General Corespondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners, where her role was to respond to the inquiries from families of missing soldiers by locating them in casualty, prison, or parole rolls. To better manage this feat, she established the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States. As part of her work locating missing soldiers, she was adamant that the unmarked graves of the Andersonville Prison were identified and marked.
Her efforts to found the American Red Cross began with a trip to Switzerland in 1869 but wasn’t realized until 1881. The group participated in the Spanish-American war but it was in times of peace that Ms. Barton argued that the organization expand its work beyond the military. This request wasn’t ratified until 1901. She served as the president of the American Red Cross from its inception until 1904 at the age of 83. She passed away in 1912 at the age of 91.