Clara Barton Epitomized the Heroism of Nurses

Two hundred years after her birth, her pioneering commitment to public health has only become more salient

A colorful illustration of Clara Barton with her ambulance
Illustration by Mari Fouz

Half a century before she founded the American Red Cross, Clara Barton had her first nursing experience at age 11, when her older brother fell off a barn roof. For nearly two years she remained at his bedside, applying leeches and dispensing medicine. He made a full recovery from serious cranial trauma.

Born on Christmas Day 200 years ago, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara was a timid child. “In the earlier years of my life I remember nothing but fear,” she wrote in her 1907 autobiography. But her brothers trained her to be “a superb rider and a crack shot with a revolver,” writes historian S.C. Gwynne, and soon she longed to be a soldier. Instead, she began teaching school when she was 17 and eventually founded schools of her own, one in her home state and another in New Jersey, then moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office (in the building that is now the National Portrait Gallery), where she was one of the few women on staff.

The week after the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Barton began nursing Union soldiers at an improvised camp inside the U.S. Capitol in the Senate chamber, and soon took her skills to the front lines. 

 

Clara Barton Epitomized the Heroism of Nurses
B.F. Tillinghast, an American Red Cross supporter, with Barton and Russian Adm. Nikolai Kaznakoff in St. Petersburg, Russia, during an International Red Cross conference in June 1902. American Red Cross

At the Battle of Antietam, where thousands of lives were lost in the war’s bloodiest day, she was giving water to a soldier when a bullet tore through her sleeve, killing him. She also accepted a young man’s plea to extract a bullet from his face. “I do not think a surgeon would have pronounced it a scientific operation,” she later wrote, “but that it was successful I dared to hope from the gratitude of the patient.” A surgeon who was also tending to the wounded that day coined her famous epithet in a letter to his family: “In my feeble estimation, General [George B.] McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.” Barton subsequently tended to hundreds of wounded in Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina. 

Barton also worked to improve the fortunes of formerly enslaved people, drafting them as nurses in battlefield hospitals and teaching them to read. Near the end of the war, President Abraham Lincoln approved her proposal to open the Missing Soldiers Office, where she identified 22,000 Union servicemen who had died in captivity and notified their families. She also launched a lecture tour, delivering more than 200 speeches throughout the Northeast and Midwest about her war experiences to raise money for relief efforts. A tiny woman, just five feet tall, in lace collars and crinolines, she shared platforms with Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Sojourner Truth. In December 1868, she lost her voice, and her doctor advised her to take a break from lecturing and travel to Europe. She first encountered and began volunteering for the International Red Cross in Switzerland in September 1869.

Her time there was a revelation. She was awed by “the work of these Red Cross societies in the field, accomplishing in four months under their systematic organization what we failed to accomplish in four years without it,” she later said. As she began petitioning the U.S. government to recognize a domestic chapter of the international organization, she showed the same resolve that had driven her work on the battlefield. President Rutherford B. Hayes turned her down in 1877, but Barton had spent the past five years building national support for the agency and wasn’t about to take no for an answer. 

In May of 1881, with Hayes out of office, she established the Red Cross on her own with a small staff. Four months later, forest fires tore through Michigan, leaving 500 dead and thousands more homeless. Without waiting for federal recognition, Barton used the new agency to issue appeals for help nationwide, raising enough money, food and supplies to aid 14,000 survivors. The Red Cross was officially incorporated in Washington, D.C. the next month.

Barton led the agency for the next 23 years, aiding countless victims of floods, hurricanes, tidal waves and typhoid fever, as well as those wounded in the Spanish-American War. She died of pneumonia in April 1912 at the age of 90, three days before her agency rushed to aid survivors of the Titanic

Barton remains celebrated worldwide, and even in outer space: A crater on Venus bears her name. Along with her vision and courage, it is her deep commitment to helping the weak and disadvantaged that continues to resonate. This fall, it was reported that 700,000 Americans had died from Covid-19—a death toll virtually identical to that of the Civil War, and over a much shorter span of time. Were it not for the health care workers who devote their lives to others, that number would be unimaginably higher. In September, the Pennsylvania State Nurses Association released a video calling for more caregivers. Its title: “The Next Clara Barton.” 


 

Medic!

Women who shattered norms to nurse the wounded during the Civil War 

By Ted Scheinman

Mary Ann Bickerdyke

None
(Library of Congress)
Known as the “Cyclone in Calco,” she oversaw the construction of 300 field hospitals. When one person complained about the stubborn nurse to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, he rose to her defense, saying he couldn’t intercede because she outranked him.

Dorothea Dix

None
(Library of Congress)
At the start of the war, the only official Army nurses were men. Dix, a school- teacher and fiery prison reformer in Massachusetts, traveled to Washington in April 1861 on a mission to change that. Soon she was recruiting the Union’s new legion of female nurses, bringing more than 3,000 to the Union cause.

Harriet Tubman

None
(Library of Congress)
Born into slavery in Maryland, Tubman began working as a Union nurse in 1862 at the request of Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew, serving in the field from South Carolina to Florida and at hospitals in Virginia. She led troops during a South Carolina raid that liberated more than 700 enslaved people. And she served as a spy.

Louisa May Alcott

None
(Library of Congress)
The author did a turn as a nurse at the Union Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 1862 and 1863 before she contracted typhoid and had to step away from caregiving. These experiences informed her first critical success, Hospital Sketches, published in 1863, as well as her most famous novel, Little Women, published in 1868.

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This article is a selection from the December issue of Smithsonian magazine