Barton, Clara, 1821-1912

Alternative names
Birth 1821-12-25
Death 1912-04-12
French, English

Biographical notes:

Founder of the American Red Cross.

From the description of Letter to James Langstaff Dunn [manuscript], 1865 September 22. (University of Virginia). WorldCat record id: 647813309

Nurse and organizer of the American National Red Cross, of Washington, D.C.

From the description of Papers, 1869. (Duke University Library). WorldCat record id: 19241558

Clara Barton (1821-1912) was the founder and for twenty-three years president of the American Red Cross. She was born in North Oxford, Mass.

From the description of Papers, c. 1832-c. 1912. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 207113766

Founder of American Red Cross; born in Oxford, Mass.

From the description of ALS : Red Cross Park, Ind., to "my dear cousin," 1895 Oct. 31. (Boston Public Library). WorldCat record id: 39472641

From the description of ALS : Washington, D.C., to "my dear cousin," 1874 March 6. (Boston Public Library). WorldCat record id: 39472651

American philanthropist and organizer of the American Red Cross.

From the guide to the Clara Barton letter, 1889, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

Clara Barton (1821-1912), Civil War nurse, suffragist, and founder of the American Red Cross, was born to a prominent Universalist family in Oxford, Massachusetts. Barton established the American Red Cross in 1881; over the next two decades, this organization offered aid during outbreaks of disease, floods, hurricanes, and other domestic crises. As a suffragist, Barton wrote articles for Lucy Stone's Woman's Journal and occasionally appeared onstage during suffrage events with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, and Lucy Stone. She wrote The Story of my Childhood, which was published in 1907. She died of pneumonia in Glen Echo, Maryland.

From the guide to the Barton, Clara. Papers, 1862-1911., (Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School)

Barton was vice president of the International Council of Women.

From the description of TLS, 1892 April 18 : Washington D.C. to the various organized bodies of women in Europe. (Haverford College Library). WorldCat record id: 45145951

Humanitarian and founder of the American Red Cross.

From the description of Papers of Clara Barton, 1887-1918. (University of Maryland Libraries). WorldCat record id: 22535389

Founder of the American Red Cross; born in Oxford, Mass.

From the description of ALS : Washington, D.C., to I.P. Roura, 1899 Oct. 21. (Boston Public Library). WorldCat record id: 39472694

Founder & President, American National Red Cross; Nurse.

From the description of Papers 1822-1982 bulk 1860-1912. (Smith College). WorldCat record id: 45658021

Philanthropist, nurse, educator, and lecturer. Founded American Red Cross in 1881 and National First Aid Association of America in 1905.

From the description of Clara Barton papers, 1805-1958 (bulk 1861-1912). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 70981665

Philanthropist, nurse, educator, and lecturer.

From the description of Diary of Clara Barton, 1903-1910. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 71068357

Clara Barton (1821-1912), the founder of the American Red Cross, began her humanitarian career by organizing a relief agency for wounded soldiers while working in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., in 1861 and served in the later years of the Civil War as a superintendent of nurses with the Army of the James. After travelling in Europe from 1869 to 1873, during part of which time she was active in the International Red Cross in Geneva, she returned to the United States and revived an earlier movement to establish an American chapter of the organization. The National Society of the Red Cross was founded in 1881; Barton served as president from its inception until 1904.

From the description of Correspondence of Clara Barton, 1850-1890. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122288708

Nurse; founder and president of the American Red Cross.

From the description of Papers, 1871-1921 (inclusive). (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 123526688

From the description of Papers, 1870-1906. (Harvard University). WorldCat record id: 232007131

Page one of "A List of the Union Soldiers Buried at Andersonville," copied from the official record in Andersonville by Dorence Atwater, 1868

Clarissa Harlow Barton was born in North Oxford, MA, on December 25, 1821, the fifth and last child of Stephen and Sarah (Stone) Barton. She was a shy and lonely child, and for two years at the age of eleven she devoted her time to nursing her brother David during a protracted illness, an experience which later affected her life's work. At eighteen she began to teach in neighboring schools. In 1850 she spent a year at the Liberal Institute of Clinton, NY. She resumed her teaching in New Jersey where, in 1852, she founded the state's first free or public school in Bordentown. In February 1854 she resigned to take up a position as clerk in the Patent Office in Washington DC., possibly the first regularly appointed woman civil servant. Deprived of her position in 1857 after a Democratic victory, she returned to Oxford. She returned to the Patent Office in late 1860. At the beginning of the Civil War, witnessing the almost total lack of first-aid supplies at the battle of Bull Run, she advertised for provisions. Using her own limited quarters as a storeroom, she accumulated supplies and, with a few friends, began in the summer of 1862 to distribute them by mule team to hospitals and camps on the battlefields. Barton had an uncanny ability to short-circuit military routine, appearing at military engagements with needed supplies, and increasingly she won the respect and admiration of commanding officers and surgeons. As the Sanitary Commission and other agencies grew more organized, Barton's role diminished, but in June 1864, she accepted an appointment as head nurse in Benjamin Butler's Army of the James. In 1865 she established an office in Annapolis where she and a few assistants sought to piece together information concerning missing men and in July 1865 she directed the marking of the graves of almost 13,000 men who died in Andersonville Prison. Between 1866 and 1868, while continuing her missing persons work, she lectured throughout the North and West. Exhausted by her activities, she went to Europe in 1868 for rest and recuperation. While there she worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). She also distributed funds provided by American relief committees in France. At the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish war in 1877 she initiated a five-year campaign for the organization of the American Red Cross Society. In March 1882, American affiliation with the International Red Cross was accomplished and Barton was chosen president of the American Association of the Red Cross. Between 1881 and 1904 she devoted her energies to Red Cross work, providing relief in disasters domestic and abroad, including aid to Cuban civilians and American soldiers during the Spanish American War. By 1904, new methods and leadership were needed and she was forced to resign by the board of directors. She moved to Glen Echo, MD in 1897, where she organized the National First Aid Association of America in 1906. She died April 12, 1912, and was buried in North Oxford, MA.

Mary Kensel was born in 1879. In 1905 at the age of 26 she became secretary (and close friend) to Clara Barton, a position she held until Barton's death in 1912. She married Roscoe Wells, treasurer, vice president, and assistant to the president of the National First Aid Association, which was founded by Barton in 1906. The Wells in their later years moved in with the family of Sally Hooper. After the death of Roscoe Wells (circa 1959) Sally Hooper continued to care for Mary (then an invalid) until her death in 1969.

From the guide to the Clara Barton Papers MS 11., 1822-1982, 1860-1912, (Sophia Smith Collection)

Biographical Note

  • 1821, Dec. 25: Born, Oxford, Mass.
  • 1839 - 1850 : Taught in local public schools near Oxford, Mass.
  • 1851: Attended the Liberal Institute, Clinton, N.Y.
  • 1852 - 1854 : Established and taught free school, Bordentown, N.J.
  • 1854: Moved to Washington, D.C.
  • 1854 - 1857 : Clerk, U.S. Patent Office
  • 1860 - 1865 : Rehired as temporary clerk, U.S. Patent Office
  • 1861 - 1865 : Organized and assisted in nursing and relief services for the Union Army during the Civil War
  • 1865 - 1868 : Organized the Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the U.S. Army in an effort to locate and identify missing soldiers
  • 1870 - 1871 : Organized relief services during the Franco-Prussian War
  • 1877 - 1882 : Advocated U.S. ratification of the Geneva Convention
  • 1881: Founder and president, American Association of the Red Cross Organized Red Cross relief aid to forest fire victims in Michigan
  • 1882 - 1884 : Organized Red Cross relief aid to victims of Mississippi and Ohio river floods
  • 1883: Superintendent, Women's Reformatory Prison, Sherborn, Mass.
  • 1886: Organized Red Cross relief aid to earthquake victims, Charleston, S.C.
  • 1888: Organized Red Cross relief for yellow fever victims, Jacksonville, Fla.
  • 1889: Organized Red Cross relief aid to flood victims, Johnstown, Pa.
  • 1892: Organized Red Cross relief aid to Russia for victims of drought and famine
  • 1893: Organized Red Cross relief aid for hurricane victims on the Sea Islands, S.C.
  • 1896: Organized Red Cross relief aid for the Armenians in Turkey
  • 1898: Organized Red Cross relief efforts in Cuba during the Spanish-American War Published The Red Cross. Washington, D.C.: American National Red Cross
  • 1900: Organized Red Cross relief aid to victims of a hurricane and tidal wave, Galveston, Tex.
  • 1904: Resigned as president of the American National Red Cross Published A Story of the Red Cross. New York: D. Appleton
  • 1905: Founder and president of the National First Aid Association of America
  • 1907: Published The Story of My Childhood. New York: Baker & Taylor Co.
  • 1912, Apr. 12: Died, Glen Echo, Md.

From the guide to the Clara Barton Papers, 1805-1958, (bulk 1861-1912), (Manuscript Division Library of Congress)

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.

From the guide to the Clara Barton papers, 1887-1918, 1887-1900, (State of Maryland and Historical Collections)


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  • International Committee of the Red Cross--History
  • Prisoners of war--Georgia--Andersonville
  • Women--Suffrage
  • Franco--Prussian War, 1870-1871
  • Red Cross and Red Crescent
  • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865
  • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Medical aspects
  • Humanitarianism
  • Women's rights
  • Franco--Prussian War, 1870-1871--Medical care
  • Governmental investigations
  • Ambulance service
  • Women--Suffrage--United States
  • Women's rights--United States
  • Nurses--Correspondence
  • Disaster relief
  • Nurses--United States--History--Sources
  • Franco--Prussian War, 1870-1871--Civilian relief
  • Governmental investigations--United States
  • First aid in illness and injury
  • Military nursing
  • Temperance
  • Social problems
  • United States--History--Civil War, 1861-1865--Women
  • Medical emergencies--Pictorial works
  • Social problems--United States
  • Missing in action
  • Prisoners of war
  • Spanish--American War, 1898--Civilian relief
  • Nurses--History--Sources
  • Temperance--United States
  • National First Aid Association of America--History
  • Disaster relief--History--Sources
  • War relief


  • Lecturers
  • Philanthropists
  • Educators
  • Nurses


  • United States (as recorded)
  • Washington (D.C.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Geneva (Switzerland) (as recorded)
  • Dansville (N.Y.) (as recorded)
  • Corsica (France) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • France (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Massachusetts (as recorded)
  • North Oxford (Mass.) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Georgia--Andersonville (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • New York (State) (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)