Autumn 1988, Vol.40 No. 3, pp. 237-248.

Philip L. Jewett:
      Clara Barton: Soldier's Friend

In her life of service to victims of war and disaster, the founder of the American Red Cross exemplified Christian compassion and justice in their highest expression.

Mr. Jewett is a New Englander by choice, a carpenter by day, and a free lance writer by night. A soldier for ten years, he "graduated from the School of Experience."

SHE was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in an unpretentious farmhouse in North Oxford, Massachusetts, and was christened Clarissa Harlowe Barton -- a name she later shortened to Clara. She is now remembered as Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.

Although her early years were happy, Clara later admitted to having been a troubled, insecure child. She once confided to a friend that she remembered nothing but fear during her childhood. Clara had, however, a favorite phrase she often quoted, "perfect love casteth out fear" (1 John 4:18).

Clara's father, Captain Stephen Barton, whom she called her "soldier father," was her idol. Through him Clara became a military expert of sorts. The knowledge imparted by her father later helped her gain the confidence of many military leaders, which had far-reaching advantages when she worked with the International Red Cross during Europe's many wars of the late 1800s.

Her ability to work with soldiers and to give them the services they required probably stemmed from her home training and upbringing. From her mother, Sara Stone Barton, Clara learned the basic household chores that no one, not even a soldier, is ever free from: how to cook, sew, weave, even how to make soap. These skills served her well on the battlefield. During and after battles, many soldiers got their first hot meal in days from Clara's field kitchens. Her ability to make soap from materials at hand saved many from infected wounds.


Never one to draw attention to herself, Clara rarely dressed fashionably; she never seemed to lose the New England "school marm" appearance. Once she attended a White House dinner wearing a borrowed outfit because she didn't own a suitable gown for the occasion. Some biographers have suggested that Clara's habitual plain way of dress stemmed from an inborn desire not to attract attention.

Her failure to outgrow this childhood tendency of withdrawing into herself worried her mother. It seemed to worsen in her teens. In desperation, Clara's mother consulted a phrenologist, a Mr. Fowler, whom she asked to analyze Clara, a popular practice during the 1800s. Fowler's findings about Clara were: "She will never assert herself for her own sake -- she will suffer wrong first -- but for others she will be perfectly fearless." Fowler suggested that Clara become a teacher.

Clara later regarded Fowler as one of the great influences on her life. She claimed that his book, Mental Science as Explained by Phrenology, changed her way of thinking and her entire attitude toward life. In her later years, Clara visited Fowler in London, where she reminded him that it was he who taught her "to stand erect in the consciousness of those higher qualities that make for the good of human kind."

Clara didn't take up teaching because Fowler recommended it, however. She went into teaching because she failed to qualify for a job in the knitting mills. Most of the children of Clara's generation went to work in the textile mills. But fortunately for the world, she was a small person. At five feet, she was too short to reach the levers controlling the weaving looms.

Teaching school was about the only other profession open to women in the early 1800s. Thus, at the age of fifteen, Clara became a teacher at a local district school in her home town. Her first day of teaching was nearly a total disaster. By her own admission, she had no idea how to handle her pupils and was too tongue-tied to talk to them. She sought refuge in the Bible. Later, Clara recalled that she stood in front of the class and asked "All who could read, to read a verse each, I reading with them in turn."

After teaching school for several years, Clara felt the need for more education for herself, although over ten years elapsed before she finally decided to further her training. At Clinton Institute in New York, she met Samuel Ramsey, a divinity student. Many biographers of Barton believe that there may have been a romantic interest here. Some of Clara's friends hinted the same. But Clara denied that Ramsey was anything other than a college acquaintance. Yet Ramsey remained a lifetime friend. It was he who stood by Clara and assisted her in the difficult years of organizing the Red Cross. For Clara, who hated paperwork, Ramsey was a blessing. He did most of the documentary and book work regarding the early Red Cross.


Shortly after graduating from Clinton, Clara was living in New Jersey. Both her personal diary and her letters of the period show that she was, in reality, two persons. Her inborn timidity and reluctance to draw attention to herself are clearly indicated. But in sharp contrast to her diary, which is often dreary and despondent, letters to friends are mostly bright and cheerful. Her diary reveals that the early 1850s were exceptionally trying times, 1852 being a particularly bad year. Her father was in failing health, her mother died that year, and for other reasons not revealed Clara was disenchanted with life. Several diary entries hint at possible suicide. She wrote that she had grown weary of life at an age when she should be enjoying it most. She indicated that she longed for death, that everything would be better off without her. "How long I am to or can endure such a life I do not know."

During March and April of 1852, Clara made no entries in her diary. The last entry was in early March. It was short and crisp: "Don't know why I receive no intelligence from certain quarters." When she resumed the diary in May of 1852, her first entry was equally short and crisp. "Have kept no journal for a month or more. Had nothing to note, but some things are registered where they will never be effaced in my lifetime." Clara never clarified, either in her diary or in communication with friends, what she was referring to.

By this time, she was living in Bordenton, New Jersey. Seldom missing anything that would benefit from her help, Clara had noticed boys and young men loafing in the streets, often near barrooms. She felt they were wasting their lives and sensed that they needed help and guidance. (Someone needing help always stirred Clara into action.) Learning that jobs were scarce, and that the available jobs required some education aroused her teaching instincts. For the youths she had seen loitering in the streets were mostly uneducated. It was this condition that put them among the unemployable.

Soliciting public support, Clara announced she was opening a non-profit school to educate the needy -- the first free public school in New Jersey. It grew rapidly. In two years the school required a new $4000 addition to accommodate over 600 students. Clara's enthusiasm for her school knew no limits. But others, officials in public positions, had different ideas about running public schools. A newly-formed school board took over and named a man to the top position. Partly because she was forced to step down, and partly because of poor health, Clara resigned. After eighteen years, these would be her last days of teaching, although she wasn't aware of it at the time.

In 1854, Clara left Bordenton for Washington, D. C., seeking new worlds to conquer, or at least new opportunities to explore. She soon met influential people from Massachusetts. Alex DeWitt, a Congressman from Clara's home district, introduced her to Senator Henry Wilson. He in turn became a close friend and proved to be a valuable ally in the years ahead; particulary so, as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs.

DeWitt also aided Clara in obtaining a job with the Patent Office. Unfortunately, neither President Franklin Pierce nor the Secretary of the Interior, whose department ran the patent office, approved of women in government offices. For a while her job was in jeopardy. But Clara kept her position through the combined efforts of the Patent Office's Director, who openly admired her work and abilities, and Massachusetts State Representatives who intervened for her. From this experience Clara learned valuable lessons as to how the government operated, lessons that would be useful in the years ahead.


At the outbreak of the Civil War, the United States were poorly organized militarily. The army was small and lacked even the rudiments of a medical corps. Sick soldiers were cared for by civilian doctors if any were available. Florence Nightingale's chance visit to a European battlefield had already initiated the concept of the Red Cross. Clara's introduction to battlefield nursing was similar to Florence Nightingale's. Like its European counterpart, the U. S. military was unable to cope with the overwhelming numbers of wounded soldiers produced by Civil War battles. It was these uncared-for and neglected soldiers that Clara became determined to help.

A nurse by instinct, Clara was never registered and her methods certainly were not those of a trained nurse. As one of her former patients testified, "She just mothered you, made you well in spite of yourself." Knowing she had done little nursing and was frail and unused to seeing suffering, many people asked Clara how she could bear up under the stress of battlefield and hospital conditions. (While living on her father's farm, Clara once fainted at the sight of a steer being slaughtered.) She always explained that she forgot herself entirely and simply did what had to be done. She said that you must never think whether you like what you see, but only about the need and how to meet it. "Then God gives the strength and the thing that seemed impossible is done."

Clara's first contact with war came shortly after her struggle to keep her job with the Patent Office. The Civil War had already begun. The Massachusetts sixth regiment was attacked while passing through Baltimore on its way to the fighting in the South. Many of the soldiers were former students from Worcester and North Oxford, Massachusetts. Clara heard rumors that the survivors were being moved to Washington, where a temporary hospital had been set up in the railroad station. The first casualties had hardly arrived before she was moving among them.

Many survivors had only the clothes they wore. There was little food and no bandages or medical supplies. Clara returned home and began tearing up old sheets for towels and handkerchiefs. Then, filling the "largest market basket in the house" with food and supplies, she returned to the train station. For the rest of the night, Clara dressed wounds, fed soldiers, and wrote letters home for those too badly hurt to write. She kept detailed records of all the soldiers she treated: their wounds, their organization, and their civilian addresses. From this night and this small beginning, her work and reputation spread. It would be her lifestyle for the next fifty years.

The day following her initial work with the wounded soldiers, Clara was walking the streets of Washington seeking food, supplies, and help. As the war dragged on, the Union Army suffered more defeats. Most of the wounded soldiers were sent to the infirmary in the Washington train station. Clara, unable to keep up with the demands by soliciting supplies on Washington's streets, wrote to the Worcester Daily and requested food and supplies. Her newspaper appeal was successful. Soon she was swamped with supplies of all kinds. When her rooms overflowed with clothing, blankets, bandages, food, and supplies of all description, Clara rented warehouse space and started a distributing agency -- non-profit of course.

Clara faced opposition both to herself and to her work from many quarters. The stiffest resistance came from Congress and the Army itself. High ranking officers believed that women didn't belong in military affairs. In particular, few favored women in the front lines, which was where Clara wanted to go so she could give immediate relief.

Bit by bit, however, Clara wore down the opposition. Her first major success came from the Assistant Quartermaster General in charge of transportation, Major D. H. Rucker. Hearing of Clara's warehouse filled with supplies, Rucker gave her permission to request the necessary wagons and the men to load them. But he also denied her request to visit the front lines. Adamant, Clara insisted. Reluctant, Major Rucker relented and issued her a pass to visit the front.

After getting permission to go, she supervised the loading of the wagons. Then, donning a man's jacket and a dark skirt, Clara, alone, drove the four-mule team wagon to Cedar Mountain. The trip took four days. She arrived to find Brigade Surgeon James Dunn surrounded by wounded soldiers and down to his last surgical dressings. Fortunately, Clara had a large supply of bandages in her load. Her opportune arrival earned Clara the title so often associated with her, the "Angel of the Battlefield." It was Dunn who bestowed the title on her. Years later he recalled, "I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a holy angel, she must be one; her assistance was timely."

After her initial success in getting to the front with her supplies, whenever Clara met opposition from minor officials she promptly went over their heads with her requests. At times, she went as far as the President himself. Minor officials soon learned that a timid Clara Barton on the warpath was a force not to be taken lightly.


Feeding armies has always been a monumental task. During the Civil War, feeding the wounded was a problem of seemingly insurmountable proportions. A standard menu for wounded soldiers consisted of crushed crackers and loaves of bread soaked in wine. It was believed that the pulverized crackers and bread saturated with the wine would deaden the soldiers' senses and ease the jolting wagon ride to the hospitals, where hopefully they would receive better treatment.

One night, at one of her field hospitals, Clara discovered that the last loaf of bread had been cut and the last cracker pounded. But she still had twelve cases of wine left in the supplies. Clara also discovered that some of the wine was packed in Indian corn meal, instead of in the usual sawdust. She baked a batch of cornbread with the corn meal. Speaking of this incident years later, Clara felt she had been blessed with a miracle. "My men were almost superstitious over that," she said. While miracles were not daily events at Clara's first aid stations, most of the soldiers regarded her as a messiah. Well they might.

A typical day with Clara is best described in her own words: "I have had a barrel of apple sauce made today and given out every spoonful of it with my own hands. I have cooked ten dozen eggs, made cracker toast, corn starch blanc mange, milk punch, arrowroot, washed hands and faces, put ice on hot heads, mustard on cold feet, written six soldiers' letters home, and stood beside three death beds."

Because of her front line activities, Clara became a legend. She was almost always instantly recognized, especially by the common soldiers. Salutes, cheers, and waving caps hailed her whenever she came into sight. One incident of instant recognition especially stood out in Clara's memory. She recalled this particular event as the most memorable personal experience of her life. Clara had few diversions from the war, but one of her favorite recreations was walking. She liked to walk and often left her wagon to tramp along with the marching soldiers. One day while walking with the troops, she outdistanced her own wagon train. Coming to a stream where the water was too deep for wading, Clara decided to wait for her wagons to catch up and cross the torrent on a cart. An infantry captain, seeing her plight, halted his men in mid-stream and shouted, "Now boys, there stands Clara Barton. I want every one of you to kneel on your right knee and let Miss Barton cross this stream on your left knee." Thus, Clara crossed the stream without getting her feet wet.

With Clara, soldiers and their requirements came first. Their needs, even when fulfilling them went against her beliefs, had top priority. Once, while visiting a tent hospital, Clara asked the chief surgeon what his charges needed most. Tobacco, she was told. Clara, who never smoked and regarded smoking as an act of the devil, was not upset by this request. If her soldiers wanted tobacco, then tobacco they'd get. She soon had piles of plug tobacco stacked in her warehouse, waiting delivery to the soldiers. She dealt with alcohol in a similar manner.


The close of the long, hard struggle between North and South opened up a new line of work for Clara. There were probably as many missing and unaccounted-for soldiers as had been killed or wounded. Most prisoners of war were simply turned loose by their captors. (This was the largest group of missing soldiers.) The War Department also lacked sufficient information and adequate records regarding the thousands of discharged soldiers.

Acting on her own, Clara wrote hundreds of letters concerning missing soldiers. "Ask Miss Barton" was the routine answer given by the War Department to anyone inquiring about missing New England men. Fortunately, Clara kept extensive and accurate records of all the soldiers she had treated during the war years. This information proved to be invaluable in tracing many individuals. But the task was too big to handle alone, even for Clara Barton. She needed government help. Unfortunately, the Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, had never been overly friendly. So Clara decided to go directly to President Lincoln. Finding Lincoln busy, Clara turned to her longstanding friend from Massachusetts, Senator Henry Wilson. Although Wilson was not on any better terms with Stanton than Clara, he did have a direct line to the President. Unfortunately, Lincoln was assassinated before any concrete action was taken concerning missing soldiers. Lincoln did, however, give Clara a letter asking for all concerned to aid her in her efforts to locate missing servicemen.

The new administration had more pressing problems than establishing a program to locate missing soldiers. The attitude of the War Department seemed to be that if men were missing it was probably because they wanted it that way. But inquiries continued to flood the War Department offices concerning them. And because Clara was the only person having any success in locating missing soldiers, the War Department reluctantly named her the General Correspondent for Friends of Paroled Prisoners.


Few people have hated war with the intensity of Clara Barton. Not content to limit her energies to locating missing soldiers, Clara simultaneously conducted a lecture tour condemning war. Her lectures, "War Without Tinsel," were popular. Although she spoke to sellout audiences several nights a week, Clara always claimed that oratory was not her strong point. Of public speaking she said, "I am the most timid person on earth. All speech-making frightens me. First I have no taste for it, and -- lastly I hate it." But Clara was at her best when she felt that she was helping people. She hoped her lectures would bring the horrors of war to the people, and that public outcry would eliminate wars in the future.

While Clara hated war she remained convinced that the Civil War was necessary. When asked if it would not have been better if the war had never been fought, Clara bluntly answered, "Could the great issue of slavery ever have been settled in any other way? If the mere buying of slaves would have solved the problem, the young men in the field [Union soldiers] would have dug potatoes till they could have bought every slave."

In many of her lectures, Clara mentioned the profits that had been part of every war, including the Civil War. Clara herself never hoped for any profit for her part in the Civil War. She once confided in a friend that she had saved a little money in times of peace, and she intended to devote that money and herself to the service of her country and humanity. If war must be, she neither expected nor desired to come out of it with a dollar. If she survived, she could no doubt earn a living. And if she died, it was no matter.

Seeking rest in Europe in 1869, Clara was soon found distributing relief supplies to the victims of the Franco-Prussian War. While abroad, she associated herself with the International Red Cross, which she introduced to the United States on her return in 1881. She remained president of the American Red Cross until 1904.


During her efforts to involve the United States with the Red Cross, Clara was often accused of being anti-Christ and not being a practicing Christian. It was widely known that regular church attendance was not one of her strong points. Clara answered her critics by saying, "I suppose I am not what the world denominates a church woman. I lay no claims to it. I firmly believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Jesus of Nazareth, in his life and death, of suffering to save the world from sin, so far as in His power to do."

Further proof of Clara's reliance on God can be found in a favorite Bible passage she often quoted: "In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me" (Matt. 25:40). In reference to this verse Clara said, "I never in my life performed a day's work in the field that was not grounded on that one little sentence, and that it did not come to me hourly till kindly sleep brought relief to both body and soul."

She often declared that her Lord's approbation and good will were her final reward. "If acceptable to Him who gave us the courage, protection, and strength to perform it, we need care little more." Clara never failed to give credit and the glory for her many accomplishments to God. It was usual for her, at the end of any relief project, to hold a service giving thanks to and praising God.

Even though Clara's health declined badly when she was in her seventies, she still managed, often by sheer will-power, to offer aid during wars and natural disasters. At age seventy-five she traveled to Cuba to serve the soldiers of the SpanishAmerican War. But in 1912, Clara realized that she was nearing the end of her useful life. Even then her thoughts remained on the people of the world, particularly those who needed help.

The end came for Clara in Glen Echo, Maryland, on Good Friday, April, 1912. She was ninety-one. Her health was failing rapidly, but she remained alert. Her last words were, "Let me go, let me go." This woman, who had known nine presidents, scores of generals, numerous heads of state, and who was always a friend of the homeless and the needy, was buried beside her father and mother in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Tributes by the hundreds poured in following her death. One testimony eloquently sums up the life of this timid woman who contributed so much to humanity: "The whole world today, to its remotest corner, is paying reverence to Clara Barton .... When men went forth with banners to kill, Clara Barton followed to undo their work under the cross."