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Clara Barton

Angel of the battlefield

Strickler, Jeff DHA, RN, NE-BC

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doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000529805.60418.26
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In Brief


“She was perhaps the most perfect incarnation of mercy the modern world has known.”

The Detroit Free Press describing Clara Barton in 19121

THE FIRST INSTALLMENT of our Pioneers in Nursing series focused on Florence Nightingale. This article continues the series by celebrating the life and accomplishments of Clara Barton, an early contributor to the nursing profession. Like Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton began her nursing career providing wartime care to soldiers. Later, she focused on the logistics of large-scale aid for peacetime disasters. This work ultimately led to her most lasting legacy, the founding of the American Red Cross.

Early years

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas day in 1821 in North Oxford, Mass. Her desire to serve others was heavily influenced by her childhood experiences caring for her brother, David, who suffered a disabling injury from a fall. After passing her teacher qualifying exam at age 18, she began her initial career journey as an educator. She later started the first public school in Bordentown, N.J., but was eventually passed over for school principal when the position went to a man. Immediately afterward, she relocated to Washington, D.C., to work as a patent office clerk. Then, fate led her to her true calling.2

Angel of the battlefield

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces bombarded Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, S.C.3 Soon after, Southern forces scrimmaged with the Massachusetts 6th Regiment, which was on its way to Washington.2 As the casualties from the battle flowed into Washington, D.C., Clara Barton recognized many former students among the wounded. She also realized that the U.S. War Department was unprepared to provide care, food, and shelter for the sick and wounded.2 Although not formally trained as a nurse, Barton filled the void she observed by assisting as she could. She developed a passion for providing care for soldiers on the battlefields, a role not previously undertaken by women. In 1862, Barton's father, who'd seen combat against Native Americans on the western frontier, provided her with additional inspiration when he stated on his deathbed, “I know soldiers, and they will respect you and your errand.”2

Eventually, the Union Army provided a pass from the Quartermaster so that Barton and her nurses could become army camp followers. It was at the Battle of Cedar Mountain where Barton first served, in her words, “between the bullet and the hospital.”2 She also saw action at the second battle of Bull Run and at the battle of Antietam, which is still considered the bloodiest day in American military history.4 A surgeon immortalized Clara Barton and her work at Antietam by stating that she was the “true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”5 In the summer of 1864, she closed her combat experience by serving with the 10th Corps Field Hospital of the Army of the James near Petersburg.2

After the war, Barton developed the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the U.S. Army and spent the next 4 years helping 22,000 families find missing and unaccounted soldiers. This period included her work at the notorious Confederate camp for prisoners of war in Andersonville, Ga., where she helped identify the graves of 13,000 men.2,6

During this time, she accepted numerous engagements to speak on her wartime experiences, which made her independently wealthy but left her exhausted and depressed. In 1868, a physician following a typical regimen for patients of means recommended that Barton go to Europe to rest, thus beginning the next phase in her life's work.2

American Red Cross

While in Europe, Barton visited Switzerland during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. Here, as she once again assisted in the care of the wounded, she observed the work of the International Red Cross, which did work similar to her efforts during the Civil War, but on a much larger scale.

The International Red Cross was started by Henri Dunant in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino in Italy with a mission to care for the sick and injured during times of war. Barton was inspired to provide the same services in America. She returned to the United States to pursue this effort.

For the American organization to be recognized as an official branch of the International Red Cross, the United States was required to ratify the Geneva Convention of 1864, which allowed nurses and physicians to move freely in both hostile or friendly territory to care for the wounded. This agreement initially met strong resistance from Congress and others who regarded this agreement as a foreign entanglement. However, by 1882, the convention was ratified and signed by President Arthur, and Barton was able to found the American Red Cross to aid war and disaster victims. At age 60, she became the organization's president and continued in this role for 23 years.2,6

During her tenure, Clara Barton and the American Red Cross began to answer the call for help during numerous natural disasters around the country, recognizing that care for large numbers of displaced and injured people was needed not just during times of war but also during times of peace. After Barton brought attention to this need, the International Red Cross adopted what became known as the American amendment, which expanded the organization's scope to include disasters in time of peace.2 During these years, she also deployed to various international disasters, and was awarded both the German Iron Cross and the Silver Cross of Imperial Russia for this assistance.6

In 1898, Barton and her Red Cross nurses deployed to Cuba to provide care during the Spanish-American War. Because the Army War Department initially rejected this assistance, it was then offered to the Cuban forces. Her nurses improved the care of the Cubans so dramatically that U.S. commanders relented and asked for her aid. After this experience from the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Medical Department created a permanent reserve corps of trained women nurses, which in 1901 became the Army Nurse Corps.7

Final works

Barton was eventually forced out of leadership at the American Red Cross, but she wasn't done yet. In the ensuing years, she started the National First Aid Association of America, which was eventually absorbed by the American Red Cross, giving the organization its longstanding mission in training the public to render emergency aid.6

During her many years of service, Barton met Susan B. Anthony and worked with the suffrage movement. She also became an activist for civil rights after becoming acquainted with Frederick Douglass and supported efforts around education and prison reform.1,6 Following many long years of work in the service of others, Clara Barton died at age 91 in 1912 in Glen Echo, Md. She is buried in North Oxford, Mass.1

“I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.”–Clara Barton8


1. Halamandaris VJ. A tribute to Clara Barton. Thoughts. Caring. 2012;31(5):48.
2. Evans GD. Clara Barton: teacher, nurse, Civil War heroine, founder of the American Red Cross. Int Hist Nurs J. 2003;7(3):75–82.
3. Adams S. Battle of Fort Sumter. Encyclopedia Britannica app. 2017.
4. Battle of Antietam.
5. Schmidt CK. One vision followed by thousands: Clara Barton turned caring into global call to action. Am J Nurs. 2004;104(8):36–37.
6. American Red Cross. Founder Clara Barton. 2017.
7. Frantz AK. Nursing pride: Clara Barton in the Spanish-American War. Am J Nurs. 1998;98(10):39–41.
8. AZ Quotes. Clara Barton quotes.
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