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Clara Barton

Clara Barton (December 25, 1821-April 12, 1912) was both famous and honored in her lifetimeand has a well earned place in American history as the angel of Civil War battlefields and founder of the American Red Cross. Clarissa Harlowe Barton, the fifth and youngest child of Sarah Stone and Stephen Barton, was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts. The Barton household was a stressful place for the timid and sensitive child. Because she was small and had a lisp, she was teased by members of her family. Her emotionally unbalanced mother was given to sudden fits of rage. Her older sister Dolly mothered her, but had a mental breakdown when Clara was six. After that her Sally looked out for Clara while Dolly remained locked in an upstairs room. Clara learned early to make the best of a difficult family situation, a skill she put to considerable use in her pioneering career as an army nurse. Clara was taught to read by Dolly and Sally at such an early age that she had "no knowledge of ever learning to read." Her brother Stephen taught her mathematics. Her brother David began teaching her to ride bareback when she was only five. She attended a district school during three-month winter and summer sessions. Academically advanced but emotionally immature, she was sent away to school at age eight, but was unable to stay and soon returned home. Her days of childhood play ended abruptly when a fall at a construction site rendered her brother David an invalid. Eleven-year-old Clara nursed him night and day through two years of him being bedridden. Afterwards she was anxious. She needed to be needed. Throughout her life, inactivity brought depression. For a short period of time she worked in her brother Stephans

mill but she quickly realized she could not complete the work . A phrenologist visiting the Barton house advised her parents to put Clara, in her late teens, to teaching school to overcome her shyness. Although the idea terrified her, she took on forty boys and girls at a district school. Some of the boys near her own age might have proved unmanageable, but she joined their games and impressed them with her skills. Surprised when her school won a prize for discipline, Barton said no discipline had been needed. Many job offers followed, even after she demanded and received the same pay as male teachers. She taught school for ten years. At age 30 Barton enrolled as a student at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York State. When the term ended, schoolmates Charles and Mary Norton invited her for an extended visit with their family in Hightstown, New Jersey. Soon she was teaching in the Cedarville School and later in Bordentown. There she started a free public school like those in Massachusetts, previously unknown in New Jersey. The school was so successful that a new building was constructed and additional teachers hired. A man was brought in to head the school at a salary of $600, greater by $350 than Barton's. Resentful of his dictatorial manner and his unfair salary, she left for Washington, DC. Barton worked in Washington as the first woman clerk in the Patent Office, for a salary equal to the men's. At first she found the situation "delightfully pleasant" with "no one to complain of me." After a time, however, men in the office began to harass her. While there she struggled with an overwhelming work load and then fell ill with malaria. When she recovered James Buchanan's presidential victory put an end to her job. She stayed at home and in Worcester for a while, studied French and art, and looked unsuccessfully for employment. Lincoln's election brought an offer to return to the patent office as a temporary copyist earning eight cents per 100 words, less than her earlier pay. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts agreed to help her. Barton hoped she might make way for more women in government service. Able again to see herself as helping others, she was lively and cheerful and enjoyed her work and Washington society. On April 19, 1861, a week after Fort Sumter was fired upon, the Sixth Massachusetts troops arrived in Washington in disarray, having been attacked by secessionists in Baltimore. Barton and her sister, Sally Vassall, went to the station to meet the men, some of whom Barton had taught when they were schoolboys. The city had no facilities for the soldiers. Most were housed in the Capitol building. Barton took the most seriously wounded to her sister's house and nursed them. Finding that the men's baggage had been lost in the Baltimore fracas, she rounded up clothing, food and supplies from

local merchants. "The patriot blood of my fathers was warm in my veins," she wrote of those hectic days. Troops soon arrived from upstate New York and New Jersey. Not a few recognized their former teacher. She visited the men camped in and around the city. "I don't know how long it has been since my ear has been free from the roll of a drum," she wrote her father. "It is the music I sleep by, and I love it." Barton became the recipient of supplies sent to Washington in response to letters the men wrote home. When floods of the wounded filled the city after the first battle of Manassas, she began soliciting supplies from such groups as the Worcester Ladies' Relief Committee, instructing women what to send and how best to pack it. "I will remain here while anyone remains," she wrote. "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." She returned home during her father's last illness, but was back in Washington the following summer, determined to get to the battlefield where she was most needed. She did what she could for wounded Confederate prisoners. Her first experience at the front strengthened her determination to keep on with the work. Barton arrived with her supplies and skills on battlefields from Manassas (Bull Run) to Antietam and Fredericksburg, considering herself part of the Army of the Potomac. Barton was not the only woman serving as a volunteer. She later praised the work of Mary Bickerdyke, Mary Livermore and Dorothy Dix, although she herself preferred to work alone. Clara felt her place was on the battlefield, not in Washington hospitals or supply depots. She lobbied Senator Wilson repeatedly for better supplies. The War Department permitted Barton, to accompany her brother David, quartermaster to the Eighteenth Army Corps, which was sent to attack Charleston, South Carolina. She arrived in Hilton Head in April, 1862, to find an entirely different face of the war. Housed and fed with the officers, she attended parties and dances and went horseback riding. She met there friends from earlier years and, also, Col. John H. Elwell, chief quartermaster for the region. Fellow Universalist Frances Dana Gage and her daughter Mary were at Hilton Head working with the slaves left behind when owners abandoned their plantations. Elwell and Gage became lifelong friends to Clara. From their first meeting Elwell and Barton learned that they had much in common. Gradually, chatty notes they exchanged turned into love letters. Elwell had a wife and family in Cincinnati, but he found Barton's verve and wit irresistible. She complained of feeling out of place, so far removed from

the war's battles, and talked of leaving. He pressed her to stay. She stayed. Barton helped Mary Gage with her work among the former slaves and Gage helped Barton out of her self-pity. Over the next two decades Barton needed and appreciated "letters of faith and trust" from this "capable, faithful, grand strong loving Mother." Gage's death in 1884 was a severe blow to Clara because they had become great friends over the years. In December, 1863, restless and anxious over her cooling relationship with Elwell, Barton sailed for Washington. She sank into deep depression to the point of considering suicide. Then General Grant's spring 1864 campaign began to flood the field hospitals with wounded. Supplies ran short despite the planning of the Sanitary Commission. Barton again received a pass to go to the front. Fredericksburg was full of wounded Union soldiers, suffering from want of food. She worked in hospitals there, but still longed for the battlefield. Granted a place under Gen. Benjamin Butler in a Virginia mobile field hospital, she was again in her element. After the war President Lincoln put Barton in charge of locating missing prisoners of war, a daunting task amid the bureaucratic confusion that followed war's end. She answered hundreds of the letters which poured in, giving or requesting information about the dead and missing. Frances Gage suggested that Barton tell her story to the people, and so in November, 1866, she set off on a speaking tour. Her lecture, "Work and Incidents of Army Life," was warmly received wherever she delivered it for the next two years. Dressed in black silk, her small figure commanded respect, and her musical voice stirred feelings. Her performance on the lecture circuit made her name a household one and brought her first steady income since leaving the patent office. For the next 34 years she worked steadily with the red cross working sometimes so hard that she would make herself sick and then retreating into a great depression, then in a month or so she would be fine again . By 1900 Barton had moved the Red Cross headquarters from downtown Washington to Glen Echo, Maryland. There she built a large structure on her own property for offices, storage facilities and her personal living space. Though the building lacked many comforts, she made it her home even after giving up the Red Cross presidency in 1904. In 1905 she was named honorary president of the National First Aid Association of America, a rival organization later absorbed by the Red Cross. During her last years she summered in a house she bought in North Oxford and continued to attend suffrage conventions and veterans' encampments. Her celebrity status brought with it much correspondence, some from children asking about her childhood. In response she wrote The Story of My

Childhood, published in 1907. She died of pneumonia at Glen Echo in 1912.