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Founder of the American Red Cross

Clara Barton

American Red Cross Founder
Civil War

The suffering of wounded and sick soldiers moved Clarissa Harlowe Barton, who later became famous as Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, to become involved in war relief work. At the start of the war, Barton was a 39-year-old spinster, one of a small number of women working full time as a copyist in the US Patent Office in Washington, DC. When Barton learned that in many cases the wounded suffered because military hospitals were short of supplies, she used her own money to purchase pickled vegetables and homemade jellies to supplement the standard military diet of hardtack and salt pork. She also collected bandages, salves, medicine, bed sheets and even tobacco and whisky to help boost the soldiers’ morale.

Because it wasn’t proper for a single lady to visit Army camps and hospitals unescorted, Clara took her 50-year-old married sister, Sally Vassall, with her on her visits to local military hospitals. But Clara wanted to do more; she wanted to nurse soldiers who fell on the battlefields. For months, however, her fear that she would shame her family prevented her from trying to get to the front. Finally, Clara’s 80-year old father, a veteran of the War of 1812, freed his daughter of her worries. On his deathbed, he instructed her to go and do what she could to help the wounded. “The soldiers will know you are a decent woman as soon as they lay eyes on you,” he said.

Next, Clara had to find an Army sponsor, an officer willing to sign the military passes she would need to travel to the battlefield. Persistently, she visited numerous officers until she finally spoke with COL Daniel H. Rucker, head of the Quartermaster Depot in Washington, DC. When Clara told him that she had collected “three warehouses of supplies,” Rucker wrote her a pass allowing her to take the supplies she had collected to the front at Fredericksburg, VA. She reached Fredericksburg after the battle, but was able to assuage much suffering by passing out food, medicine and bedding supplies. After that, Barton never again had trouble getting a military pass.

During the Battle of Antietam, Barton worked in a surgery ward set up in a farmhouse close to the front lines. The farmhouse was under fire much of the time. Confederate shells burst overhead, crashed into the surrounding trees and exploded in the nearby barn and outbuildings. Stray bullets peppered the walls of the farmhouse. One of these bullets ripped through the sleeve of Barton’s dress. The farmhouse floor shook so much that the operating tables jarred and rolled while Barton and the doctor struggled to keep their patients on them. Barton’s first battle did nothing to discourage her; she continued to nurse at the battles of Marye’s Heights, the Wilderness Campaign, Hilton Head and Battery Wagner. After the war, Clara Barton worked to establish the American wing of the International Red Cross.

The information found in this article comes from “A Women of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War” by Stephen B. Oates published in New York, by The Free Press in 1994.