Clara Barton: Professional Angel

Clara Barton: Professional Angel

Clara Barton: Professional Angel

Clara Barton: Professional Angel


Widely known today as the "Angel of the Battlefield," Clara Barton's personal life has always been shrouded in mystery. In Clara Barton, Professional Angel, Elizabeth Brown Pryor presents a biography of Barton that strips away the heroic exterior and reveals a complex and often trying woman.

Based on the papers Clara Barton carefully saved over her lifetime, this biography is the first one to draw on these recorded thoughts. Besides her own voluminous correspondence, it reflects the letters and reminiscences of lovers, a grandniece who probed her aunt's venerable facade, and doctors who treated her nervous disorders. She emerges as a vividly human figure. Continually struggling to cope with her insecure family background and a society that offered much less than she had to give, she chose achievement as the vehicle for gaining the love and recognition that frequently eluded her during her long life.

Not always altruistic, her accomplishments were nonetheless extraordinary. On the battlefields of the Civil War, in securing American participation in the International Red Cross, in promoting peacetime disaster relief, and in fighting for women's rights, Clara Barton made an unparalleled contribution to American social progress. Yet the true measure of her life must be made from this perspective: she dared to offend a society whose acceptance she treasured, and she put all of her energy into patching up the lives of those around her when her own was rent and frayed.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor is an American diplomat and historian, most recently as senior advisor to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe of the U.S. Congress. Her book Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters was awarded the Lincoln Prize for 2008.


Among the handful of heroines in America, Clara Barton has stood foremost in the field of philanthropy for more than a century. Small girls are taught to revere her early contributions to the field of nursing; her bravery on the battlefields of the Civil War has taken on the quality of legend; the whole nation is indebted to her for the establishment of the American Red Cross. Lesser known, but of equal importance, are her achievements as a feminist, her role as the first female American diplomat, and her notable successes in the fields of education, foreign aid, and black rights. She participated in an astonishing number of the nineteenth century’s major events and was a personal friend of figures as varied as Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Butler, and Kaiser Wilhelm.

Yet in a curious way Barton’s splendid achievements seem to have obscured her intriguing and complex personality. Whereas all know of her courage, most would be surprised that she could “remember nothing but fear” about her childhood. For every characteristic that gave force to Barton’s crusades there seemed to be a weak link that prevented her attaining personal happiness. What is found, in short, is a personality often at odds with itself. The qualities of courage, empathy, and determination so often ascribed to the beloved heroine undoubtedly existed, but just as evident were a merciless driving force, a shattering insecurity, a demanding and erratic ego. For when Barton wrote that her work had been accomplished “against the fearful odds,” she did not refer solely to the difficulties of pursuing a career in the male-dominated Victorian world. She was speaking of the many battles waged internally; the long fight against crippling depression and fear of insanity that grew out of her need to excel, and her belief that she had never done enough to secure a place in the world. It is an understanding of this darker side of Barton’s nature that makes the story of her accomplishments so poignant, and so very interesting.

“I have lived my life, well and ill,” Clara Barton wrote a few years before her . . .

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