Though best known for founding and leading the American Red Cross in the late nineteenth century, Clara Barton contributed all of her energies to helping the Union soldiers during the Civil War—from the arrival of the first soldiers in Washington, DC, in April 1861, through the war’s aftermath and the grim task of identifying the unknown war dead.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born and raised in North Oxford, a small rural community in central Massachusetts. An active, spirited girl who loved the outdoors, she was an accomplished equestrian and sharpshooter. She spent her young adulthood teaching in Massachusetts and in Bordentown, New Jersey, where she created one of New Jersey’s first public schools. In the mid-1850s, she became the first female clerk in the U. S. Patent Office and was one of the first women civil servants in the United States.
In September 1857, she returned home to Massachusetts when she found it difficult to maintain her post in the Patent Office following a change in presidential administration. Although she busied herself with courses in French and drawing, she felt a lack of purpose in her life. Caring for a succession of ailing relatives did nothing to alleviate her sense that her life held no meaning. As a single woman with no husband or children to care for, she fulfilled her family’s expectation that she devote herself to nursing her sick relations. She discovered that the longer she dedicated herself to these duties the more depressed she became. The confinement whittled away at the self-confidence and inner strength that she had gained from teaching and working as a clerk. In a letter to a nephew, she wrote, “I must not rust