Leaders of the American Civil War: A Biographical and Historiographical Dictionary

By Charles F. Ritter; Jon L. Wakelyn | Go to book overview

CLARA BARTON (December 25, 1821–April 13, 1912)

Charles F. Ritter

Clara Barton was working as a copyist in the U.S. Patent Office when the Civil War began. Like many women in 1861, she responded quickly to the need for care of the wounded troops who flooded into Washington City, but Barton soon emerged not only as a caregiver but as a one-woman distribution center of medical and other supplies to the tragically underequipped hospitals. Defying all convention and considerable official disapproval, Barton was soon close to the field of battle, bringing her nurturing and her supply wagons to the wounded. Because of her riveted focus on succoring the wounded and dying in total disregard for her own welfare, Barton built a reputation as “the Angel of the Battlefield.” Capitalizing on that reputation and the skills she derived from her experiences, Barton went on to a forty-year career spearheading the American Red Cross and leading various relief operations. Her reputation for bravery and humanitarianism was such that U.S. Senator George F. Hoar was moved to proclaim, “Clara Barton, where will you find the man to equal her?” (BaconFoster, 1).

Born in North Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day in 1821, Clarissa Hartowe Barton was named after an aunt who herself had been named for Samuel Richardson’s unfortunate romantic heroine. Barton was the fifth and youngest child by ten years of Stephen Barton, Jr., and Sara (Stone) Barton, who was thirteen years her husband’s junior. Stephen Barton farmed in Oxford, led the town militia, and served in various town offices. He was a veteran of the Indian wars and served for three years with Anthony Wayne, an experience that became a touchstone of his life and, through him, his daughter Clara’s, whose head he filled with stories of the glories of combat. Sara Stone Barton, a hard-working, erratic woman given to fits of temper and profanity, left Clara’s upbringing to her siblings, leading Clara to say later in life that she had six parents.

Barton was educated in North Oxford schools, and at age eleven, she began a two-year period nursing her brother David who was injured in a fall. Com-

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