The lasting legacy of Clara Barton

By: Caitlin Mclafferty

March is Women’s History Month, and for volunteers with the American Red Cross, one name stands out above all others: Clara Barton, founder.

Born in 1821, Barton began her career as an educator in 1838. She was one of the first women to gain formal employment through the government when most of her colleagues were men. After about 12 years, as the American Civil War began to escalate, she moved out of the classroom and onto the battlefield. There she helped treat injured soldiers, cook meals, distribute supplies, and provide families of missing soldiers with information about their loved ones. 

Barton developed a bond with the soldiers. She called them “her boys” and saw the positive influence her efforts had on men embroiled in a bloody war. Notably, she helped construct a national cemetery around the graves of Union soldiers who died in Georgia’s Confederate POW camp, Andersonville Prison (also known as Camp Sumter). With assistance from a soldier, Dorence Atwater, Barton helped identify and record the deaths of 13,000 men. Currently, the National Park Service maintains the Andersonville National Historic Site as well as an electronic record of the deaths Barton helped record, which anyone can access to search for records: nps.gov/civilwar/search-prisoners.htm

Barton traveled to Europe after the war, where she was introduced to the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She was also influenced by a memoir by Henry Dunant, founder of the International Red Cross network. Inspired by what she learned and bolstered by her own Civil War experiences, Barton volunteered to help the Red Cross provide relief during the Franco-Prussian War. After seeing the Red Cross help soldiers and the greater community throughout the Franco-Prussian War, Barton returned to the United States and began to encourage a series of presidents to sign the Geneva Treaty so that a Red Cross organization could be established stateside. 
Barton continued to dedicate herself to emergency assistance and international relief while developing the American Red Cross.

Despite all of her accomplishments, Barton faced criticism as she faced diminished capabilities with advancing age; she was forced to step down as president of the American Red Cross in 1904. Even after that, she began another organization to improve public safety: The National First Aid Association of America. The organization was short-lived, but the effort shows how motivated Barton was to enhance the lives of people in need of health care and relief. The American Red Cross, which is currently active in communities across the United States, would not have been so effective and powerful without her influence. Throughout her life, Barton made a difference in countless lives through her efforts with the Civil War, the American Red Cross, and the International Red Cross.

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