Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on 25 December, 1821 in Oxford Massachusetts, USA and died on 12 April, 1912. Clara Barton was a pioneer American teacher, nurse, and humanitarian. Clara Barton has been described as having a “strong and independent spirit” and is best remembered for organising the American Red Cross.
Clara Barton was born to Stephen and Sarah Barton. Clara Barton was the youngest of 5children. Clara Barton’s father and mother were abolitionists. Clara Barton’s father was a farmer and horse breeder, while her mother Sarah managed the household. The 2 later helped found the 1st Universalist Church in Oxford.
Clara Barton had 2 brothers, Stephen and David. Young Clara was educated at home and extremely bright. It is said that her siblings were kept busy answering her many questions, and each taught her complementary skills. Clara Barton’s brothers were happy to teach her how to ride horses and do other things that, at the time, were thought appropriate only for men.
When Clara Barton was 11, her brother David became her 1st patient after he fell from a rafter in their unfinished barn. Clara Barton stayed by his side for 2 years and learned to administer all his medicines, including the “great, loathsome crawling leeches”.
As she continued to develop an interest in nursing, Clara Barton may have drawn inspiration from stories of her great-aunt, Martha Ballard, who served the town of Hallowell (later Augusta), Maine, as a midwife for over 3 decades. Ballard helped deliver nearly 1000 infants between 1777 and 1812, and in many cases administered medical care in much the same way as a formally trained doctor of her era.
On his death bed, Clara Barton’s father gave her advice that she would later recall:
“As a patriot, he had me serve my country with all I had, even with my life if need be; as the daughter of an accepted Mason, he had me seek and comfort the afflicted everywhere, and as a Christian he charged me to honour God and love mankind.”
In April 1862, after the First Battle of Bull Run, Clara Barton established an agency to obtain and distribute supplies to wounded soldiers. Clara Barton was given a pass by General William Hammond to ride in army ambulances to provide comfort to the soldiers and nurse them back to health and lobbied the U.S. Army bureaucracy, at first without success, to bring her own medical supplies to the battlefields. Finally, in July 1862, she obtained permission to travel behind the lines, eventually reaching some of the grimmest battlefields of the war and serving during the sieges of Petersburg, Virginia and Richmond, Virginia. In 1864 she was appointed by Union general Benjamin Butler as the “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln placed Clara Barton in charge of the search for the missing men of the Union Army. Around this time, a young soldier named Dorence Atwater came to her door. Dorence Atwater had copied the list of the dead without being discovered by the Andersonville officials, and taken it with him through the lines when he was released from the prison. Having been afraid that the names of the dead would never get to the families, it was his intention to publish the list. Dorence Atwater did accomplish this. Dorence Atwater’s list of nearly 13,000 men was considered invaluable. When the war ended, Clara Barton and Dorence Atwater were sent to Andersonville with 42 headboard carvers, and Clara Barton gave credit to young Dorence Atwater for what came to be known as “The Atwater List” in her report of the venture. Dorence Atwater also has a report at the beginning of this list, still available through Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia. Because of the work they did, they became known as the “Angels of Andersonville,” according to a biography of Clara Barton. Clara Barton’s work in Andersonville is displayed in the book, Numbering All the Bones, by Ann Rinaldi. This experience launched her on a nationwide campaign to identify all soldiers missing during the Civil War. Clara Barton published lists of names in newspapers and exchanged letters with soldiers’ families.
Clara Barton then achieved widespread recognition by delivering lectures around the country about her war experiences. Clara Barton met Susan B. Anthony and began a long association with the suffrage movement. Clara Barton also became acquainted with Frederick Douglass and became an activist for black civil rights, or an abolitionist.
The years of toil during the Civil War and her dedicated work searching for missing soldiers debilitated Clara Barton’s health. In 1869, her doctors recommended a restful trip to Europe. In 1870, while she was overseas, she became involved with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its humanitarian work during the Franco-Prussian War. Created in 1864, the ICRC had been chartered to provide humane services to all victims of war under a flag of neutrality.
When Clara Barton returned to the United States, she inaugurated a movement to gain recognition for the International Committee of the Red Cross by the United States government. When she began work on this project in 1873, most Americans thought the U.S. would never again face a calamity like the Civil War, but Clara Barton finally succeeded during the administration of President James Garfield, using the argument that the new American Red Cross could respond to crises other than war. As Clara Barton expanded the original concept of the Red Cross to include assisting in any great national disaster, this service brought the United States the “Good Samaritan of Nations” label.
Clara Barton naturally became President of the American branch of the society, which was founded on 21 May, 1881 in Dansville, NY.(www.redcrossclara.com) John D. Rockefeller donated funds to create a national headquarters in Washington, DC, located one block from the White House.
Clara Barton at first dedicated the American Red Cross to performing disaster relief, such as after the 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane. This changed with the advent of the Spanish-American War during which it aided refugees and prisoners of war. In 1896, responding to the humanitarian crisis in the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the Hamidian Massacres, Clara Barton sailed to Constantinople and after long negotiations with Abdul Hamid II, opened the 1st American International Red Cross headquarters in the heart of Asia Minor. Clara Barton herself traveled along with 5other Red Cross expeditions to the Armenian provinces in the spring of 1896. Clara Barton also worked in hospitals in Cuba in 1898 at the age of 77. As criticism arose of her management of the American Red Cross, plus her advancing age, Clara Barton resigned as president in 1904, at the age of 83.
Various authorities have called Clara Barton a “Deist-Unitarian.” However, her actual beliefs varied throughout her life along a spectrum between freethought and deism. In a 1905 letter to her friend, Norman Thrasher, she called herself a “Universalist.”
Clara Barton Birthplace Museum in North Oxford, Massachusetts is operated as part of the Barton Center for Diabetes Education, a humanitarian project established in her honour to educate and support children with diabetes and their families.
In 1975, Clara Barton National Historic Site was established as a unit of the National Park Service at Clara Barton’s Glen Echo, Maryland home, where she spent the last 15 years of her life. One of the first National Historic Sites dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman, it preserves the early history of the American Red Cross, since the home also served as an early headquarters of the organization.
The National Park Service has restored 11 rooms, including the Red Cross offices, the parlours and Clara Barton’s bedroom. Visitors to Clara Barton National Historic Site can gain a sense of how Clara Barton lived and worked. Guides lead tourists through the 3 levels, emphasizing Clara Barton’s use of her unusual home. Modern visitors can come to appreciate the site in the same way visitors did in Clara Barton’s lifetime.
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