Clara Barton

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Charles R.B. Claflin, Clara Barton, c. 1864, albumen print, 4 × 2 1/4 in. (10 × 5.5 cm). Chris Foard

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Clara Barton (1821–1912) is best known as the founder of the American chapter of the Red Cross, an international humanitarian organization that provides health services and disaster relief for communities in need. Established in 1881, and headquartered in Washington, DC, the American Red Cross grew out of Barton’s work during the Civil War, nursing wounded soldiers and providing emergency rations and supplies.

When the war began, Barton was employed as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in the nation’s capital, an unusual post for a woman to hold at that time. But the April 1861 ambush of soldiers from her home state of Massachusetts by Southern sympathizers in Baltimore galvanized her. When Barton witnessed the wounded being transported to a field hospital in Washington near the Capitol and the Patent Office where she worked, she offered on-the-spot assistance in tending to patients and providing emergency relief. This experience launched her nursing career.

No one anticipated the duration of the Civil War and the enormous loss of life that would result. Nearly two percent of the population died; most from sickness and disease. Both North and South lacked sufficient medical personnel, supplies, and the means to organize and dispatch these effectively. Barton recognized that immediate battlefield care saved lives; many soldiers died on the field from blood loss or from simple dehydration while waiting for medical attention. In August 1862 Barton succeeded in persuading government officials to allow her to work at the front lines just out of rifle range. Embedded with the Union army, she assisted field doctors with basic care—washing and dressing wounds, removing maggots and lice, even doing laundry and cooking—as well as surgeries and amputations, sometimes performed without anesthetic. She also spent time reading to soldiers and helped them write letters home. She offered her caring and comfort to them as they lay dying.

In the spring and summer of 1863 Barton was stationed outside of Charleston, South Carolina. She visited the camp of the First South Carolina Volunteers, composed largely of men fleeing slavery. Barton visited their field hospital where she met the fourteen-year-old laundress, nurse, and teacher Susie King, who was married to a non-commissioned officer in the regiment. On July 18, 1963, the wounded soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts poured into the field hospital after the ill-fated attempt to take Fort Wagner from Confederate forces

After the war Barton launched an effort to track formerly enlisted men. During its four-year operation, her “Missing Soldiers Office” responded to more than 63,000 letters and identified the whereabouts or fate of over 22,000 men. The small rooms Barton rented to live in and store emergency supplies during wartime served as the headquarters. Located at 437 ½ Seventh St., NW, in downtown Washington, DC, the site will reopen in the spring of 2014 as a museum and tribute to Barton’s life of service.