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Famous Women: An Interview with Professor Donald Elder-Clara Barton

Sep 25, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Professor Elder, as we continue to honor famous American women, the name Clara Barton (1821-1912) comes to mind. Where was she born, and what were her early years and educational experiences like?

Clara Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Two things about her childhood seem in retrospect to have pointed her in the direction that she would go during the American Civil War. First, her father had served in the American Army during the 1790s, fighting under General Anthony Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

According to all accounts, he instilled in his daughter a sense of patriotism and civic duty. And second, she demonstrated an aptitude for nursing. This came about due to an accident that her brother suffered in 1831. In her autobiography, Barton revealed that her brother had fallen while working on the roof of the family barn, injuring himself severely. Although only 10 at the time, Barton immediately took on the task of helping doctors treat her brother.

Readers today would undoubtedly cringe when they find that her care involved applying leeches to her brother’s skin, but because doctors embraced the practice of therapeutic bleeding at that time she followed their orders. The doctors taking care of him soon decided that he could never regain full strength, and removed themselves from his case.

Barton, however, continued to tend to her brother, and he eventually made a full recovery. Thirty years would pass before Barton once again tended to an injured person, but the incident with her brother demonstrated qualities that would serve her well as a nurse during the Civil War.

2. During the Civil War she tended to many wounded soldiers. What do we know about her time during the Civil War?

Clara Barton serves as proof of the adage “right place—right time.” At the age of 17, she had found employment as a teacher in Massachusetts, and remained in that occupation for 17 years. When she turned 34, she became a clerk in the US Patent Office. Unfortunately, she received a demotion less than two years later. Barton always felt this happened because she had supported the Republican Party in the presidential election in 1856. A year later, the Patent Office fired her.

She moved back in with her parents, but after the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 Barton once again found employment with the Patent Office. That hiring put her in Washington DC as the Civil War began in April of 1861. After President Lincoln called upon the states to furnish volunteers to put down the rebellion, a Massachusetts regiment had made its way to Washington DC by rail.

Along the way, a mob in Baltimore attacked those soldiers, and wounded 40 of them. When they arrived in Washington DC, Barton took bandages to those soldiers and helped bind up their wounds. Three months later, the Battle of Bull Run took place, and the Union Army brought those wounded in that engagement to Washington DC for treatment. Unfortunately, the military did not have a medical corps capable of handling the large number of casualties, so many of the wounded found themselves simply placed on the floor of public buildings. Barton once again sprang into action, tending to the neglected casualties.

From that point on, Barton devoted her time and efforts to helping wounded soldiers. She became so effective at this that a Union general put her in charge of the hospital that tended to his wounded. By the end of the Civil War, then, Clara Barton had established herself as the best known American woman associate with the medical field.

3. One major contribution is she founded the American Red Cross. What were the events surrounding this and how did this come about?

Barton continued to work on behalf of wounded soldiers even after the Civil War ended, finally ceasing her efforts in 1868. Feeling physically and emotionally drained, she took a trip to Europe to recuperate. In Switzerland, she met a doctor named Louis Appia, who had helped organized an association that became known as the International Committee of the Red Cross. Recognizing the potential good that this organization could do, she returned to the United States and began an effort to create an American chapter.

Although American politicians saw the merits of an organization dedicated to providing medical help for those in need, they rebuffed her at first. Finally, when Chester Arthur became president after the assassination of James Garfield in 1881, he gave Barton her blessing. With this backing, she succeeded in creating the American Red Cross later that year. Fittingly, she became the first president of that organization. She would remain in that position until 1904.

4. What were her later contributions, and how did she spend her twilight years?

Although already 60 years old when the American Red Cross came into existence, Barton threw herself into her organization’s work. From floods to droughts, wherever a disaster occurred, Barton journeyed there to help. Amazingly, when the United States went to war with Spain in 1898, Barton went to Cuba to tend to the wounded and refugees at the age of 77. In her honor, the citizens of Santiago, Cuba put up a statue in her honor. It still stands there today, an appropriate reminder of the lifetime of service provided by Clara Barton.

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