Clara Barton, a fearless humanitarian who helped revolutionize battlefield medicine, is celebrated for her lifelong dedication to helping others. She was a teacher, nurse, abolitionist and women’s rights activist. And even though more than 200 years have passed since her birth on Christmas Day 1821, she remains one of the most honored women in American history.
When Barton died in 1912 at the age of 91, the New York Times wrote: “She was a woman of remarkable executive skill, boundless enthusiasm, inspired by human ideas…. His name has become a household word, associated in the public mind with kindness and mercy.
Discover 7 extraordinary facts about this remarkable woman.
1. She was terribly shy.
Barton was so shy as a child that his mother consulted LN Fowler, a renowned phrenologist, to examine his skull and give him advice. He recommended Clara to teach, a career that employed relatively few women at the time. Unfazed, Barton listened and became a teacher in her hometown of North Oxford, Massachusetts, at the age of 17. She encouraged her students without harsh discipline and was praised for it.
“As a child, I did not know that the surest test of discipline is its absence,” she later wrote. “His compassion for others and his willingness to help them always outweighed his shyness,” said David Price, executive director of the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum in Washington, DC.
2. She opened one of the first free public schools in New Jersey.
While visiting a friend in Bordentown, New Jersey, in 1852, Barton found many poor school-aged boys on the streets. Determined to help them, she obtained permission to found a free public school, the first in Bordentown. By the end of the year, the school had grown from six students to several hundred. But when the school proved successful, the board hired a male headmaster to run it at double Barton’s salary. Barton left in protest.
She said later, “I can sometimes agree to teach for nothing, but if I get paid at all, I will never do a man’s job for less than a man’s salary.”
3. As one of the first women to work for the federal government, she fought for equal pay.
Barton moved to Washington, DC, in 1854, and became a copyist for the United States Patent Office. Within a year, she was promoted to clerk, making her the first woman to receive a government appointment. She successfully lobbied to earn the same $1,400 salary as her male peers, many of whom resented women in the workplace. His increase did not last long. A new boss demoted her to copyist, earning 10 cents for 100 words.
4. Her work as a Civil War nurse and relief worker began with the Baltimore riot.
On April 19, 1861, just weeks after the outbreak of the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers attacked Massachusetts soldiers traveling through Baltimore, Maryland, killing four people. The injured were taken to the unfinished United States Capitol building, near where Barton worked at the United States Patent Office.
Barton rushed to help the injured and was shocked to find some of the men were her former students. “They were loyal to me in their childhood and in their manhood loyal to their country,” she said.
She quickly gathered food, medicine and clothing from her own home and helped take care of it. This was the start of Barton’s Civil War nursing career, earning her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield”.
5. Barton was nearly killed at the Battle of Antietam.
As Barton cradled the head of a wounded soldier at Antietam, a bullet passed through the sleeve of his robe and entered his patient.
“A bullet passed between my body and the right arm supporting it, crossing his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was nothing more for him to do and I let him rest,” Barton wrote. “I never fixed that hole in my sleeve.”
6. She founded the Office of Missing Soldiers.
At the end of the civil war, tens of thousands of men were missing. With Lincoln’s approval, Barton founded the Missing Soldiers Office to help families locate their loved ones. Of the 63,000 requests she and her small team received, they located 22,000 men, some of whom were still alive.
Barton was a woman who lived by her words: “You must never think of anything but the need and how to meet it.
7. Barton’s work convinced the International Red Cross to expand its role to include peacetime disaster relief.
After witnessing and joining International Red Cross efforts in Europe to aid war victims, Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881. It led several relief efforts, including those for the river floods Mississippi and the Ohio River. His innovative work has not only helped many Americans. He convinced the International Red Cross to expand its mission to include helping people affected by natural disasters.
Price said, “The only reason we have a Red Cross today that responds to natural disasters and emergencies is because of this lady and her determination to help her fellow man.”
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