December 25: Clara Barton

Clara Barton (1821)

Clara Barton

It was on this date, December 25, 1821, that Clara Barton was born Clarissa Harlowe Barton in North Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the youngest of five children, who took over much of her early education. From age 17, Barton was a schoolteacher, but she hit a glass ceiling at a free school she opened and expanded in Bordentown, NJ, being passed over to run it when a man was hired instead. Barton moved to Washington DC, and worked in the U.S Patent Office, but when the American Civil War broke out, she said, “while our soldiers stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.”

Although unmarried and barely five feet tall, Barton was given permission to deliver medical supplies directly to the Union front lines. For the next two years she did this so well that a surgeon who worked with her suggested to General McClellan that she was the Angel of the Battlefield. Later, she was called the American Florence Nightingale, after the British “angel” of the Crimean War. Barton also relieved suffering during the Franco-Prussian War in Europe, and returned to introduce the Red Cross to America. Barton served as its first president and wrote a History (1882) of the organization she headed until 1904.

Like her British counterpart, Clara Barton was opposed to Christianity. Although she believed in God, she was a Rationalist throughout her life. Brought up in the Unitarian Church, the Dictionary of American Biography admits of Barton that “she … was never a Church member.” In a 1905 letter to a friend, Barton writes of her Theistic, not her Christian beliefs:

Your belief that I am a Universalist is as correct as your greater belief that you are one yourself…. I look anxiously for a time in the near future when the busy world will let me once more become a living part of its people….

Due to Barton’s efforts, the United States signed the Geneva Agreement in 1882. She also worked with Susan B. Anthony in the women’s suffrage movement. Clara Barton died on 12 April 1912, in Glen Echo, Maryland at the age of 91. She was buried in North Oxford, Massachusetts.

* Letter of 12 March 1905: Clara Barton of Glen Echo, MD, to Mrs. Norman Thrasher of Lakewood, OH.

Originally published December 2003.

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John Mill

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