“You must never so much think as whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.”


So said the American nurse and humanitarian Clara Barton, and these were not just empty words. She dedicated her life to seeking out and meeting the needs of those before her, from bringing much-needed medical supplies to the frontlines of the American Civil War to being founder and first president of the American Red Cross.

Who was Clara Barton?

Clarissa Harlowe Barton’s self-taught nursing education began at a young age. Born on Christmas Day 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, her first patient, when she was 11 years old, was her older brother after he fell off a barn roof and sustained a serious head injury. For nearly two years, she could always be found at David’s bedside as he slowly recovered, applying leeches as prescribed by the local doctor and giving him medicine.

I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing. But if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay
Clara Barton

Battling through her own crippling shyness too, Barton took up teaching while still in her teens and by her early 30s had established her own free school in New Jersey. Within a year, it grew from a handful of children to more than 600 students under her direction. However, when the school board decided that managing such a large institution was unsuitable for a woman and hired a man to act as the school’s principal, she resigned.

“I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing,” she once remarked, “but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.” She moved to Washington, DC, and found a position as a clerk at the Patent Office, where it’s believed she did earn the same salary as her male colleagues. However, it wasn’t to last; hearsay spread by her male co-workers caused her to be demoted.

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What did Clara Barton do in the American Civil War?

In 1861, the American Civil War broke out and the sight of wounded soldiers arriving in the nation’s capital inspired Barton to begin collecting and organising supplies, and later to commit herself to nursing. Dozens of men came under her watchful care, some of whom she recognised as former students from her teaching days. She threw herself into both the practical administration – gathering and storing medicines or recovering luggage – and the emotional care of nursing, spending hours reading to the soldiers, praying with them and writing their letters.

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Barton quickly reached the conclusion that she could do the most good where the fighting was actually happening, and so secured permission to head to the frontlines with the Union Army. Bringing wagons laden with medicines and supplies, she became a regular presence at some of the bloodiest battles in the war, including Antietam.

Putting her life at risk, she tirelessly nursed the wounded and sick of both sides and searched for the missing. One time, a bullet ripped through her sleeve and hit the man she was nursing. She noted in her journal: “There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest.”

Why was Clara Barton the ‘angel of the battlefield’

Barton was beloved by soldiers and admired by politicians, capable of building large stores of supplies through donations or, occasionally, paying for them herself. One surgeon, Dr James Dunn, was glowing in his praise of her efforts, bestowing upon her the now-famous nickname when he wrote: “In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance, beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”

In 1864, Barton was made superintendent of nurses for the Union’s Army of the James, and her work did not end with the cessation of hostilities the following year. With the backing of President Abraham Lincoln himself, she set up the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States to coordinate the search for soldiers who had gone missing, mostly buried in mass graves, and informing their families. In the end, her team identified some 22,000 men.

Clara Barton talks with soldiers
Clara Barton entering Strasbourg with the German Army during the Franco-Prussian War (Photo by Getty Images)

If she believed her time at war was over, however, she would be mistaken. While recuperating in Europe, the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870 and she immediately set to work again distributing supplies and establishing hospitals. This brought her into contact with the International Red Cross, formed in 1863, and she eventually returned to her homeland eager for a similar organisation to be created in the US.

It took a few years, but by 1881 she had established the American Association of the Red Cross and served as its first president, a role she held until 1904. As well as concerning the treatment of the wounded and sick from war, she drove efforts in disaster relief, including the Johnstone Flood of 1889, tidal waves, epidemics and famines – and not only in the US, but Russia and the Ottoman empire too.

How did Clara Barton die?

Barton kept working as she approached 80, setting up an orphanage in the aftermath of the Galveston hurricane of 1900 and travelling to Cuba to care for those caught up in the Spanish-American War.

But she ruled the American Red Cross with a fierce drive that came to be criticised as authoritarian, so she was finally forced to resign. Even then, she went on to create the National First Aid Society, and remained a strong supporter of educational reform, civil rights and women’s suffrage.

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On 12 April 1912, the anniversary of the first battle in the American Civil War, Clara Barton died of pneumonia at the age of 90 at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland. She had suffered from bouts of depression during her life, but always seemed to recover with each humanitarian cause that arose. To paraphrase her own words, Barton thought of nothing but the needs, and she met them all.


Jonny Wilkes
Jonny WilkesFreelance writer

Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.