Clara Barton: The Legacy of the American Red Cross

On a cold Christmas day in 1821, Clara Barton was born. The founder of the American Red Cross, so dedicated in her work, serves as an example of what the Red Cross should continue to strive towards today. Her legacy of self-sacrifice, problem-solving, and ability to think on her feet are all attributes Red Crossers possess. Barton’s life is an example of determination and hope. It establishes the qualities that attract volunteers into the organization today and is a great example of what legacies the organization is built on.

Wanting to help others from the beginning, Barton started her career as a teacher at the age of seventeen. She would eventually move on to teach the first “free public school” classroom in Bordentown, New Jersey. The school grew to over 200 students quickly. Bordentown citizens were so impressed with the success of the school they decided to fund and commission an even bigger schoolhouse. However, when Clara learned she would not be the principal of the school she founded, rather, the town was replacing her with a man, at a much higher pay rate, she resigned.

Barton then moved on to work at the US Patent Office in Washington D.C. where she became one of the first women to become a full-time employee of the federal government. Clara worked there until her boss who was supportive of women working and making the same wages as men, moved jobs. She was then demoted to a copyist, and in 1857 when James Buchanan was voted into the presidency, fired. She returned to her home until 1861 when Abraham Lincoln took office. She then came back to Washington D.C. and the patent office.

In 1861, when the civil war started, Clara Barton was still in Washington D.C. When news of the Baltimore riots and the 24 injured soldiers reached her she rushed to the train station to meet the wounded men. When the train arrived, she saw some of the injured were old students and friends from Massachusetts. This event jump-started her humanitarian war efforts. She was quick to notice these wounded soldiers had nowhere to stay and little to no supplies.

Clara pulled from her personal funds to get supplies for the men and also asked friends from Washington, as well as friends and family back home, to support her efforts. She eventually amassed enough supplies to fill three warehouses. However, three warehouses wouldn’t do much good to men on the front lines if they couldn’t get to them. So, Clara started lobbying to be allowed to bring these supplies and medical aid to the front lines.

Not only would Clara visit field hospitals to aid the men and bring them supplies, but she would also help on the actual battlefields themselves. She was quickly nicknamed “the angel of the battlefield” appearing as a saving grace to those wounded and left untended without supplies. Not satisfied to stop working after the war was over Clara established the “Missing Soldiers Office”. She worked tirelessly in her Washington D.C. boarding house to compile the names of men missing and deceased from the war. Many families were able to learn about the final resting places for their sons, husbands, and brothers due to Barton’s diligent work.

After all this hard work, Barton’s doctor recommended she go to Europe to rest and recover. However, ever the go-getter, Clara could not sit still for long. She ended up meeting with officials from the “International Red Cross” and volunteering to help bring supplies to those in need during the Franco-Prussian War.

Upon her return to America following her “restful” European vacation, Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881. She also advocated for the ratification of the Geneva Convention. Clara established that the American Red Cross would not only serve as an aid during war times but also during natural disasters. For the rest of her life, Clara worked resolutely to help others. She responded to several natural disasters and answered the call outside of the United States as well. Clara Barton died at the age of ninety, having dedicated her life to one of service.

Clara Barton’s values, determination, and mission are reflected in the volunteers of the Red Cross even today. From those who serve on the front lines during a pandemic to those willing to give blood, and those there to respond to an emergency in our own community’s day and night. Her vision and compassion are shared by everyone who has the heart to pick up where she left off and serve with the American Red Cross. Through her example, we can begin to learn to put aside our differences and work together to help those in need.


“Clara Barton Biography.” Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum,

“Clara’s Life.” Clara Barton Birthplace Museum,

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