In an army of volunteers, Clara Barton may be the most significant of them all. Clarissa Harlow Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821 in the bucolic town of North Oxford, Massachusetts to a family of New England abolitionists.
Barton would find her calling in nursing after her brother David sustained a serious head injury after a fall, one that Clara would closely care for him for over two years. Helping and providing relief to the sick and injured would remain a passion for her for the rest of her life. By age 15, Clara overcame extreme shyness and became a teacher, educating children as far away as Canada and Georgia.
In 1851, Clara's mother Sarah, passed away and the family farm in Oxford was put up for sale. With no further ties to her hometown, she decided to continue her education and enrolled at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York where she excelled in skills as an explicative writer.
Soon thereafter, the headstrong and proud Clara, after learning of the lack of free public education in nearby Bordentown, New Jersey, decided to help found a free school which would enroll over 600 students. Despite success as a headmaster, earning $250 per year, she would resign (and ultimately suffer a nervous breakdown) after the school board replaced her with a man feeling the job of headmaster was "unfitting for a woman".
Bitter about her experience, Clara would move to Washington where she'd take a job as a clerk in the U.S. Patent's office where she would earn the same pay as the men in the office and later she'd famously say "I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay." There she'd remain when on April 12, 1861, Confederate guns
would fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina throwing the nation into chaos.
Her location in Washington meant that the streets would soon be filled with Union wounded who would need care. After a hospital was set up in the half-completed U.S. Capitol building, Clara's passion for helping the wounded resurfaced and she felt compelled to provide food and clothing to the northern boys suffering in their strange location. She would eventually lead a campaign to gather items from the public to ease the suffering of the young soldiers.
With the war raging to a terrifying level of carnage, Clara knew her need would be best served, not in the safety of a hospital, but on the front lines on the battlefield. In 1862, she got permission to travel with the Union Army after helping tend to the wounded after the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Virginia.
On September 17, 1862, Clara Barton found herself a participant in the bloodiest day in American history at the Battle of Antietam. There, among the maelstrom, Barton helped make bandages out of cornhusks as well as working all hours tending to the wounded and assisting surgeons with their grisly tasks while shot and shell roared overhead. She stood next to a soldier as a bullet passed between her body and arm, missing Barton but killing the unfortunate soldier in her care.
Her efforts were appreciated by Union surgeon Dr. James Dunn who said of Barton "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."
After Antietam, Barton would continue to assist the war effort, tending to the wounded at such cauldrons as the Battles of Petersburg and Fredericksburg. For the soldiers, Clara was a face of hope and many asked her to relay messages back to their families at home, a task that was appreciated by President Abraham Lincoln as well. At war's end, she continued to assist soldiers' families in locating their missing sons and husbands who seemingly vanished on the battlefield.
In 1869, Clara Barton visited Europe and discovered the International Red Cross, an institution who focused on rules to help tend to the wounded in times of war. After assisting soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Barton returned home to petition President Chester A. Arthur to form the American Red Cross and adhere to the rules of dealing with war time injured as their European peers.
Today, the American National Red Cross continues its humanitarian efforts to assist those injured and in need of emergency assistance thanks to a woman from Massachusetts who would serve on 16 Civil War battlefields and make it her life's work to comfort injured and dying Union soldiers. Her efforts gained her respect from Presidents, Generals and thousands of injured boys from across the North and forever changed the view that any job was "unfitting for a woman"