Clara Barton (1821-1912), Angel of the Battlefield

Profiles in Nursing

Clara Barton (1821-1912), Angel of the Battlefield

Shyness and severe depression did not hold her back

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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Although she was pathologically shy as a young girl and was plagued throughout her life by severe depression, Clara Barton grew up to become one of the most influential women of her era. A lifelong crusader for abolition, civil rights, education, prison reform and women’s suffrage, she left an impressive array of accomplishments and service, including founding the American Red Cross.   

Civil War Service

At age 15, Barton became a popular teacher, a profession that at that time was still mostly held by men. She later became one of the first women formally employed by the United States government, although her anti-slavery views made her unpopular during her on-and-off-again work at the U.S. Patent Office.

The Civil War brought Barton’s special talents into focus. She was working at the Patent Office when the first federal troops began mustering in Washington, D.C. Before long, wounded soldiers were streaming into the city searching for care. Barton sought to help by gathering and distributing clothing, food and supplies, often purchased with her own funds.

Recognizing the importance of moral support, Barton also read to soldiers, wrote letters for them, prayed with them and listened to their stories. 


Although Barton’s relief work in Washington kept her busy, it was only the beginning. At the prodding of her superiors, she secured passes to deliver supplies to field hospitals and even to the front lines, work that soon earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.”

It was a dangerous occupation. In one harrowing experience, a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress and killed the soldier she was nursing. “I could run the risk,” she wrote of her close call with death, “because it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.”

Working Nurse Clara Barton 









Barton’s organizational skills blossomed in the harsh conditions of Civil War battlefields, where surgeons had no anesthetic other than alcohol and were sometimes reduced to using corn husks as dressings. She later recalled that she had to be prepared to relocate “with a half hour’s notice in the night.”  She considered the Union Army her family, but she was committed to serving all those in need, regardless of the side on which they fought.

International Red Cross

Toward the end of the war, Barton spent much of her time writing to the families of missing soldiers. She and her assistants eventually handled 63,000 letters, identifying more than 22,000 missing men.

She did not forget the dead. Barton helped to establish a national cemetery around the graves of Union soldiers who had died in Georgia’s notorious Andersonville Prison. Working with a team of 30, she was able to identify the anonymous graves of nearly 13,000 soldiers.

Even while “resting and recuperating,” Barton was often hard at work. On one such hiatus in 1869, she came to know Henry Dunant, founder of the International Red Cross. Dunant was one of the organizers of the first Geneva Convention, an international treaty to protect the sick and wounded during times of war, which Barton later campaigned for the U.S. to ratify.

The American Amendment

After returning to the U.S., Barton established the first branch of the American Red Cross in 1881. She would serve as the organization’s president for more than 20 years.

During her tenure, the organization was largely devoted to disaster relief: first to the victims of a catastrophic forest fire in Michigan, later to flood victims in Ohio and Mississippi and the survivors of Pennsylvania’s infamous 1889 “Johnstown Flood.”

Such work contrasted with Dunant’s original focus on wartime relief, but Barton’s persistence in this expansion of the organization’s mission became known as the American Amendment to the Geneva Treaty.

Mission Accomplished

Barton had a complex personality, simultaneously anxious and inflexible, unwilling to delegate authority. She was nonetheless a gifted speaker who could, with a simple emotional presentation, rally a crowd to give time and money to help those in crisis. Today, the breadth of activities of the American Red Cross still reflects her vision.  

Photo: Clara Barton often put herself in great peril to care for  soldiers’ physical and spiritual needs. Above, she is pictured fourth from the left sitting on the step, caring for soldiers in Fredericksburg, Va.

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