Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on December 25, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts. When Clara was eleven, her brother David fell from a rafter in their unfinished barn. Clara stayed at his side for three years and learned to administer all his medicines, including the “great, loathsome crawling leeches”.
Barton tended to wounded Massachusetts soldiers quartered in the U.S. Senate chamber in Washington. Then after the First Battle of Bull Run, July 21, Barton established the main agency to obtain and distribute supplies to wounded soldiers. She was given a pass by General William Hammond to ride in army ambulances to provide comfort to the soldiers and nurse them back to health. She lobbied the U.S. Army bureaucracy, at first without success, to bring her own medical supplies to the battlefields. Finally, on August 3, 1862, she obtained permission to travel to the front lines, eventually reaching some of the grimmest battlefields of the war and serving during the Siege of Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. In 1864 she was appointed by Union General Benjamin Butler as the “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James.
In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln placed Clara in charge of the search for the missing men of the Union Army.
Barton achieved widespread recognition by delivering lectures around the country about her war experiences. She met Susan B. Anthony and began a long association with the woman’s suffrage movement. She also met Frederick Douglass and became an activist for black civil rights. In 1869, during her trip to Geneva, Switzerland, Barton was introduced to the Red Cross and Henry Dunant’s book A Memory of Solferino, which called for the formation of national societies to provide relief voluntarily on a neutral basis.
When Clara Barton returned to the United States, she inaugurated a movement to gain recognition for the International Committee of the Red Cross by the United States government. When she began work on this project in 1873, most Americans thought the U.S. would never again face a calamity like the Civil War, but Barton finally succeeded during the administration of President Chester Arthur, using the argument that the new American Red Cross could respond to crises other than war.
Barton became President of the American branch of the society, which was founded on May 21, 1881 in Dansville, N.Y.
Other facts about the American Red Cross:
- In September 1881, the American Red Cross responded to its first disaster relief by providing aid to victims of forest fires in Michigan.
- Each year the organization collects nearly 6.3 million units of blood from roughly 3.7 million volunteer donors.
- In 1913- President Woodrow Wilson was named the first honorary president of the American Red Cross, establishing a precedent for all chief executives who have followed.
- Frances Reed Elliott became the first African-American in the Red Cross Nursing Service in 1918.
- Today, nearly 10 million people a year receive Red Cross training in first aid, water safety, and other skills.
- The organization responds to nearly 200 neighborhood emergencies each day.
- 110 years after its founding, Elizabeth Dole became the first woman president of the Red Cross since Clara Barton.
- The American Red Cross has provided urgent assistance to more than 3.9 million people affected by international disasters.
- Today- the American Red Cross is offering assistance to the Japanese Red Cross following the 8.9 magnitude earthquake and resulting Pacific tsunami that left towns and villages in Japan devastated.