Clara Barton: An Angel of the Battlefield

Clara Barton: An Angel of the Civil War Battlefield

Clara Barton founded the Red Cross in 1881.

Clara Barton was born on December 25, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts. She became a teacher, worked in the U.S. Patent Office and was an independent nurse during the Civil War. As a result of her war experiences, she founded the American Red Cross in 1881, and became its first president.

Clara Barton –the young nurse.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War, she independently organized relief for the wounded, often bringing her own supplies to the front lines. Her service to country began on April 19, 1861 when the Baltimore Riot, a civil protest between antiwar” Copperheads” Democrats, as well as Southern/Confederate sympathizers clashed in a violent, hostile action with the Massachusetts Militia. It produced the first death by hostile action in the American Civil War. The injured victims of the militia were transported to Washington D.C. after the violence, which happened to be Clara Barton’s home at the time. Barton went to the railroad station when the victims arrived and nursed about 40 men.
It was on that day that she identified herself with army work and began her efforts towards collecting medical supplies for the Union soldiers. In 1864, during one of her more harrowing experiences there was an incident in which a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress without striking her and killed a man to whom she was tending in her arms. She was named, an “Angel of the Battlefield” by her supporters. She served troops at the battles of Fairfax Station, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Charleston, Petersburg, and Cold Harbor.


Composite photo courtesy of the author

Matthew Brady photographed Colonel John Elwell and Clara Barton in Washington D.C. U.S. Army hospital in background.



In 1863, she began a romantic relationship with an officer, Colonel John J. Elwell. Union Brevet Brigadier General Elwell was a physician and an attorney. He met Clara Barton in Charleston, South Carolina in 1863, and they became inseparable companions, although he was a married man. For years and years after the war, Barton kept his photo on her desk for the rest of her life. Elwell wrote in a letter some years after the war: “I loved you to the extent that the law allowed… and perhaps a little more.”

Clara Barton age 76 in 1897

Clara Barton achieved widespread recognition for founding the American Red Cross, the Office of Missing Soldiers, and the First Aid Society. She continued to live in her Glen, Echo, Maryland home which served as the Red Cross Headquarters.

Barton published her autobiography in 1907, titled: The Story of My Childhood. On April 12, 1912, at the age of 92, she died at her home from tuberculosis.

Clara never married,she chose independence and medical work to the more common  domestic life.  Her calling to the aid of injured soldiers created the  profession of nursing and a new career path  for women.


Leave a Reply