It was August 1861. Poorly equipped surgeons were running out of dressings to bandage the wounds of pain-wracked soldiers until a slightly built woman, 5 feet tall and weighing about 90 pounds, appeared at the field hospital at midnight, leading a four-mule team loaded with fresh supplies.
James Dunn, M.D., a Pennsylvania surgeon, wrote to his wife about the dark-haired woman, then 39. “If heaven ever sent out a homely angel, she must be one; her assistance was so timely.”
Thereafter, Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross in 1881, was known as the “angel of the battlefield.”
Ms. Barton was a true pioneer, but her trailblazing covered more than healthcare. She began teaching school at a time when most teachers were men. She won the right to have a desk job in an office of the federal government in Washington. Previously, women had been required to carry their work home. She won passage to the battlefield to deliver supplies and nurse her “soldier boys.”
A New Englander, she was indoctrinated with the Puritan ethic of hard work and thoroughness at an early age. Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton in New Oxford, Mass., on Christmas Day 1821, she was the last of five children of Stephen and Sarah Barton.
She was never trained formally as a nurse. Her first experience occurred at age 11, when she was charged with the care of her brother David, who had been seriously hurt in an accident. She scarcely left his side for two years.
Ms. Barton went to Washington in 1854, her health strained by 15 years of rural New England teaching. She was working as a clerk/copyist in the U.S. Patent Office when she volunteered for service at the outbreak of the Civil War.
Almost immediately she ministered to the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment when it arrived in Washington, ragged and bloody from a battle near Baltimore.
Soon she was supplying Union troops with clothing, food, bandages, tobacco and wine solicited from as far as New England and as near as her own neighborhood.
Her battlefield nursing duties involved tending captured Confederate soldiers. She struggled to improve the inadequate medical services that plagued both armies throughout the war.
An inclination to take charge was natural for Ms. Barton, said Patrick F. Gilbo, a Red Cross historian. Ms. Barton's father, who had served under “Mad Anthony” Wayne in 1794 during the Indian wars, filled her head with tales of battle and the conviction that “next to heaven, our highest duty is to love and serve our country and honor and support its laws,” according to Elizabeth Brown Pryor, one of Ms. Barton's biographers.
During her 23 years in charge of the American Red Cross, Ms. Barton conducted 19 major relief operations. The complaints that drove her from office in 1904 centered partly on her spending so much time supervising disaster relief in the field instead of running the society from Washington, Mr. Gilbo said.
“She could never bring herself to delegate authority; she was simply unable to believe that anyone else could do the job as she could,” Ms. Pryor said.
Because of her energy, the Red Cross has grown into a $1.4 billion organization with 30,000 employees and 3,000 operating units worldwide. Elizabeth Dole, the first woman since Ms. Barton to serve as Red Cross president, said: “Our ability to maintain our sense of unity has been challenged ever since Clara Barton first created a volunteer force to aid soldiers struck down in battle. We have grown in many ways and directions and have spread our operations not only across the country but around the world.”
Stories of Ms. Barton's Civil War heroics are legion, Mr. Gilbo said.
For example, if a tent wasn't available, she wrapped herself in a blanket and slept on the ground. Once, the tiny woman was seen leading a wagon through mud to her knees, her skirt pinned up around her waist.
Her place, she later acknowledged, was “anywhere between the bullet and the hospital.”
Biographers have been partial to two episodes in particular: During the battle of Antietam, when many men were bleeding to death because of a lack of medical care, she used her pocket knife to extract a rifle ball from one soldier's face.
As she lifted another to give him a drink, said Charles S. Young in Clara Barton, “a minnie ball from a gun of the enemy passed harmlessly through her clothing and fatally into the body of the soldier she was trying to save.”
Regardless of the accuracy of the Civil War tales, what she witnessed at places such as Bull Run and later during the Franco-Prussian War precipitated her obsession with forming the American Red Cross.
Toward the end of the Civil War, Ms. Barton wrote many letters to families that had inquired about men reported missing. President Abraham Lincoln encouraged her to continue this work. A month before his death he wrote to the Friends of Missing Persons, “Miss Clara Barton has kindly offered to search for missing prisoners of war. Please address her at Annapolis, giving her the name, regiment and company of any missing prisoner.” This service anticipated one of the worldwide operations of today's Red Cross.
Seeking rest after the Civil War, she sailed for Europe, where she found a still wider field for service.
Friends in Geneva, Switzerland, introduced her to the idea of the Red Cross, a movement that called for international agreements for the protection of the sick and wounded during wartime without respect for nationality and for the formation of voluntary national societies to give aid on a neutral basis.
At first, the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes balked at ratifying the Geneva Treaty, which would formalize the Red Cross.
In the meantime, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Ms. Barton went to the war zone with volunteers of the International Red Cross. For protection she took a red ribbon she was wearing and fashioned it into a cross to wear on her coat. It was characteristic that the first Red Cross symbol she wore was one she herself made.
The United States finally ratified the Geneva treaty in 1882 during President Chester A. Arthur's term.
Referring to friends who helped her bring about ratification, she reflected: “I feel myself nothing, and yet I do suppose I have turned the crank that has set it in motion. I wonder if I am not a crank myself.”
By the American Red Cross had been in operation for a year. In her first relief effort, at age 60, Ms. Barton raised money and collected clothes in Dansville, N.Y., to aid victims of Michigan forest fires in 1881.
Her supreme disaster-relief operation swung into high gear on May 31, 1889, in Johnstown, Pa., when the Conemaugh River tore through the valley after a dam collapsed, killing nearly 3,000 people and destroying millions of dollars in property.
Ms. Barton quickly educated skeptical officials on the value of the Red Cross. She set up headquarters in a tent, with a packing case for a desk, and began soliciting supplies, sending for workers and answering the mountains of requests that came her way. Working with local relief committees, she set up a huge tent to accommodate clothing, furniture, food and lumber.
Eventually a warehouse was built along with six two-story Red Cross hotels that supported families for months.
The most significant act of the Red Cross during Barton's closing years at the helm of the organization was to take Red Cross supplies and services to Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Aid was given to the American forces, to prisoners of war and to Cuban refugees. This effort was the first step toward the broad programs of service to the armed forces and civilians during wartime that have become traditional in the American Red Cross.
Never a strong administrator, Ms. Barton resigned her post in 1904 after losing a struggle for control of the organization.
Not one to rest on her laurels, she founded her own National First Aid Association, whose activities were absorbed by the American Red Cross in 1909.
Ms. Barton died of pneumonia in April 1912 in an old mansion in North Oxford, her birthplace 90 years earlier.