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Clara Barton (1821–1912)

Portrait of Clara Barton from Clara Barton, Humanitarian, 1918.
Portrait of Clara Barton from Clara Barton,
Humanitarian, 1918.

The founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton's war relief efforts began during the Civil War in Washington, DC in 1861, when she assisted soldiers who had lost belongings and supplies during battle. Horrified by reports of severe supply shortages, she advertised in a newspaper for provisions and organized the distribution of collected public donations to soldiers in the battlefields. Barton's lasting commitment to aiding soldiers earned her the nickname "The Angel of the Battlefield."

Born in Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1821, Clara Barton was the daughter of a farmer, a war veteran, whose stories inspired her lifelong interest in military affairs. A shy child, Barton was advised to pursue a career in teaching to overcome her shyness. She did so, enjoying a successful career in the field for ten years. At the age of 30, Barton enrolled as a student at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York State and later helped to establish a free school in New Jersey. Resentful when a man was hired to head the school at a salary of $600, $350 more than her own, she left for Washington, DC in 1854.

After the Civil War, Barton supervised a federal search to locate missing soldiers and delivered speeches on war experiences. During this time, she met Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass and became an active supporter of equal rights of African Americans.

In 1869, Barton traveled to Europe for a vacation and ended up assisting in the distribution of supplies to troops in France and Germany fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. By the time she returned home to the United States in 1873, she had been awarded the Iron Cross of Merit from the German Emperor.

The 1864 Geneva Convention had established the International Red Cross, and though the US had not participated in the Convention, Barton began to lobby for the establishment of an American branch of the Red Cross, winning support from Cabinet and Congress members. In 1881, the National Society of the Red Cross was established one block from the White House, and Barton served as the agency's active president for 23 years, retiring in 1904 at age 82. She died in Glen Echo, Maryland in 1912.

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