History & Culture

‘The Guardian Angel’ – The Clara Barton Story

clara-bartonThere are special people who come along and make a difference. Clara Barton is among them, and her story is worth sharing. Here is an excerpt from Modern Americans, a Biographical Reader from 1918:

“In the little Maryland village of Glen Echo, a frail, gentle old lady was taking leave of this world one April day, in the year 1912. She was greatly beloved and many friends from every state in the union sent her words of comfort and cheer. They praised her noble work and called her ‘The Guardian Angel’ of the suffering, but the little old lady looked into the faces of those about her and said, “I know nothing remarkable that I have done.” Humble words from an extraordinary woman.

A young teen recently asked her mother a question, “Who is Clara Barton?” Her mother shrugged. It made me realize that some people are unfamiliar with this heroine of the Civil War. Clara Barton was a brave American nurse who helped distribute needed supplies to the Union Army and tended to wounded soldiers on sixteen different battlefields. She also founded the American Red Cross, a humanitarian agency that is not government run. Rather, it is part of a network that relies on donations of time, money, and blood to keep it running. Thanks to Clara Barton, many people from across the globe are helped by the agency, especially those in need of emergency relief. Not only does Clara’s story reflect her amazing contributions, but her actions are also examples of how powerful one woman can be.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton, known as Clara, was the youngest member of a large family. She was bright, inquisitive, and an outdoor adventurer, taking a liking to riding any colt on the family farm. She described a happy childhood where she was often regularly seen galloping bareback through the fields near her home. Her father, a great storyteller, would recount his Revolutionary War experiences, having been a soldier under General Anthony Wayne, known as “Mad Anthony.” However, her brother David would have a terrible fall when she was just eleven years old. Clara would become his nurse, and she felt great satisfaction in helping her brother. Later, Clara became a teacher and then took a position in the pension office at Washington. When the great war between the North and the South broke out, she felt it her duty to minister to the wounded soldiers. Once granted permission from the government, despite no formal medical training, she began helping soldiers on the bloodiest battlefields where she faced danger to save countless lives.

Her close friend, Lucy Larcom, best described Clara’s actions on the battlefields, “We may catch a glimpse of her at Chantilly in the darkness of the rainy midnight, bending over a dying boy who took her supporting arm and soothing voice for his sister’s – or falling into a brief sleep on the wet ground in her tent, almost under the feet of flying cavalry; or riding in one of her trains of army-wagons towards another field, subduing by the way a band of mutinous teamsters into her firm friends and allies; or at the terrible battle at Antietam where the regular army supplies did not arrive till three days afterward, furnishing from her wagons cordials and bandages for the wounded, making gruel for the fainting men from the meal in which her medicines had been packed, extracting with her own hand a bullet from the cheek of a wounded soldier, tending the fallen all day, with her throat parched and her face blackened by sulfurous smoke, and at night, when the surgeons were dismayed at finding themselves left with only one half-burnt candle, amid thousands of bleeding, dying men, illuming the field with candles and lanterns her forethought had supplied…”

After the war, Barton was asked by President Lincoln to search for the thousands of soldiers who were missing. Believing it her honor to serve, she visited the prisons and helped the prisoners to regain their health and reconnect with their families. She searched national cemeteries and walked amongst the graves to see who was buried there. It was a massive undertaking; thus, Barton formed the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States. Along with twelve clerks, she identified 22,000 missing soldiers and answered over 63,000 letters. She would present a final report to Congress in 1869, believing that at least 40,000 men were still unaccounted for.

The war took a toll on Clara, and she sought rest abroad. While in Switzerland, she learned of the Red Cross Society and attended an international meeting. Absent from the meeting was the United States. However, due to Barton’s perseverance, in 1887, the U.S. would sign the agreement of the Red Cross Society in The Treaty of Geneva. While a main objective of the society was war service, Barton, a true visionary, said, “It need not apply to the battlefield alone, but we should help all those who need our help.” Thus, an amendment was passed so that all suffering people could be helped. This philosophy would be adopted by other nations as well.

During the Spanish War, when Barton was seventy years old, she went to Cuba to do heroic work. During the Galveston flood, Barton also rose to help, and by that time she was in her eighties. It was said that after her active work, she spent her time quietly, still interested in the great causes to which she gave her life. Today, the Red Cross helps many people, including military members, wounded warriors, and veterans and their families, and shelters, feeds and provides comfort to the homeless and to victims of disasters. They also supply the nation’s blood bank, teach skills that save lives, distribute national and international humanitarian aid and much more. None of this would have been possible without Clara Barton, a little girl with a giving soul who grew up to do mighty things.


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Diana Erbio
1 year ago

Thank you for that summary of Clara Barton’s achievements. I knew about Clara Barton since third grade when I read a children’s biography about her. I didn’t know (or remember) that President Lincoln had asked Clara to find missing soldiers. So many Americans have contributed in so many ways. It’s important for Americans to know about these individuals.

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