Clarissa Harlowe Barton

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Clarissa Harlowe Barton, or Clara as you may know her, was born on December 25, 1821. Throughout her childhood, she was inspired by her father, who was a member of the local militia and instilled a strong sense of the humanitarian spirit in Clara. As Clara grew up, she also taught herself the art of medical treatment, starting from caring for her brother after he fell off the roof of their family barn to eventually enlisting as a Civil War nurse. Before she got involved with the War, however, Clara was an educator serving in Canada and Georgia. She started as a schoolteacher and eventually worked towards establishing a free school in New Jersey. Unfortunately, she was replaced as school principal because of her gender. Her educational career extended into a government job as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. Not only did Clara play a key role in expanding access to education, but her novel governmental role made her one of the first women to work in the federal government at the same salary as her male counterparts.  

In the wake of the Civil War, the first bloody Baltimore Riot invoked Clara’s humanitarianism. She received victims of the riot at the train station and nursed them back to health, thus beginning her endeavor as a Civil War nurse. In addition to caring for the soldiers’ health, she helped reconnect them to their families and gave them emotional support. As she gained traction for her humanitarian efforts, Clara was permitted to work on the front lines, helping to organize and distribute essential supplies, and identifying unreachable soldiers through her “Search for the Missing Men” campaign. Despite the great national divide during the Civil War, Clara didn’t discriminate with her aid; she treated both Union and Confederate soldiers. For her unwavering compassion, Barton was deemed “Angel of the Battlefield.” 

As her work received more and more recognition, she took a country-wide tour to deliver a series of lectures on her efforts during the Civil War. Having been medically advised to gain distance from her work as her mental and physical exhaustion set in, she travelled to Europe and was first introduced to the Red Cross movement in Geneva, Switzerland. Inspired by her experiences working with Prussia’s Red Cross society to distribute aid during the Franco-Prussian War, Clara returned to the U.S. with the intent of founding the American Red Cross as a sector of the international movement. Following rigorous campaigning to establish the organization, its first official meeting finally took place on May 21, 1881. From that moment on, Clara spearheaded the American Red Cross’s efforts in delivering aid during a wide array of armed conflicts and natural disasters, ranging from the Spanish-American War to the 1900 Galveston Hurricane.  

More than a century later, Clara’s legacy is kept alive by the ongoing efforts of the American Red Cross and its dedicated volunteers. Her values of impartiality and neutrality are echoed in the advocacy of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and are disseminated through the Clara Barton IHL Competition. 

By: Arthi Venkatakrishnan, IHL Youth Action Campaign National Intern