The Angel of the Battlefield

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March 12, 2011
The Sights and Sounds of the Capital Crescent Trail
November 14, 2011

Clara Barton, A life of service

On April 19th, 1861 riots broke out in Baltimore during the early days of the Civil War and the Massachusetts regiment of soldiers was attacked.  Many of the men were former students of Clara Barton when she was a school teacher there.  They made their way to Washington D.C. and told her about the fact that the U.S. Army did not have any supplies to care for the injured.  Clara did not sit idly by.  She put together the needed supplies and food and made towels from sheets and then made her way to the battlefield.  This was the beginning of Clara’s war relief efforts – and thus the start of her reputation as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”  It is said that she thrived on hands-on fieldwork.

Clara Barton cared for the wounded through many bloody battles of the Civil War such as Antietam.  She also established an Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the U.S. Army in 1865, responding to over 63,000 requests for information about loved ones.  Thanks to her efforts, 22,000 soldiers were removed from the lists of the missing bringing closure to their families.
While visiting Europe, Clara volunteered for the German Red Cross in 1870 during the Franco Prussian War during which time she gained her first insights into the International Red Cross organization.

Then, in 1881, the American Red Cross was formed and Clara Barton was elected its first President.  She led the organization for 22 years until her resignation in 1904.  During her tenure, she oversaw the creation of many local Red Cross Chapters and led relief efforts in the Spanish American War in 1898, as well as 18 peacetime disaster relief efforts such as the Galveston, Texas hurricane.  As a result of her decision to offer the support of the American Red Cross in peacetime relief efforts, the Treaty of Geneva was amended thereby modifying the mission of the International Red Cross to also serve as a peacetime disaster relief organization.

Clara had become well-known and respected around the world.  She was an acclaimed public speaker and supporter of the rights of women and African-Americans.  Although she was herself discriminated against many times due to her gender, she took it in stride saying, “as for my being a woman, you will get used to that….” 

Clara Barton House today Here locally, in the early 1890’s, the town of Glen Echo was formed by the famous Baltzley Brothers.  Edward and Edwin decided that it would help them with their efforts to obtain investors if Clara was living in their new town so they invited her to live in Glen Echo and built her a home there.  Clara lived in the grand Victorian-style home for the remainder of her life.  The home also served as the warehouse and headquarters for the American Red Cross until 1904.

In 1963, the organization Friends of Clara Barton, Inc. purchased the home.  Then in 1974 it was designated as a National Historic Site and is now managed by the National Park Service.  Visitors today can visit the home, open daily, which is still furnished with a great deal of Clara’s personal items and furniture as well as other period pieces.

After resigning from the Red Cross in 1904, Clara Barton went on to organize the National First Aid Association which taught basic emergency first aid care and preparedness to lay people in factories, fire brigades, mills and railroad workers.  Today, the American Red Cross continues this tradition.  It is impossible to recount how many lives have been saved by the efforts of Clara Barton and how many families have been brought peace by her efforts to assist them in learning the fates of their loved ones lost in wars and disasters.

Front Facade of Clara Barton House

Today with the onslaught of weather-related and other disasters we hear about so often, it is still the American Red Cross who is first on the scene to help.  Visit the Clara Barton House in Glen Echo just off MacArthur Blvd and see for yourself how this fearless woman impacted all of our lives by her tireless and selfless efforts.  If you don’t live in the area, you can visit the Virtual Museum Exhibit on the National Park Service website.