Clara Barton: A snapshot biography

“Personal ambition is a demon of unrest. Let those who want to strive to rise above themselves;…but you keep to your simple ways and you will always be a happy woman.” – Clara Barton

Clara Barton
Clara Barton

Clara Barton Biography

In demeanor, Clara Barton was sensitive, warmhearted and she was patient. And while she spoke in a soft voice and often with a smile, she was persistent; there was “fire and force to her character.”

Born on Christmas Day in 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara was shy as a child. To help overcome her timid nature, her parents suggested teaching as a profession. Clara followed their guidance, becoming a teacher while in her late teens.

After over a decade of teaching, she opened the first school in Bordentown, New Jersey. What started as a classroom for a few kids soon taught many of the town’s children. A school board formed as the school grew. And soon, they added a principal, as the committee felt leading such a large educational organization was a role not befitting for a woman. The stresses of this change led to health ailments for Clara and eventually to her leaving.

She moved into a new field in 1855, taking a role as a clerk in the patent office, the first woman to receive such an important federal clerkship and a salary equal to the men. But once again, she faced much discrimination. Often abused and slandered by the men she worked with, Clara was fired from her role the following year.

With the breakout of the Civil War, Clara wanted to get involved. She went to the local railroad station and began nursing soldiers as they arrived. She did whatever she could to soothe the soldiers with their pain, including assisting with their treatment, managing supplies, reading to them, writing letters to family for them, and supporting them to keep their spirits up. Eventually, she would also take roles on the battlefield, putting her life in danger. In one case, a bullet went through the sleeve of her dress, killing the man she was treating. But she would write in a letter of her life as a nurse in war, “I shall remain here while anyone remains, and do whatever comes to my hand. I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.” And for all her effort, people called Clara the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

After the war, Clara learned that many family members of missing soldiers were contacting the War Department. These letters were going unanswered. She contacted President Lincoln, who appointed her into the role of corresponding with family and friends of people missing. She and her team would reply to 41,855 inquiries and help locate over twenty-two thousand missing men over a few years.

Life then took her to Europe, where she came across the Red Cross organization while relaxing to recover from poor health. Collaborating with leaders in the organization, she would eventually take on a leadership role herself and drive expanding the operation to the U.S., where she led for over twenty years until she resigned in her mid-80s.

Clara Barton portrait, taken circa 1865
Clara Barton, circa 1865

Her niece, offering a perspective on how Clara viewed life, shared this wisdom that Clara offered her: “Be always calm, my child. Keep yourself quiet and in restraint, reserve your energies, doing those little things that lie in your way, each one as well as you can, saving your strength, so that when God does call you to do something good and great you will not have wasted your forces and strength with useless strivings, but will be ready to do the work quickly and well – go slowly, my child, and keep ready.”

Clara passed away from pneumonia at the age of 90. 


“A snapshot biography of Clara Barton” sources:

“CLARA BARTON.” The Journal of Education, vol. 43, no. 6 (1064), 1896, pp. 88–89. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44047541. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

Clara Barton – Wikipedia & Wikiquote / Portrait of Clara taken in 1904 by James Edward Purdy, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

SMITH, KATHERINE LOUISE. “CLARA BARTON AND THE RED CROSS SOCIETY.” The Journal of Education, vol. 47, no. 23 (1182), 1898, pp. 356–357. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/44059994. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

STEWART, JANE A. “THE CENTENNIAL OF CLARA BARTON.” The Journal of Education, vol. 94, no. 24 (2360), 1921, pp. 662–662. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/42831644. Accessed 2 Mar. 2021.

Letter to Mrs. Elizabeth Jennings Pitkin, January 12, 1901 – Clara Barton Papers: General Correspondence, -1912; “P” miscellaneous, 1875 to 1912. 1875. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/mss119730350/>.

Photograph of Clara taken by Matthew Benjamin Brady circa 1865 – Wikimedia Commons.

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Please click here to read a snapshot biography of another educator and nurse, Susie King Taylor.

To cite:

“Clara Barton: A snapshot biography.” Historical Snapshots.