The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Clara Barton’s Nursing Career

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Most people, if they have heard of Clara Barton, know she was a nurse during the Civil War and/or she founded the American Red Cross. People often forget she was so much more than that. In this series of posts we will highlight what people should know about Barton from her extensive nursing career, to her time as an educator, and as an international relief organizer – just to name a few things. The goal is for these posts is to demonstrate just how amazing and multifaceted Clara Barton was in a way modern history textbooks just don’t capture.

Clara Barton did not have any formal training in nursing. She, like many women in the nineteenth century, acquired her nursing skills by nursing a member of her own family. In Barton’s case it was her older brother, David, who was seriously injured in a fall during a barn raising. Clara was only eleven years old, but she took the lead in caring for him for two years until he had fully recovered. Those skills would serve her well when the Civil War broke out.

Clara wrote about her early nursing years at home in a brief autobiographical sketch: “I learned to take all directions for his medicines from his physician (who had eminent counsel) and to administer them like a genuine nurse. My little hands became schooled to the handling of the great, loathsome, crawling leeches which were at first so many snakes to me, and no fingers could so painlessly dress the angry blisters; and thus it came about, that I was the accepted and acknowledged nurse of a man almost too ill to recover.”

Clara Barton's childhood home c. 1900

Clara Barton’s childhood home c. 1900

While the majority of Barton’s work during the Civil War entailed providing medical supplies and food to the hospitals on the battlefields, she did assist the surgeons on many occasions. She removed a bullet from a wounded man’s face after the Battle of Antietam, served under enemy fire at Fredericksburg, and nursed many wounded soldiers after the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. In 1864 she assisted with the nurses for the Army of the James at the request of General Benjamin Butler. Her duties included organizing and moving the tent hospitals, and assisting with the wounded sent north from the battles around Richmond.

The experience of Col. John J. Elwell was typical of those treated by Barton. “My sleepy emotions awoke me and a dear, blessed woman was bathing my temples and fanning my fevered face. Clara Barton was there, an angel of mercy doing all in mortal power to assuage the miseries of the unfortunate soldiers.”

In her capacity as a nurse during the Civil War, Barton operated independently of all government or private organizations. That independence meant she was often one of the very first civilians on the field after most battles. In some instances, as at Antietam, she actually arrived while the battle was going on. Her unrelenting drive to comfort the afflicted caused her to write to her dear friend Mary Norton in the summer of 1862 that “I only wish I could work to some purpose. I have no right to these easy comfortable days and our poor men suffering and dying thirsting … My lot is too easy and I am sorry for it.”

Clara Barton as a young person

Young Clara Barton

After the Civil War, Barton went to Europe as a way to recover from the conflict. While in Geneva, Switzerland, she discovered the value of the Red Cross and determined to bring it to the United States. Before that happened Barton spent time providing aid with the organization during the Franco-Prussian War. At its conclusion, she returned home in an attempt to start an American branch of the Red Cross, succeeding in 1881.

Barton’s experiences in the Civil War and in Europe taught her the necessity of providing nursing care and emotional support as well as supplies after natural disasters, and ensured that the Red Cross was able to care for the health and well-being of the victims as well as helping with food, clothing and shelter. Providing medical supplies and assisting with the evacuation of the wounded became core services provided by the Red Cross.

This is the second in a series of posts about the many facets of Clara Barton’s career. Click below to be directed to the others.

Part two

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