Exploring The Last Green Valley – Clara Barton: Humanitarian and Founder of American Red Cross

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Exploring The Last Green Valley – Clara Barton: Humanitarian and Founder of American Red Cross

Exploring The Last Green ValleyClara Barton: Humanitarian and Founder of American Red Cross

In celebration of Women’s History Month, each of my columns this month is focusing on remarkable women who lived in The Last Green Valley. There are many women from our region who had a positive impact on the lives of others – more than this column can possibly highlight. Today we remember the life of Clara Barton and herald her significant contributions in making our world a better place.

Clara Barton’s early life did not foresee a person who would become one of the most recognized and significant women in American history. Born in Oxford, Massachusetts on Christmas Day in 1821, Clara Barton was known as a painfully shy young girl.

To help her overcome her shyness as a teenager, Clara’s parents persuaded her to become a schoolteacher.  She achieved her teacher certification in 1839 at only seventeen years of age.

Teaching was a profession that became of great interest to Clara. She did well as a teacher and in 1850 decided to expand her teaching career by pursuing writing and languages at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York.

Two years later, Clara was hired to open a new school in Bordentown. The school was successful but she was replaced as principal by a man. The schoolboard saw the position of principal for a large school as unfitting for a woman, and she was demoted to assistant. She quit the school and turned her back on her education career.

In 1855, Clara moved to Washington, D.C. and took a position as a clerk in the US Patent Office. Clara was the first woman to receive a substantial position in a federal government office with a salary on par with a man’s salary.

With mounting political opposition to women working in government, her position was first reduced then in 1856 it was eliminated. She returned to Massachusetts and lived with friends and relatives before returning to the Washington with the election of Abraham Lincoln. She again took a position with the US Patent Office.

The Civil War changed Clara’s direction in life. Wounded soldiers were brought back to the capital and makeshift hospitals were created in government buildings. Clara was a firsthand witness to the carnage of war and soon began to work for the relief of wounded soldiers. From that point on, her accomplishments were truly heroic and visionary.

Her father helped convince her that it was her duty as a Christian to help the soldiers. She began to gather medical supplies and organize aid societies in sending medical supplies, food and clothing for the war effort.

In 1862, she gained permission from Quartermaster Ricker to work on the front lines where she worked to clean field hospitals, distribute supplies, and feed the wounded. She worked near the front lines of battles including Second Bull Run, Antietam, Cedar Mountain and Fredericksburg.

In 1864, General Butler appointed her as “lady in charge” of the front line hospitals for the Army of the James. She would become known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

At the close of the war she discovered that thousands of letters from families of missing men had gone unanswered by the War Department. She contacted President Lincoln to see if she would be allowed to respond officially to the letters. Lincoln agreed and so began another chapter in Clara Barton’s amazing career with her management of the Office of Missing Soldiers.

With the task of finding and identifying soldiers killed or missing in action, Barton and her assistants replied to more than 41,000 letters. They helped to locate more than 22,000 missing men. This included helping to find, identify and properly bury 13,000 individuals who had died in the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Over the next four years she located, buried, and marked the graves of 20,000 more Union soldiers.

Following the war, Clara traveled to Europe and soon was helping supply relief to war victims – this time for the Franco-German War.

While in Europe, Clara became associated with the International Red Cross. After returning to the United States, she helped to establish the American Red Cross in 1881.

Soon after establishing the American Red Cross, she was instrumental in moving the United States towards signing the Geneva Agreement for the treatment of the sick, wounded and dead in battle as well as the proper treatment of prisoners of war.

Understanding the potential need for and reach of the Red Cross in America, she wrote the American amendment to the Red Cross constitution to also provide for the distribution of relief in times of disasters such as floods, famines, earthquakes, tornadoes and epidemics.

Clara was president of the American Red Cross until 1904 and authored books including History of the Red Cross written in 1882, and The Red Cross in Peace and War completed in 1899. Clara Barton died in 1912.

To learn more about Clara Barton, I urge you to travel to Oxford and visit her birthplace museum. I have visited the museum on several occasions and consider it one of the more significant historical sites in The Last Green Valley. You can find out more about the museum by visiting the website at: http://clarabartonbirthplace.org.

The museum website perfectly describes the impact of Clara Barton. “Throughout her long life she sought to improve people’s lives by, in her own words, ‘offering a hand up, not a handout.’ Clara Barton has inspired countless teachers, medical professionals and social workers. Almost two centuries after her birth, the incredible stories of this great humanitarian continue to draw students and families to her childhood home to learn about her boundless mercy and commitment.”

We are lucky to live in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, where such amazing people have come before us. We learn from and are inspired by the life of so many people who gave of themselves in the service of others.

I hope you’ll join me in remembering their stories and appreciating the life they led. Together let us pledge to pass on their stories so future generations can learn, be inspired, take action, and share alike.

Information for this column on Clara Barton was taken directly from The Last Green Valley publication Notable and Notorious: Historically Interesting People from The Last Green Valley, the Clara Barton Birthplace Museum website, and other sources.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

(The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.)

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