Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton is among the most honored women in American history. A groundbreaking example of selfless volunteer service, Barton began her professional life as a Massachusetts schoolteacher, at a time when the field was dominated by men, and eventually started her own school. In 1854, she moved to Washington DC and became one of the first women to work for the federal government—a job she lost when her abolitionist leanings made her too controversial.
Barton was in Washington in early 1861 when the Civil War began. One of the first volunteers at the city’s infirmary, she was shocked to find that many of the solders were “her boys”: young men she’d taught back home in New England. Barton soon realized that supplies and support were most desperately needed on the war’s front lines. She convinced government and army officials to grant her the necessary passes and, in August 1862, she began bringing aid to the nation’s battlefields. She first appeared at a field hospital in northern Virginia, near the battle of Cedar Mountain. It was past midnight as she steered a mule-led wagon, loaded with supplies, into camp. The Army surgeon on duty was overwhelmed. “I thought that night,” he later recalled, “that if heaven ever sent out a homely 1 angel, she must be one.”
From that time on, Barton was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” She traveled from conflict to conflict, nursing the wounded soldiers of both sides, including troops at the battles of Harpers Ferry, Cold Harbor, Antietam, and elsewhere. It is only through such service to others, she discovered, that one can forget oneself.
After the war, Barton devoted herself to many causes, including women’s suffrage, civil rights, prison reform, and spiritualism. She helped establish a national cemetery at the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia, insisting that the graves be identified. At the age of 60, she founded the American Red Cross, an organization she would lead for 23 years.