By Jeff Olson
Over the course of her life as a nation, America has seen her share of disasters, from those of nature to those man-made. From tornados to floods to droughts to hurricanes to fires and beyond, our nation has experienced the gamut. Even here in our home town and county we’ve had our share, especially within the past 30 years including two tornados, in 1993 and 2009. Among what many of these events had in common and what helped bring many people through was the humanitarian contributions of the American Red Cross. This week we highlight this venerable American Institution and its founder.
Clarissa Harlowe (Clara) Barton was born in North Oxford, Massachusetts on December 25, 1821. While the 200th anniversary of her birth is later this year, I wish to take this time and celebrate her life in conjunction with her founding of the American Red Cross. Clara Barton began her career as a teacher and served as the first female clerk of the U.S. Patent Office. Eventually, her humanitarian nature led her into the field of health. During the Civil War, she pleaded with Union generals to let her go to the front lines to attend to the wounded. She was told that “a battlefield is no place for a woman.” However, she refused to give up and her persistence eventually got her to the battlefield where she brought food and supplies to “her boys”on both sides – caring for them, often as bullets passed by and overhead. She also provided personal support in hopes of keeping their spirits up, writing letters for them, reading letters to them, listening to their problems and praying with them. At the Battle of Antietam, a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress and killed the wounded soldier she was attending. She wrote: “A ball had passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through the sleeve and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve.” Clara Barton was present at some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Such was her presence and dedication that the soldiers started calling her the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
In a letter Clara Barton wrote to her cousin in the midst of the war, she reveals much of the depth of her faith in Christ as well as her love and compassion for those she served in His name. “My dear Cousin Vira: Five minutes time with you; and God only knows what those five minutes might be worth to the many- doomed thousands sleeping around me. It is the night before a battle. The enemy, Fredericksburg, and its mighty entrenchments lie before us, the river between – at tomorrow’s dawn our troops will assay to cross, and the guns of the enemy will sweep those frail bridges at every breath. The moon is shining through the soft haze with brightness almost prophetic. For the last half hour I have stood alone in the awful stillness of its glimmering light gazing upon the strange sad scene around me striving to say, ‘Thy will Oh God be done.’ The camp fires blaze with unwanted brightness, the sentry’s tread is still but quick — the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for us as I gazed sorrowfully upon them. I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger’s wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning sacrifice. Sleep weary one, sleep and rest for tomorrow’s toil. Oh! Sleep and visit in dreams once more the loved ones nestling at home. They may yet live to dream of you, cold lifeless and bloody, but this dream, soldier, is thy last, paint it brightly, dream it well. Oh northern mothers, wives and sisters, all unconscious of the hour, would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow, would that Christ would teach my soul a prayer that would plead to the Father for grace sufficient for you. God pity and strengthen you every one. Mine are not the only waking hours, the light yet burns brightly in our kind hearted General’s tent where he pens what may be a last farewell to his wife and children and thinks sadly of his fated men. Already the roll of the moving artillery is sounded in my ears. The battle draws near and I must catch one hour’s sleep for tomorrow’s labor. Good night, dear cousin, and heaven grant you strength for your more peaceful and less terrible, but not less weary days than mine. Yours in love, Clara.”
In 1864, Barton was appointed superintendent of nurses for the Army of the James. After the war she formed a bureau to search for missing men and helped mark the graves of over 12,000 Union soldiers who died at the Andersonville Prison in Georgia. In 1869, while on a trip to Switzerland to improve her health, she learned about the recently organized International Red Cross and helped to establish military hospitals and care for soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War. Upon returning home she campaigned for an American Red Cross and for ratification of the Geneva Convention to protect the war injured. It was ratified in 1882.
Clara Barton’s tireless efforts were rewarded when one hundred forty years ago this week, May 21, 1881, the American Red Cross became a reality. As Barton expressed: “An institution or reform movement that is not selfish, must originate in the recognition of some evil that is adding to the sum of human suffering, or diminishing the sum of happiness. 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. I am well and strong and young – young enough to go to the front. If I cannot be a soldier, I’ll help soldiers.”
For the next 20 years she remained on the scene, still delivering relief in times of natural disasters. In 1898, at the age of 77, Barton obtained permission to travel to Cuba to ease the suffering of Cuban civilians against the Spanish Reconcentration. Even into her eighties she was still active through health-related work and giving lectures. Clara Barton served as president of the American Red Cross from 1882 to 1904 when she resigned at age 83. The Red Cross received its first Congressional Charter in 1900 and its second in 1905. A more recent version of the charter was adopted in 2007 and essentially restates the traditional purpose of the Red Cross.
The American Red Cross still touches many lives, often in ordinary and routine ways outside of emergency situations. How many of us have taken a health and/or safety class through the Red Cross? How many of us have ever given blood or received donated blood? The Red Cross developed the first nationwide civilian blood program in the 1940s and still provides more than 40% of the blood products in our country.
Clara Barton never married or had any children. In a very real sense, her family was the countless lives she poured herself into so selflessly. On April 12, 1912 America and the world lost a great lady, but what a life of service and valor she lived! It is perhaps best described in her own words. “The door that nobody else will go in at, seems always to swing open widely for me.” The Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland was established in 1974 to honor the life of Clara Barton and educate visitors about her life and legacy.