Clarissa "Clara" Harlow Barton was born on December 25, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the youngest of five children of Stephen and Sarah (Stone) Barton. Her father was a veteran, a prosperous farmer, and a sawmill operator. Her mother was a homemaker.
Much of Barton’s education was provided by her older brothers and sisters, and while still a teenager she started to teach in Massachusetts. In 1850, she took a break to attend the Liberal Institute of Clinton, New York, an advanced school for women educators. She resumed her teaching career in New Jersey where, in 1852, she founded one of that state’s first public schools in Bordentown. She started this school with six students, and by the close of the year there were 600 attending.
In February of 1854, she resigned from her teaching post and moved to Washington, D.C., where she took a job as a copyist in the U.S. Patent Office. She was the first woman to hold an independent clerkship in the federal government. She served there from 1854 until 1857 and then again in 1860.
During the early years of the Civil War, she began to accumulate first-aid supplies because she was concerned about the plight of the soldiers in the battlefield. In 1862, despite the initial opposition of both the War Department and many field surgeons, she and a few friends began to distribute first aid supplies to field hospitals, camps and battlefields. In addition to distributing supplies, she also nursed wounded soldiers. She continued with her efforts in the field until the summer of 1864, when she became Superintendent of Union nurses.
At the close of the war, at the request of the U.S. government Barton became involved in finding information on missing Civil War soldiers. She helped to identify and mark the graves of almost 13,000 prisoners buried at Andersonville, Georgia. She also drew up lists and gathered information on other missing soldiers and had the information published in Northern newspapers, where friends and relatives of the soldiers might see it.
From 1866 to 1868, Barton spent much of her time giving speeches about her war experiences. As a lecturer, she visited Dansville, New York, where she was later to settle for a time. By 1869 she suffered a physical breakdown and was advised by a doctor to go to Europe to rest.
Barton’s time of rest was short-lived. While visiting Switzerland, she found out about the International Committee of the Red Cross, and in 1870-71 she aided in their efforts during the Franco-Prussian War. During this time, part of her work included setting up a shop to help poor women earn a living by sewing. For her work during these years, she earned many honors, including the Iron Cross of Merit from the German Emperor.
In 1873, after another bout of ill health, she returned to the United States and entered semi-retirement in Dansville, New York. She first stayed at a water-cure sanitarium known as "Our Home on the Hillside," and then in her own home.
From 1876 to 1886, she spent a great portion of her time in Dansville, but she hardly retired. While there she worked tirelessly to establish a national Red Cross, as well as gave many speeches.
In May 1881, after working toward it for almost five years, Barton established the American Association of the Red Cross. On August 22nd of the same year, she started the first local Red Cross in the St. Paul’s United Lutheran Church in Dansville, New York. The church still stands at 21 Clara Barton Street, and the Clara Barton Chapter No. 1 of the Red Cross remains active today.
From 1881 until 1904, Ms. Barton devoted herself to building the national organization of the Red Cross and aiding in its efforts, except for six months in 1883, when she served as the superintendent of the Woman’s Reformatory Prison at Sherborn, Massachusetts.
In the mid-1880s she moved to Washington, D.C., in order to better head the national Red Cross organization. She assisted in giving aid at the site of many natural disasters, including the Johnstown Flood and the Galveston, Texas flood of 1900. When she was well into her seventies, she went to Cuba during the Spanish-American War, riding mule wagons in the tropical climate to bring supplies to civilians and soldiers.
In 1897 she moved to Glen Echo, Maryland where she continued to oversee the operation of the national Red Cross until her resignation in 1904.
In addition to her work as a teacher, copyist and humanitarian, Barton was also an ardent suffrage supporter. She was a friend of Susan B. Anthony and spoke at many suffrage conventions, including the first national women’s suffrage convention held in Washington, D.C. (1869) and National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Conventions of 1893, 1902, 1904, and 1906. In 1902, Barton loaned thirty flags presented to her from foreign nations to the NAWSA convention. The flags were proudly displayed on the convention’s platform. At the 1904 NAWSA Convention, she held a reception at her home in Glen Echo to honor Susan B. Anthony’s birthday. Hundreds of convention members attended and were treated, at their request, to a display of her many medals, decorations and other memorabilia. In 1909, she served on an honorary Advisory Committee of the National Committee on the Petition to Congress for woman suffrage.
In the years when she was unable to attend women’s rights conventions, she often sent letters of support, which were read to the audience. She was a cherished fighter for the cause, and in 1907 and 1910 the NAWSA Convention sent her greetings in appreciation for her efforts.
Barton also wrote many books, including History of the Red Cross in 1882 and The Red Cross in Peace and War in 1899. In 1907, she published The Story of My Childhood.
Barton died in Glen Echo, Maryland on April 12, 1912 at the age of ninety-one. She was buried in her birthplace in North Oxford, Massachusetts.