She was born in Massachusetts on December 25, 1821, the youngest of Stephen and Sarah Barton’s five children. They named her Clarissa Harlowe Barton after the main character in a popular British novel titled “Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady.”

Clarissa Barton, known as Clara, would later make history of her own as the “Angel of the Battlefield” in the Civil War and as the founder of the American Red Cross disaster-relief agency.

Clara Barton’s long life — she lived to be 90 — was dedicated to serving others.

She became a teacher at age 17 and started two schools, but left teaching when a man was hired at twice her salary. In her 30s, she moved to Washington, D.C., and joined the United States Patent Office as a recording clerk, the first woman in that role. But her boss didn’t approve of women working in the government, so she was demoted. These experiences led to Barton’s later support for civil rights, especially voting rights for women.

After the Civil War began in 1861, she repeatedly filled her mule-drawn wagon with food and other supplies and traveled to where the need was greatest. She got the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield” after tirelessly tending Union (Northern) soldiers wounded at the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County, Virginia, in August 1862. Noting her delivery of critical supplies to an Army field hospital at midnight, surgeon James Dunn wrote: “I thought that night if heaven ever sent out [an] angel, she must be the one.”

By the war’s end, she had been with Union troops at battles in three states. At the Battle of Antietam in Maryland, she had a close call when a bullet passed through the sleeve of her dress, killing the soldier she was helping. Barton said she could take such risks because “it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.”

She bandaged wounds, cooked and wrote letters for the soldiers, read and prayed with them, and helped load the wounded into trains headed away from the front lines. She had no formal medical training, but, like many women then, had nursed relatives and friends through illnesses. On at least one occasion, she helped wounded Confederate (Southern) prisoners of war.

Her actions led Dunn to compare her with George McClellan, the Union’s top general. Noting her knack for appearing at critical moments, the surgeon wrote: “Gen. McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”

When the war ended, Barton launched an effort to find missing Union soldiers. Over four years, more than 22,000 were identified. She also helped to educate formerly enslaved people.

Exhausted, Barton went to Europe to rest. In Switzerland, she learned of a new organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross. She returned to the United States and in 1881 formed the American Red Cross. She led the group for 23 years, funneling aid to victims of floods, earthquakes, fires, droughts, tornadoes, epidemics and famine around the world.

Even at age 83, she wasn’t done. Her final years were spent starting an association that promoted first-aid instruction and emergency preparedness.

She died at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, now a national historic site, in April 1912. Her last words were “Let me go. Let me go.”

After 75 years devoted to helping others, it was time.

The Red Cross emblem

The International Committee of the Red Cross began with a meeting of several European countries in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1863. Its familiar emblem, originally intended to protect medical workers during armed conflict, is a red cross on a white background — the reverse of the Swiss flag.

The group’s mission soon expanded beyond war zones to include disaster relief and other forms of aid. The Red Cross symbol now offers protection for its workers, buildings and equipment.

Although the Red Cross emblem is not a religious symbol, a red crescent and a red crystal have been added to the organization’s official emblems, acknowledging differing religious, political and cultural beliefs.

The American Red Cross, a member of the international group, was formed 140 years ago. It has more than 600 chapters.

Learn more

The Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland, is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but its website has great ideas for a class presentation. They include tips on dressing like Clara, making your own Red Cross pin and bandages, and getting a Junior Ranger badge by visiting six Barton-related sites. You don’t have to visit in-person, however; you can mail your worksheet to the National Park Service. More information is at the website nps.gov/clba/learn/kidsyouth/index.htm.

Disasters can happen anytime, anywhere, so you need to be prepared. The Department of Homeland Security has lots of useful information for kids, teens and families at the website ready.gov/kids.

Learn about Clara Barton’s life from the Clara Barton Birthplace Museum, clarabartonbirthplace.org/claras-life, and the American Red Cross, redcross.org/about-us/who-we-are/history/clara-barton.html.