On this day in 1881 Clarissa Harlowe Barton of Oxford, Massachusetts founded the American Red Cross. Clara Barton began her career in 1838 as a teacher. For 12 years she taught in Canada and in the American South, namely west Georgia. In 1855 she became the first woman to hold a government job. She was a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. where she earned a salary equal to a man’s. The next year she was demoted and the job eliminated due to anti-women equality sentiment of the time. In 1861 she was re-hired as a temp worker in the office. Her father’s dying wish was that she become a humanitarian and aide those most in need. Her first act as a humanitarian was to aide the soldiers injured in the April 1861 Baltimore Riots. A Pro-Southern mob attacked Union soldiers moving through Baltimore to the front lines of the Civil War. The rioters killed four soldiers, the first of the Civil War, and 12 civilians. Store front windows were smashed and businesses destroyed by the pro-Confederate mob. As the war progressed Barton became a front line nurse rendering aide to the injured and mangled. She became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield." In July 1865 Barton returned to Georgia to help former POW Dorence Atwater locate and identify the graves of Union soldiers who died at Andersonville Prison. Thousands of Union soldiers died at the prison, including many from the 1st Alabama Cavalry, USV, a unit of pro-Union men from Northwest Alabama. If not for her efforts the fates of many of these men may have never been known. While camped at Andersonville she was met by former slaves inquiring as to the true state of the Union after the assassination of President Lincoln. “They would travel twenty miles in the night, after their day's work was done, and I would find them standing in front of my tent in the morning to hear me say whether it was true that Abraham Lincoln was dead, and that they were free. I told them Abraham Lincoln was dead ; that I saw him dead ; that I was near him when he died ; and that they were free as I was,” she stated in an 1866 deposition. In 1869 she traveled to Geneva, Switzerland and was introduced to the International Committee of the Red Cross founded by Henry Dunant and Gustave Moynier in 1863. After being rebuffed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, Barton finally convinced President Chester Arthur of the need of an American Red Cross. She became the president of the American branch and the first meeting was held on May 21, 1881 in Washington D.C. For the next 19 years Barton personally attended to war and disaster victims across the globe. She retired from the Red Cross in 1904 and founded the National First Aid Society. She died of tuberculosis on April 12, 1912, aged 90.
Michael E. Palmer is a writer and photographer based in Alabama.
He can be reached at email@example.com