This Day in History: Clara Barton founds the American Red Cross

On this day in 1881, the American Association of the Red Cross is founded by Clara Barton. She must have been one determined lady. She founded the Red Cross at a time when women simply were not supposed to do that kind of thing

You have to wonder what she’d manage to accomplish today, without such hindrances?

Among the first of her endeavors was the founding of a free school in New Jersey. On her first day of classes, she had 6 students. By the end of the school year, there were more than 200! The school needed a new, larger building, which the town gladly provided. Imagine Barton’s shock when she discovered that the town would not let her be principal of her own school. She was replaced by a man, at twice her salary.

Later, the Civil War became a turning point for Barton. At the time, she was one of the few female workers in the U.S. Patent Office. Thus, she was in Washington, D.C. when a trainload of injured soldiers arrived in April 1861. She found herself caring for these soldiers, who were convalescing at the unfinished U.S. Capitol. Barton volunteered her time and resources and encouraged others to do the same. She began gathering and distributing supplies to the soldiers in the battlefields.

In one incident, she brought a whole wagon-load of supplies to a surgeon in a field hospital—she arrived at midnight! The surgeon later wrote: “I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a[n] . . . angel, she must be one—her assistance was so timely.”

Soldiers began calling her the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Barton’s efforts didn’t end with the distribution of supplies. She also helped families find their lost relatives. About 22,000 soldiers were found by their families thanks to Barton’s efforts. Nearly 13,000 Union graves were found and marked.

Following the war, Barton went to Europe in search of rest. While there, she learned about the International Red Cross. She returned to the States, determined to begin an American arm of the Red Cross. She was finally successful in 1881. She led the institution for 23 years and helped the international organization to expand its calling. Originally, the Red Cross only helped soldiers injured during times of war. Thanks to Barton, it began also helping at the sites of manmade and natural disasters.

Over time, some people began to question her management style, and the internal politics at the Red Cross became very divided. Eventually, it seemed that the internal power struggle might threaten to undermine the organization that Barton had worked so hard to build. She decided to resign.

Barton’s last gift to those in need? She established the National First Aid Association of America in 1905. It helped to train everyday citizens in basic first aid and emergency response. By 1910, the Red Cross had begun to take on this function. Barton did not want to compete and was happy to let the Red Cross take over. At the time, she declared: “It must grow. I want it to, it is my planting. I should rejoice the crop no matter who harvests it.”