Clara Barton: Founder of The American Red Cross

In this 1918 photo, American Red Cross women wrap food packages to be sent overseas during WWI. | Courtesy of Time & Life Pictures and Getty Images
In this 1918 photo, American Red Cross women wrap food packages to be sent overseas during WWI. | Courtesy of Time & Life Pictures and Getty Images

Humanity, impartiality, and voluntary service, are just a few of the fundamental principles of the Global Red Cross Network. The American Red Cross was established to “prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of the emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.”1 To this day, the American Red Cross continues to help alleviate suffering and help those in need, all thanks to the contributions and relentless efforts of its founder Clara Barton.

American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, from a portrait taken during the Civil War | Courtesy of Library of Congress
American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, from a portrait taken during the Civil War | Courtesy of Library of Congress

The American National Red Cross Society, known as the American Red Cross, in Washington, D.C., was established on May 21, 1881 by Clara Harlowe Barton.2 Before establishing the American Red Cross, Barton served in the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War, where she helped save the lives of countless men.3 The International Red Cross was established through the Geneva Convention of 1864. The Geneva Convention authorized the “Red Cross Treaty.” This treaty allowed for protection of those not participating in a conflict or battle, such as prisoners of war (POW), soldiers wounded on the battlefield, doctors, nurses, and hospital units displaying the Red Cross emblem.4 President Rutherford B. Hayes had not endorsed the Geneva Convention of 1864 due to the fact that it would seem that the United States and the European Nations were forming an alliance; however, Barton was not discouraged. Instead, she continued to lobby President Hayes in order to convince him to endorse the Geneva Convention treaties. Although her argument seemed persuasive, President Hayes was still dubious of the treaty and rejected her petition.5

Barton was undaunted and on May 21, 1881 she was able to establish the American Red Cross Society. She worked laboriously in order to ratify the Geneva Convention so that the American Red Cross could link up to the International Red Cross. In 1882, Barton was able to tie the American Red Cross back with the International Red Cross due to the signing of the Geneva Convention of 1882. With this task completed, Barton was able to focus on beginning her next campaign: making the American Red Cross the central relief agency in the United States.6

Throughout the remainder of her life, Barton continued to help those in need. Some of her work included helping people affected by natural disasters and those involved in war. Barton continuously traveled, seeking funds and support from the public, and although she was able to help hundreds of people throughout her time working for the American Red Cross, she was constantly criticized for not keeping track of her expenditures. Barton kept the American Red Cross very decentralized, which gave all of the local chapters hands-on authority. Many of her followers did not agree with this. Mabel Thorp Boardman wanted to centralize the American Red Cross based on new theories of “scientific management.” After Bordman’s countless efforts to take over Barton’s presidential seat, Boardman decided to instigate a congressional investigation into the organization. Due to Barton’s lack of keeping track of expenditures and donations, the investigation vindicated her and in 1904, Barton was forced to resign.7

Plaque located on Clara Barton's monument in Antietam |Courtesy of Steve Hawks
Plaque located on Clara Barton’s monument in Antietam |Courtesy of Steve Hawks

Thanks to the relentless efforts of Clara Barton, we now have a source of help for all Americans suffering and in need of emergency relief. Today, a stone monument along with a Red Cross is displayed on the Antietam battlefield paying special tribute to her exceptional service. The memorial reads: “Clara Barton — During the battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862, Clara Barton brought supplies and nursing aid to the wounded on this battlefield. This act of love and mercy led to the birth of the present American Red Cross.” At the base of the monument is more text: “This symbolic Red Cross has been made from a brick from the chimney of the home where Clara Barton was born at North Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day, 1821.” Clara Barton was, as one doctor at Antietam declared, “the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”8

  1. American Red Cross, “Mission & Principles | American Red Cross Mission Statement,” (accessed September 27, 2016).
  2. Marian Moser Jones, The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal (JHU Press, 2012): xviii.
  3. Glenn W. LaFantasie, “The Trials of Clara Barton and Triumphs,” America’s Civil War 18, no. 2 (2005): 38-39.
  4. Howard Markel, “Clara Barton’s Crusade to Bring the Red Cross to America,” PBS NewsHour, (accessed September 20, 2016).
  5. Howard Markel, “Clara Barton’s Crusade to Bring the Red Cross to America,” PBS NewsHour. (accessed September 20, 2016).
  6. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Clara Barton,” by Fred R. van Hartesveldt.
  7. Laura Morrow, “Clara’s Heart,” Policy Review, no. 75 (February 1, 1996): 64.
  8. Glenn W. LaFantasie,”The Trials of Clara Barton and Triumphs,” America’s Civil War 18, no. 2 (2005): 40.

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This Post Has 35 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Samantha Ruvalcaba

    It’s always great to read about women making an impact. Barton created a society that would help so many lives in America, and because of her efforts, that help would extend to foreign countries as well. Not only should Barton be recognized for her creation of this society, but also the people who continued and improved her legacy ought to have some credit for their efforts.

  2. Avatar
    Michael Hinojosa

    I was in love with this article, it was so informative and interesting! I didn’t know that the American Red Cross had been well established for over one hundred years, and I didn’t even know the origins, creation, and founder of the organization either! Whenever I thought about this organization I never really put too much in depth thought into it as it was an already established group, so to be able to read about how it was made was definitely a great time!

  3. Avatar
    Marina Castro

    Great article! People in the 20th underestimated the role of women and the impact that they had in society. Specifically, nurses were seen as less than a soldier, when in reality their role was just as important. It came times in which women were able to prove how important their role was, like Barton did. At that time people probably thought their actions were not as important, however the Red Cross plays a crucial role in society.

  4. Avatar
    Richard Morales

    This article was very interesting as it told the story of the founding of The American Red Cross. Clara Barton was a persistent woman who worked hard for the greater good. The Red Cross is such an important organization that has served so many people since it establishment in 1881. It is amazing to me that she continued to fight for her cause even after her petition was rejected by the president. Thankfully her hard work paid off after over a decade.

  5. Christopher Hohman
    Christopher Hohman

    Nice article. Clara Barton did a great thing by founding the American Red Cross. I cannot begin to thing of all the battlefields and natural disasters that have been served by the Red Cross. There have been many deadly wars, and I am sure that Clara Burton’s organization was a blessing to all. It is interesting how the United States did not want to collaborate with the European nations to recognize an international red cross. That is so typical.

  6. Avatar
    Damian Jennings

    This article has incredible material in it that is important to me as a man who as often as possible gives blood and considers how the Red Cross even occurred. I altogether appreciated perusing this article and took in a considerable measure from it including the perseverance of Clara Barton, who doesn’t take no for an answer notwithstanding when it’s from the president! It’s incredible to see that the immediate consequence of a lady figure is still very critical today in sparing lives. You used incredible sources and I appreciated this article in general.

  7. Avatar
    Belia Camarena

    The Red Cross is such a wonderful organization, but I had no idea that it began only fairly recently. I thought it was amazing the lengths that Clara Barton had to go through to ensure that she could establish a Red Cross in the United States. Barton was truly an amazing woman who fought for what she believed in, and she is a role model.

  8. Kimberly Simmons
    Kimberly Simmons

    The Red Cross is a giving organization that continues to serve every community to this day. Barton worked tirelessly to serve others and extend her campaign as far as possible. After reading this, it is clear to me that she had a passion for what she did. And as a woman, she achieved more than anyone in that time could’ve imagined – she deserves every ounce of recognition. She truly was an angel.

  9. Avatar
    Brianda Gomez

    I really enjoyed reading this article. The red cross is always something we see when people are in danger and in need help. It is incredible that it all started way back in the 1880’s. It all started out by a woman only saving lives of countless men. Now she started something that helps save lives of many different people in our world today. Just like Clara Barton, we should all help each other in time in need and in times of crisis.

  10. Avatar
    Crystalrose Quintero

    It was interesting to read that the American across has been around for well over a hundred years. I did not know that before the american red cross of what we know today there was the red cross treaty that served to protect those not in the war at the time. I thought it was interesting to know of something but now know what major events were happening at that time. I loved how the conclusion had captivating quotes that reflected how Barton was viewed and tied everything together to describe who she was and what she stood for.

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