December 25 marks the birthday of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, who was born more than 200 years ago and is one of the most honored women in American history.
Clara led the American Red Cross for more than 20 years after founding the organization at age 59. Driven by a desire to be useful and help those in need, Clara was a compassionate and tenacious visionary who defied her era’s social norms for women and built a legacy of volunteer service that still lives on today.
Put in her own words: “You must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.”
LEADING AMERICAN RED CROSS With Clara at the helm, the American Red Cross was largely devoted to disaster relief for the first 20 years of its existence. The Red Cross flag flew officially for the first time in this country in 1881 when Clara issued a public appeal for funds and clothing to aid victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan. Over the years, she led several more disaster responses, including severe flooding in Johnstown, Pennsylvania (1889), devastating hurricanes on the Sea Islands, South Carolina, (1893) and in Galveston, Texas (1900).
As part of the global Red Cross movement, the American Red Cross under Clara also helped to alleviate suffering around the world. In 1892, she organized assistance for Russians suffering from famine — and in 1896, Clara directed relief operations on behalf of victims of unrest in Turkey and Armenia, the sole woman and only Red Cross advocate that the Turkish government allowed to intervene.
Near the end of Clara’s tenure, the American Red Cross expanded its services to support U.S. service members and civilians in 1898 when it delivered aid to military members, prisoners of war and Cuban refugees during the Spanish-American War.
Follow in Clara’s footsteps to see where she helped with the Red Cross.
A LIFE OF SERVICE Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born in Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day in 1821. She excelled in school and blazed a bold path long before she founded the American Red Cross — whether it was nursing her injured brother at 11 years old, securing public education for schoolchildren while she was a teacher, caring for wounded soldiers on Civil War battlefields, establishing a national office to help families to locate missing Civil War soldiers, or becoming one of the first women to work for the federal government.
Clara’s service during the Civil War ultimately defined her life and earned her the nickname, “Angel of the Battlefield.” Working at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington when the war erupted in 1861, Clara put her job on hold and sprang into voluntary action when she saw a need to provide nursing care and deliver supplies to soldiers on battlefields and in field hospitals.
“I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them,” Clara wrote to her father during the war.
Following the Civil War and her subsequent work to locate missing prisoners of war, Clara traveled to Europe in 1869 in search of rest — but ended up meeting with representatives from the International Red Cross who inspired her to lead multi-year efforts to found the American Red Cross (1881) and advocate for the U.S. government to sign the Treaty of Geneva (1882). Today, these international humanitarian laws continue to protect the sick and wounded during wartime and form national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to deliver neutral aid voluntarily.
JOIN US TO CONTINUE CLARA’S LEGACY Clara’s vision of preventing and alleviating suffering continues today as ordinary people advance her extraordinary legacy through the American Red Cross. Visit redcross.org to get involved by making a financial donation, giving blood, volunteering or learning lifesaving skills.