Clara Barton

by Mike Roberts, Church Historian

During the recent Princess Diana exhibition at the Cincinnati Museum Center, much space was devoted to Diana’s commitment to social causes, including the eradication of land mines and AIDS. As part of the exhibit, on the final stop before exiting, visitors could see a display about Cincinnati women who have contributed to the social welfare of the city, as well as organizations that have been formed or supported as a result. One of those highlighted was the Red Cross.

Universalist Clara Barton was the founder and director of the Red Cross in America. Barton was born in North Oxford, Mass., and raised in its Universalist Church. Her first career as a young adult was teaching, and she pursued her craft with great praise first in New England, then New Jersey, and finally Washington, D.C. She finally gave up her teaching career to pursue government work where, she performed at the highest level while demanding pay equal to her male counterparts. It was while living in Washington that the Civil War started, and Barton discovered her true calling.

Within weeks of the start of the war, the wounded began pouring into D.C., only to find little help. Barton organized volunteers and set up services in Baltimore and later in the nation’s capital. She realized for the wounded to receive the best treatment, she needed to meet them on the battlefields where their injuries and wounds occurred. She thus followed the Army of the Potomac into Virginia and South Carolina, providing relief services to wounded troops wherever she could. She frequently did this with but a few volunteer helpers, and supplies solicited from friends in New England. Other women, however, followed the Barton lead and units like hers were spread across the Southern battlefields. By the war’s end, Barton was a national hero.

After the war she took a trip to Europe, where she was a popular speaker. While there she took the opportunity to study the workings of the International Red Cross. The leaders of that organization encouraged her to form a branch in the United States, and so she returned to the country determined to form the American Red Cross. Unfortunately, the political and civic leaders of the day were not supportive; President Rutherford B. Hayes went so far as to tell her there would never be another war like the Civil War, so there would be no need for an American Red Cross.

Not to be deterred, Barton embarked on forming such an organization. Volunteers and leaders who saw the need contributed to her cause, and slowly she raised the funds and recruited the volunteers necessary to address local needs in times of any disaster. One of the first disasters she encountered was the Great Ohio River flood of 1884.

Barton quickly arrived in Cincinnati with her volunteers and supplies, and began to serve the needs of thousands of our residents who were homeless or trapped by the massive floodwaters. She commandeered a boat and worked her way in and out of flooded neighborhoods, distributing water, food and medical supplies. Atop the boat she flew the American Red Cross flag. It is believed this was the first time the Red Cross flag was flown during a natural disaster in the United States.

Over the next twenty years, Barton continued to establish and strengthen the American Red Cross. She passed away in 1912 at the age of 90.

Throughout her life, Barton proclaimed herself to be a Universalist, although as an adult, she did not attend church regularly – even as her passing neared. When asked about her faith during her last days, she said she was still as strong a Universalist as she had been when she was a child.

Image: Clara Barton.

Image source: History of American Women.