Resourceful and fearless, Clara Barton was the first female clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. She ultimately founded the American Red Cross, serving as its first president.
The Civil War defined her. Ignoring orders to stay in Washington, Barton worked as an independent nurse at nearly every major battle in the eastern theater, starting at the Second Battle of Bull Run in 1862.
EL: Why did you defy orders and go to the battlefields?
Barton: I felt compelled to face danger, but never feared it, and while our soldiers could stand and fight, I could stand and nurse them.
EL: What was the closest you came to death?
Barton: A ball had passed between my body and my right arm supporting a soldier, cutting through my sleeve and passing through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat.
EL: You were nicknamed “the angel of the battlefield.”
Barton: Men glorify the women who made their way to the front to nurse them back to life. You call us angels. But who opened the way, making it possible for women to go? You should bless God for Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the rest.
EL: Describe Andersonville.
Barton: It was originally 11 acres. They had got some 30,000 men within that 11 acres. But they found it impossible, as prisoners were constantly sent there, to keep them in that space, and the stockade was increased to what they called 27 acres. I had it measured while I was there, and I made it out to be 25 or 26 acres. Some 13,000 men died there.
EL: After the war, you gave more than 200 lectures about your service, sharing the platform with people like Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain.
Barton: What armies and how much war I have seen, what thousands of marching troops, what fields of slain, what prisons, what hospitals, what ruins, what cities in ashes, what hunger and nakedness, what orphanages, what widowhood, what wrongs and what vengeance.
Barton: I have lived my life, well and ill, always less well than I wanted it to be, but it is as it is.
EL: You founded the American Red Cross!
Barton: The door that nobody else will go in seems always to swing wide open for me. The Red Cross came from Europe. It is unlike anything else in this country. It is an organization of physical action, of instantaneous action, at the spur of the moment.
EL: At the Red Cross, you were described as an autocratic leader.
Barton: My post is the open field between the bullet and the hospital. My business is stanching blood and feeding fainting men. I am only one woman alone, and have no power to move to action full-fed, sleek-coated, ease-loving men, each one afraid that he may be called upon to do something. I never took a salary at the Red Cross.
EL: You seem to be in all things a leader.
Barton: I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. I go for anything new that might improve the past.
Sources: The Eloquent Woman; Biography.com; About.com.