EDP 380D, FALL, 1996
December 12, 1996


Fondly referred to as the "angel of the battlefield" (The Encyclopedia Britannica Online), Clara Barton served as one of the greatest humanitarians this country has ever known. Persistent beyond belief, Clara employed her remarkable interpersonal skills to teach unruly school children, to collect supplies to send to the battlefront, and to struggle to form the American Red Cross. An equal rights advocate, her most memorable successes consisted of improvements in education, foreign aid, and blacks' and women's rights. This American heroine, whose efforts and bravery have become legendary, worked diligently to reach her ideal: "creating the vigilant social conscience which alone can safeguard individual liberty from the assaults of its enemies and make a nation great in its own eyes, as well as in the estimation of a critical world" (Joyce 1959, p.96).


The youngest of five children, Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on December 25, 1821 to a middle class family in North Oxford, Massachusetts. In this rocky New England countryside, Clara, as she quickly became known, learned the value of hard work and hard principles through her labors on the family farm. From the beginning, Clara's family had an immeasurable influence on her. Her older siblings, who were all quite intelligent, helped educate Clara and could scarcely keep up with answering her never-ending barrage of questions. Her active mind readily absorbed new lessons and novel stories about famous ancestors. Something of a tomboy, she portrayed exceptional equestrian skills and could play sports with surprising aptitude, compliments of her brothers and male cousins.

Despite seeming to have a comfortable life, however, Clara's overall impression of childhood was one of sadness and struggle for acceptance. In her later writings she declared that she remembered nothing but fear from this time in her life. Since her mother paid her little attention and her brothers and sisters were older and had different interests, Clara often felt ignored or overly childish in this grownup family. In fact, her "childhood became a series of repeated attempts to express her own needs and proclivities, to shake off dependence, and to overcome the neglect and ridicule she felt were so often her lot" (Pryor 1987. p,10).

Only at school where her unusual intellectual abilities allowed her to stand out did Clara believe she received sufficient attention. After shocking her teacher by correctly spelling artichoke on the first day of school (Pryor 1987), she went on to impress her teachers with her eagerness to learn the reading, writing and arithmetic which the school stressed.

In her twenties Clara decided to expand her education further by attending the Clinton Liberal institute for higher learning. There she studied analytic geometry, calculus, astronomy, mathematics and natural science in addition to French, German, ancient history, philosophy and religion (Pryor 1987). With her highly atypical education for a woman of that time, Clara continued the close pupil-teacher relationships she had enjoyed in her earlier schooling.

Influential Relationships

As mentioned, Clara's family exerted a tremendous impact on her. Her siblings educated her both formally and informally, and her male cousins served as her companions and playmates throughout her childhood. Her cousin Julia Ann Porter played an important role in her life also. While living with the Bartons, Julia helped put an end to Clara's overly introspective ways. Julia's outgoing personality and headstrong manner attracted the younger cousin, and the two girls soon became friends.

Clara's father, whom she idolized, affected her the most, though. Her devotion to charity and serving others originated from the example her father put forth. Furthermore, as Clara conversed with her dying father about going into the battlefields and her fears of harsh treatment there, he quickly allayed her fears, "maintaining that a respectable woman would meet with respect from even the roughest soldiers. He then gave Clara a command that she would always recall: 'As a patriot he bade me serve my country with all I had, even with my life if need be; as the daughter of an accepted Mason, he bade me seek and comfort the afflicted everywhere, and as a Christian he charged me to honor God and love mankind'" (Pryor 1987, p.83). Thus, it was her father who, more than any other, encouraged her to honor her humanitarianism and assist soldiers in need.

Clara noted influences outside of her family as well. From her earliest school years onward, Clara identified well with her teachers, especially male teachers, and often turned to them for support or advice. In her efforts to achieve equal rights she became friends with Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass and also counted Benjamin Butler and Kaiser Wilhelm among her close acquaintances. As she interacted with these individuals they influenced her as much as she impacted them (Pryor 1987).

Paradoxical Character

Most world-changing individuals possessed complex and conflicting personalities, and Clara Barton proved no exception. In a number of respects, Clara led a paradoxical life. Introspective and aloof as a child, she suffered from extreme timidity and displayed social underdevelopment into her teenage years. Yet she craved attention and acceptance. Not until her successful interactions with teaching did she lose her shyness and self-reflection. Even in her later adulthood, though, she dared to offend the very society whose acceptance she desired.

Contradictions appeared in her personality in regards to her work as well. As a driven achiever Clara never seemed able to delegate authority as she fought for the establishment of the Red Cross, believing instead that she could do it better than anyone else anyway. Out of her need to excel, however, rose her depressing and alarming conviction that "she had never done enough to secure a place in the world" (Pryor 1987, p.ix). Claiming she lived a life of fear, she nevertheless remained confident in the face of terror. Venturing to the very forefront of the battlefield and driving herself in an ox-drawn covered wagon over almost virgin territories, across high mountains, and through swift rivers (Joyce 1959), Clara certainly did not give the appearance of a coward. Furthermore, she welcomed travel with its risks and element of surprise.

With her desire to help others, Clara busied herself with patching up the lives of those around her. Meanwhile, hers was usually rent and frayed, despite the serene and balanced facade she portrayed (Pryor 1987). In reality, she led a hectic and chaotic life and found tranquillity boring. Finally, regardless of her respected acts of charity, the honor bestowed upon her, and the people who flocked to see her, this beloved heroine died alone, surrounded by nothing more than the trophies and memories of nearly half a century of active service for her cause (Ross 1956).

Work in Her Interpersonal Domain

In defiance to her shyness and introspection, Clara Barton related remarkably well to other people. She especially enjoyed helping those in need and derived much satisfaction from doing so. Whether by fate or chance, Clara, equipped with her diligence, willingness to work hard and desire to feel useful, nursed her brother David for months after he fell through a barn rafter. From this experience alone "she gained confidence and surprised herself at her own competence and indispensability" (Pryor 1987, p.16). Subsequently, during a small pox epidemic which broke out during her early adolescence, Clara tended several families and nursed them until she fell to the illness as well. Feeling needed and cherishing her role of benefactress, Clara liked alleviating sickness or trouble and especially enjoyed "situations in which her personal ministrations improved the conditions of others" (Pryor 1987, p.17).

Her first nursing career lasted only briefly, however, as she soon became a school mistress. Scarcely older than some of her students, Clara began teaching at the tender age of eighteen. Although nervous at first, she took to teaching naturally, considering her own eagerness to learn was infectious and her agile mind kept her pupils challenged. Despite her youth and inexperience, she managed to tame one classroom full of rambunctious and undisciplined students after another. With her straightforward rules, high expectations, and quick and resourceful mind she gained her pupils' respect, admiration, and, in many cases, friendship. Possessive about and loyal to her students, the youngsters gave to Clara as much as they received. Throughout her ten years of teaching "They fulfilled beyond Clara's wildest expectations her self-expressed need for approval, encouragement, trust, confidence without which she felt her soul might go awreck" (Pryor 1987, p.24).

After a decade of teaching Clara took time off to attend the Clinton Liberal Institute. Upon returning home from her years there she determined that her talents were not used to their full capacity and her time seemed wasted. Even teaching in another area held little appeal for her. She felt it was time to move on before her family and daily routine stifled her.

Therefore, after the age of thirty, Clara left her loved ones and home to move to Washington D.C. where she worked as a clerk in the Patent Office. Though an insecure and impermanent position, she found her job pleasing and worked there for at least six years. Her position there was highly unusual, since the government had only a handful of women in its employ in 1854. Also unbelievable was the fact that she received a salary equal to that of male clerks (Pryor 1987).

As it happened, Clara resided in the capitol when the Civil War broke out in 1861. From the beginning of the conflict she gathered supplies to donate to Washington D.C. hospitals. She became so adept at her volunteer vocation that in six months' time she had stockpiled three warehouses. Concerned as she was for the lack of even the smallest niceties and barest essentials at the hospitals, her real worry went to those wounded in the field. Early in the war Clara stated she was "deeply impressed with the importance of early attention to the wounded, and was made to see how much more efficient her service would be if it could be promptly rendered on the field of battle" (Pryor 1987, p.82). After an abundance of hassle and red tape, Clara at last convinced an official to permit her to travel to the front lines and to distribute her goods. She took with her food, blankets, clothing and medical supplies. Thus, at age forty, she began her life's true work.

Once it became clear that the Civil War was finally coming to a close, Clara feared that her treasured humanitarian work would draw to an end along with it. While fervently wishing to continue working with the army she nevertheless understood that the military had not truly accepted her but had tolerated her presence due to their current need for her services (Pryor 1987). Searching for a compromise Clara discovered a distinct need to locate missing soldiers. By compiling lists of men who were missing, she and her staff eventually determined either the whereabouts or final resting places of a vast number of these soldiers (Barton 1969).

Following the four years she devoted to finding lost men, Clara decided to take a relaxing vacation in Switzerland. Although meant to act as a pleasant diversion from her rigorous work, she learned about and became fascinated by the Geneva Convention Agreement of 1864, which created the International Red Cross. Through her involvement with this relief organization Clara journeyed to another battlefront during the Franco-Prussian War from 1869-1870. She again distributed supplies and dispensed her charity, this time in France. Laboring from sunup to midnight she greeted those she assisted with a graceful smile, attentively listened to their stories and calmly evaluated their needs (Ross 1956).

As a result of her efforts in both the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, Clara witnessed the horrors of war and the need of an unbiased relief organization to attend to the wounds of all those afflicted, whether ally or enemy. Most especially she focused on the demand for immediate treatment of the injured on the battlefronts and in the interim between the time of the wounding and the arrival at the hospital (Ross 1956).

She further upheld the conviction that American assistance was unsatisfactory due to a lack of organization. Therefore, approaching the age of sixty, she determined to return to the states to form the Red Cross, speak with the President, gain support for the cause and gather money for it, thus beginning the work which would bring fame to her name. The effort to create and structure an organization of this nature proved to be a relentless struggle, however. For years the devoted woman preached, wrote, pamphleteered, lobbied, traveled, and used virtually every avenue open to her to gather the backing of the United States and its citizens.

Fortunately, Clara wisely comprehended that she would not arouse interest in the Red Cross in war-trampled America based on its usefulness in future wars, "so she emphasized instead its potential as a humanitarian agency for disaster relief" (Hutchinson 1996, p.227). Stressing the yellow fever which constantly plagued the South, the hurricanes and tornadoes which tore across the coasts and plains, the periodic overflowing of the Mississippi River, the droughts which hounded the farmers, and the forest fires which proved a consistent hazard (Ross 1956), she cleverly persuaded people of the intense demand for the American Red Cross. Through her quick intelligence, brilliant timing, and legendary bravery, Clara made the American Red Cross a familiar household name, with herself at the pivot of the society.

Upon receiving public support for the relief society, Clara utilized the popular vote and "stormed the portals of the White House and of the Capitol from the common street, carried on the shoulders of a mighty mob of convinced citizens...until the official doors were forced open and the United States finally joined the civilized world by agreeing to adopt principles of world humanitarian law" (Joyce 1959, p.96). In 1881 she officially founded and became president of the American National Red Cross, and a year later she had the United States sign the Geneva Agreement on the treatment of the sick, wounded, and dead in battle and the handling of war prisoners (The Encyclopedia Britannica Online). She also suggested a committee to continue to publicize the movement and established a national headquarters for the organization sanctioned by the government and where the Red Cross flag would fly as an ever-present symbol of help. She further proposed smaller state societies and wrote the American amendment to the constitution of the Red Cross which stipulated the distribution of relief during both wars and natural calamities, such as famines, floods, earthquakes, cyclones and pestilence (The Encyclopedia Britannica Online).

Despite its official establishment Clara still struggled for over a decade to gain national legal status for her cause. Finally in 1900, Congress granted the American National Red Cross a federal charter (Hutchinson 1996).

Due to all of her efforts and dedication, Clara became intricately tied to the Red Cross. Since her leadership created this society for disaster relief and she was the central focus of the organization, it became very difficult for her to eventually step down. In fact, even though she was approaching eighty, Clara refused to retire as many expected her to do. Not until May 1904, did the infamous Miss Barton surprise her colleagues by resigning her position with the Red Cross. She further shocked everyone by concurring that the time had come to reorganize the Red Cross into a national corporation closely tied to the government, armed forces, and financial establishment on Wall Street (Hutchinson 1996).

Due to her enormous efforts and extreme dedication Clara Barton earned herself a lasting place in the pages of history. Her persistence and determination proved to the world what the labors of one woman alone could accomplish. Even more impressive than her creation of a relief society were her leadership qualities and interpersonal skills. She possessed genuine compassion for the wounded, weak and unfortunate and strove to supplement their dignity as well as their material possessions. Remembered as a domineering old lady balanced on a pile of hay loaded onto an army wagon, this brave woman ventured to the very forefront of battle and disaster to distribute supplies to those in need. Even her name evoked a magic calm in a catastrophe. The governor of Texas, for example, once stated that her mere presence, regardless of her substantial service, "would be indeed a benediction, and it has served to inspire our people with energy, self-determination, and self-confidence" (Ross 1956, p.228).

Fit to Gardner's (1993) Model

Given that in a battlefield strewn with dead bodies she offered a means by which to stay alive, in the midst of chaos and devastation she brought order and supplies, and in a capitol tied up with red tape she managed to deftly maneuver her humanitarian agenda through the appropriate channels to receive federal approval, Clara Barton demonstrated a definite knack for interacting with people. Even complete strangers witnessed her remarkable ability to understand and relate to those around her, and none could dispute her interpersonal genius.

Based on Clara's early childhood, though, her interpersonal skills do not appear readily perceivable. While very intelligent and eager to learn, she remained a rather withdrawn and reserved individual with an introspective nature. Not until her teen years and her friendship with her cousin Julia did Clara demonstrate a turnaround. In her early adolescent years, however, her nursing abilities did come to the forefront during the small pox epidemics, and in her later teens she developed an excellent rapport with her students. Therefore, once she overcame her shyness and aloofness Clara proved that she possessed commendable interpersonal skills.

Interestingly, these skills applied more to strangers in need and individuals in positions to assist her in her goals than to those close to her. While true that her family impacted her greatly as a child, she wanted almost nothing to do with them as an adult, moving far away from her home and rarely visiting. Also, she formed friendships with many influential personages, such as Congressmen, advocates for women's and blacks' rights, and founders of other relief societies, yet she never maintained any particularly close friendships. Finally, she evinced her intense competitiveness with others in her humanitarian domain and viewed any who might replace her as rivals to be dealt with severely. Incidentally, this trait was often cited as the reason she would not delegate authority; she feared another might outperform her.

Clara could not permit others to usurp her important position, because she needed her work and derived great pride and satisfaction from her work. In fact, it was not only her career but also her very identity. She derived her purpose in life from her work and once declared, "You have never known me without work and you never will" (Pryor 1987, p.xii). She thoroughly enjoyed helping others and receiving their gratitude in return, and she dreaded living without it. This ardent desire to aid others is seen throughout her life, regardless of her age or profession.

Clara did not display a distinct ten year cycle concerning her work as Gardner proposes. However, she changed occupations at several points in her life, seemingly indicating a new interest if not a renewal in creativity each time. For about a decade Clara acted in the role of school mistress, completely dedicated to her pupils. After her sojourn at the Clinton Liberal Institute she moved to Washington D.C. where she became a patent clerk for several years. With the outbreak of the Civil War, she began to gather supplies to carry to the front, and following the war she changed courses again for a few years while she strove to locate missing soldiers. Needing a break from her rigorous work she traveled to Europe where she became involved in relief work in another war. Not until the age of sixty, though, did she really commence with her life's work, that of founding the American Red Cross. This task occupied her life for the next twenty years. Ergo, Clara, like many of Garnder's other geniuses, continued to take new directions in her life. Comparable to his examples, Clara's longevity enabled her to work into her eighties, a respectable age to still achieve such marvelous feats of traveling to disaster areas, lecturing, and gaining continual support.

Also similar to Gardner's individuals, Clara experienced marginality throughout her life. Even when she lived with her family, she often felt estranged. Eventually she felt compelled to leave home altogether, a sort of self-imposed exile, before her family smothered her resolve. As one of only a handful of women employed as a clerk by the government, Clara again encountered some disapproval. After all, Victorian people expected a woman "to be demure, self-effacing, easily controlled, and interested primarily in children and the home" (Pryor 1987, p.61). These things she definitely was not.

She continued this discordance with society's wishes when she created the Red Cross. Rarely settling down in one place for very long, she typically hurried from one battlefield or catastrophe site after another always trying to be on hand to aid those in dire straits. Rather than bestowing admiration upon her for her devotion, many confronted her with criticism. Some asserted that the Red Cross was "entirely inadequate to meet the emergency" (Hutchinson 1996, p.230). Members of the military accused the Red Cross volunteers of insulting the army's ability to tend to its own needs and resented them no little amount. Nor did Theodore Roosevelt support her efforts, believing that the Red Cross should be incorporated into the Medical Department of the army in lieu of being its own separate organization. At times of great opposition like this, Clara would shut herself off from society and sometimes became quite depressed and suicidal. Though in the midst of helping others, Clara Barton was often on the margins of society.

Unlike those listed by Gardner (1993), however, Clara did not demonstrate a Faustian Bargain, but rather experienced just the opposite. In general, her relationships with family members and friends never developed strongly and no lasting bonds formed. She opted not to marry as well. Her friends declared that she never engaged in a serious or true love affair and that she appeared satisfied with her decision, made early in her life, not to marry. One friend reasoned that "Clara Barton was herself so much stronger a character than any of the men who made love to her that I do not think she was ever seriously tempted to marry any of them" (Pryor 1987, p.27). Until the end she remained spouseless and childless, and she persisted in her intelligent and hard-driving ways despite the lack of support.

In many regards Clara was all on her own in the world, a situation she deplored. Since childhood, "her whole life had been spent in a search for public acclaim that served as a salve for the indifference of her family" (Pryor 1987, p.x). Given her immense insecurity and the lack of attention from her family, Clara looked in other directions for appeasement. She finally found it in the relationships of respect, loyalty and admiration with her pupils and, most importantly, in the love and adoration conferred to her by those soldiers and disaster victims whom she aided. Thus, she discovered emotional and rewarding interactions, which she did not experience with her family or friends, in her encounters with the strangers she met through her work. Rather than having a Faustian Bargain in which she traded meaningful relationships for her work, Clara engaged in her work to fill the void in her otherwise unhappy and dissatisfying life.

In summary, Clara Barton portrayed some of Gardner's characteristics of a genius but failed to demonstrate others. Therefore, either Clara represents an exception to his model or Gardner's theory does not depict the whole truth behind intelligence and genius.


Whether Clara Barton, the "angel of the battlefield", followed Gardner's model exactly or not, her rare interpersonal abilities continue to be undisputed as does the importance of her work. For one woman to succeed in a task of this magnitude, that of founding the American Red Cross relief society, speaks of no small accomplishment. Regardless of the obstacles and amount of labor required, Clara refused to lose hope or give up. Somehow she seemed to know that "each generation needs its Clara Barton to see that they are done" (Joyce 1959, p.96); each period needs someone to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of humanity. Clara Barton proudly assumed that role.

Works Cited

Barton, William E. The Life of Clara Barton Founder of the American Red Cross. Vol. 1. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds. New York, NY: Basics Books, 1993

Hutchinson, John F. Champions of Charity: War and the Rise of the Red Cross. Boulder: Westview Press, Inc., 1996.

Joyce, James Avery. Red Cross International and the Strategy of Peace. New York: Oceana Publications, Inc., 1959.

Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Ross, Ishbel. Angel of the Battlefield: The Life of Clara Barton. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1956.

The Encyclopedia Britannica Online: Barton)