To call Clara Barton just a nurse insults her legacy, despite what your history teacher may have taught you. She was a woman of numerous accomplishments, and in some ways, she was all too human. Here are 14 facts you probably didn’t know about this great American icon, who was born on December 25, 1821.
1. Clara Barton almost died when she was five years old.
Barton, the youngest of five siblings, was born Clarissa Harlowe Barton to Stephen and Sarah Stone Barton on Christmas Day in 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. (Her name came from the novel Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson.) Her father was a militia captain and natural storyteller; her mother was well-known for her eccentricities: For example, she would bake pies for the family that she did not intend to share, preferring that they instead grow moldy.
But the pie situation wasn’t the most traumatic part of Barton’s youth. In her memoir The Story of My Childhood, she recounts being stricken with bloody dysentery and convulsions at the age of 5. Her family assumed she would not survive, and a report went out that she had died. Thankfully, she went on to make a full recovery, and later, as a nurse, she’d help soldiers suffering from the same illness.
2. One of Clara Barton's first jobs was as a painter's assistant.
When her family moved to a new home in the 1830s, Barton became fascinated with the house painter’s technique and talked her way into being his helper. “I was taught how to hold my brushes, to take care of them, allowed to help grind my paints, shown how to mix and blend them, how to make putty and use it, to prepare oils and dryings … So interested was I, that I never wearied of my work for a day, and at the end of a month looked on sadly as the utensils, brushes, buckets, and great marble slab were taken away,” she wrote. The experience may have sparked her lifelong love of the arts. She also liked to play the piano, dance, draw, go to the theater, dress up in high Victorian fashion and jewelry, and collect books for her extensive library. Her favorite color was red.
3. A famous phrenologist thought Clara Barton should become a teacher.
In 1836, a phrenologist named L.N. Fowler examined Barton and suggested to her parents that she should pursue a career in teaching. After six years teaching in Oxford, Massachusetts schools, Barton opened her own school in 1845 to serve the children of workers in her brother’s mill. She went on to create a free public school in New Jersey; however, it grew so large that local leaders refused to let her run it and brought in a male principal. So Barton left.
4. Clara Barton made a salary equal to a man's—but had a sexist boss.
Perhaps disillusioned by the experience at the school she founded, Barton temporarily left teaching in 1854 and went on to become a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., where her salary—$1400 a year—was the same as her male co-workers’. Unfortunately, Secretary Robert McClelland of the Interior Department—which had jurisdiction over the patent office at the time—didn’t want women as federal employees, and demoted her to copyist making 10 cents per 100 words copied. In 1857, President James “Ten-Cent Jimmy” Buchanan did away with her position, but the next administration—Abraham Lincoln’s—reinstated it.
5. The Civil War gave Clara Barton her famous nickname.
In 1833, her brother David had fallen off the roof of a barn, and for two years Barton had dedicated herself to his care during his recovery. Her early experience in nursing found an outlet in the Civil War and, at age 39, Clara found her calling—even though nursing was then seen as a man’s profession.
A week after war broke out, Barton discovered injured soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts Infantry housed in the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol. She used supplies from her home for their care, and eventually founded her own supply distribution agency. Her ministrations earned her the sobriquet “Angel of the Battlefield.” The first battle where she is known to have assisted was the 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County, Virginia. More than 3000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in the two-day fight.
6. Clara Barton had a brush with death in the Battle of Antietam.
Just one month after her first battlefield triage, Barton almost lost her life in the gruesome Battle of Antietam. As she lifted a wounded man’s head to give him some water, a bullet ripped through the sleeve of her dress. She survived, but her patient didn’t: "A ball has passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest,” Barton wrote. “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve.”
Another time, she encountered a soldier who had been her former student at her school in New Jersey. “This is the second time you saved my life,” he told her.
7. Clara Barton suffered from depression.
Away from the intense action of Civil War battles, Barton suffered from depression. In early 1864, the lack of activity, combined with an inability to secure a supply warehouse, got the better of her. “All the world appears selfish and treacherous. I can get no hold on a good noble sentiment any where. I have scanned over and over the whole moral horizon and it is all dark,” she wrote. She thought about killing herself, and it wasn’t the first time. What brought her out of it was having purpose again, notes Barton biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor in Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Pryor suggests that Barton thrived in scenarios that others would run from.
8. Some people thought Clara Barton was having an affair with a senator.
In 1861, Barton met Senator Henry Wilson, a Massachusetts Republican, abolitionist, and future U.S. vice president under Ulysses S. Grant. He became a close confidant, someone she felt comfortable talking about her innermost feelings with. He turned out to be a good person to know professionally, too: He procured a railroad pass for her, which allowed her to travel to battlefields free of charge, and she asked him to furnish supplies for soldiers, including “whiskey, brandy, wine, condensed milk, [and] prepared meats.” They shared a strong work ethic and a love of the Republican party. Their closeness prompted some to whisper of romance between them while Wilson was married and after his wife died, but there was no concrete proof. Still, some of Barton’s family members thought that marriage was imminent soon before he died in 1875. (Barton never married or had children.)
9. Clara Barton's war-related efforts didn't end with the war.
Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and that May, Barton resumed her career in education. This time, she taught skills to freed slaves.
Near the conclusion of the Civil War, many soldiers remained missing. Barton created the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army in 1865. Operating out of the Washington, D.C. boarding house where Barton lived, the office received more than 63,000 pieces of correspondence inquiring about missing family members—all of which were answered by the office’s 12 clerks. Barton’s organization was able to locate 22,000 missing soldiers, 13,000 of whom had perished in the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison. As a result, the government established a national cemetery at Andersonville. (Congress also reimbursed her for the $15,000 it cost to establish the office.)
10. The office's headquarters were discovered by accident.
In 1996, a General Services Administration inspector discovered Barton’s long-forgotten headquarters at the D.C. boarding house as he was preparing the building for demolition. Barton’s effects had been lying there for over a century. Construction was halted, and almost 20 years later, the building was re-opened as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum at 437 7th Street NW.
11. Clara Barton spoke out for women's suffrage.
In 1866 Barton embarked on a nationwide lecture tour after the war and shared the stage with Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other thinkers. She also met two leading lights of the women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who supported her interest in women’s suffrage. “I did not purchase my freedom with a price; I was born free; and when, as a younger woman I heard the subject discussed, it seemed simply ridiculous that any sensible, sane person should question it,” Barton wrote in a speech supporting women’s right to vote. “And when, later, the phase of woman’s right to suffrage came up it was to me only a part of the whole, just as natural, just as right, and just as certain to take place.” She encouraged veterans to support a woman’s right to vote, not-too-subtly suggesting that they should help women win that right as she had helped them survive the wounds of war.
12. Clara Barton co-founded the American Red Cross.
After the Office of Correspondence closed down, she went to Europe to relax and recuperate. In Switzerland, she learned about the International Red Cross, which had been founded in 1863 to help victims of humanitarian crises. She soon launched an effort to establish a similar organization in the United States, even trying to enlist then-President Rutherford B. Hayes in its creation. On May 21, 1881, she and Adolphus Solomons, a community leader active in numerous charities, co-founded the American Red Cross. She was appointed its president the following month and served for the next 23 years, and never received a salary.
In addition to helping those affected by war, the American Red Cross stepped in to assist survivors of natural disasters. Its first test was a massive forest fire in Michigan in 1881, which burned more than a million acres in 24 hours and left thousands homeless. In its first couple of decades, the Red Cross provided supplies and relief to victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889 and the 1900 Galveston hurricane.
13. Clara Barton was cat-crazy.
Barton grew up on a farm and loved animals. Really loved animals. She could ride a horse by age 5 thanks to her brother David’s instruction. Her first pet, a dog she named Button, was “a sprightly, medium-sized, very white dog, with silky ears, sparkling black eyes and a very short tail,” she recalled in The Story of My Childhood. She was also given animals as gifts: Rep. Schuyler Colfax of Indiana sent her a kitten to thank her for her work at Antietam, and a family friend presented her with two-and-a-half-dozen ducks.
Like another famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, Barton had a soft spot for cats. Her favorite was Tommy, her faithful black-and-white companion for almost two decades. Her friend and fellow nurse Antoinette Margot painted a portrait of Tommy in 1885, which is still on display at the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland.
14. Clara Barton shared a hairstyle with Princess Leia.
There are some eerie similarities between Barton and Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars films: Barton and Fisher suffered from mental illness; had movies that drew from their lives (Postcards from the Edge in Fisher’s case, Angel of Mercy in Barton’s); were authors; were feminists; and were parts of large, talented families. And as Jake Wynn and Amelia Grabowski point out in a blog post for the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum, they also share the same braided and bun hairstyles.
Wynn wrote that that their power isn’t hurt by the fact that they were vain: Though Barton was brave, she was also worried about how the war would affect her hair. “They are both people who are unapologetically in the middle of the action," Grabowski added. "They are risking their lives and making a difference. The guys would be lost without them."
This story has been updated for 2020.