200 Years of Clara Barton Birthdays

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Clara Barton’s birth, and her name continues to be recognizable to many Americans today. Born on Christmas Day 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts, Clarrisa Harlowe Barton was the youngest of five children. She went on to establish a name for herself as Clara Barton, the “Angel of the Battlefield,” by providing aid to wounded soldiers during the American Civil War. Later, she founded the American Red Cross, which is celebrating the 140th anniversary of its founding this year.

Handwritten diary pages

Diary of Clara Barton, December 25, 1902, Box 7, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Throughout much of her life, Barton used her diary to record her whereabouts and feelings on her birthday. These private writings contrast with her public persona as the indefatigable leader of national relief organizations, such as the Red Cross, and the official holiday greetings she sent out to supporters. Barton’s legacy as a beloved leader and her undeniable achievements often obscure her complex personality and humanity. The Manuscript Division’s Clara Barton Papers reveal a series of birthday victories and vicissitudes that provide a humanizing perspective to seemingly superhuman deeds.

A look at Barton’s birthday diary entries reveals that she sometimes recorded birthdays that proved unremarkable or downright depressing, but these entries also reveal her personal side. In 1863, while stationed at Hilton Head, South Carolina, after the siege of Charleston Harbor, Barton wrote, “One more Birth day – Cold and windy – the sea was too rough to bring a boat up to the dock with safety.”[1]  The medical personnel and commanding officer had come to disapprove of Barton’s methods of assisting soldiers, so she was on the verge of leaving South Carolina to return to Washington via boat. She was not welcome in South Carolina any longer. [2]

After the Civil War, in 1868, Barton noted, briefly, “My birthday – took breakfast with Sally…rather a cheerless Christmas.”[3]  She wrote this sentiment shortly before she, accompanied by her sister Sarah “Sally” Barton Vassall, traveled to Europe to recuperate from an illness brought on by overwork.  Barton later found a life-altering calling to establish the American Red Cross, when assisting with civilian relief efforts during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1871. In 1872, still abroad and living in London, Barton recorded that she had been given a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. That Christmas Day, she noted, was “miserable,” continuing, “…have been all day attempting to get out of the confusion of my Christmas tree and had not strength never felt my nervous system more broken in my weakest days….”[4]

Later in life, while living at Glen Echo, Maryland, Barton described a quiet, ordinary birthday marked by simple pleasures. She wrote that there was “About house no excitement” and that she made “coffee jelly” on her stove.[5]

Of course, Barton did experience happier and more eventful birthdays. In 1902, for example, Barton was in high spirits on her eighty-first birthday, recording, “This crowns one more milestone of birthdays. It finds me in good health and strength, able to endure much the same amount of bodily fatigue of middle age.”[6] Barton’s spirits soared because she had recently won a contentious vote to remain the leader of the American Red Cross. In the same diary entry, she continued, “The Red cross is free and in the hands of its friend. My clouds are lifted. The heart has thrown of[f] its load of grief and this birthday open[s] with scarce a care.”[7] Barton remained at the helm of the Red Cross until June 1904, when she was forced to resign. She went on to found the National First Aid Association in 1905 with the goal of providing local first aid training and programs.

Two printed pages from Clara Barton's holiday "Greetings" circa 1905. On the left is a portrait of Barton below which is written, in Clara's Barton's hand, "Very Sincerely Yours. Clara Barton."

Clara Barton’s holiday “Greetings,” for the National First Aid Association, circa 1905, Box 149, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

During her years as president of the American Red Cross and then of the National First Aid Association, Barton sent out occasional pamphlets containing holiday greetings to her friends and supporters. These pamphlets discussed the status of the organizations and offered friendly greetings for the New Year, most likely with the assumption that recipients would continue to support her organizations financially. Contrasting with some of her birthday diary entries, these public-facing pamphlets focused on the dramatic, the heroic, and the positive state of Barton’s health.

In the Red Cross “Holiday Greeting” of 1888-1889, Barton chose to focus the pamphlet on a tribute to “The MacClenny Nurses,” with “warm appreciation and grateful acknowledgment of the faithful hands that toiled, and the generous hearts that gave.”[8] The contents of the pamphlet discuss the trials of a yellow fever epidemic in Jacksonville and nearby MacClenny, Florida, in fall 1888. This epidemic was an early relief effort that the American Red Cross took on after its founding in 1881. “The MacClenny Nurses” were a diverse group of women from New Orleans who were immune to yellow fever and had been specifically trained in quarantine and nursing procedures for epidemics. In the pamphlet, Barton recounts how the nurses worked tirelessly for many weeks to save their patients and were able to return home by Thanksgiving morning. While Barton’s overly dramatic and, unfortunately, at times, racist, prose tells a story of these women’s heroism, she also appropriates their courageous story to her own benefit and that of her organization.[9]

In later holiday greetings, Barton expounded upon her excellent health and the continuity of her work. In one such pamphlet, she wrote, “I would also tell you that all is well with me; that although the unerring records affirm that on Christmas Day of 1821 – eighty-four years ago – I commenced this earthly life, still, by blessing of God, I am strong and well, knowing neither in illness nor fatigue, disability nor despondency….”[10] Four years later, she repeated her proclamation of vibrant health and noted, “I still work my many hours, and walk my many miles. The heart is still open to the welfare and the woes of the world, and the hand-grasp ready for a friend.”[11]

Barton’s internal struggles and her imperfections, along with her triumphs, remind us of the complexity of writing the history of individual lives, even those who remain as famous as Clara Barton. Her diaries and holiday greetings are part of the Clara Barton Papers in the Manuscript Division. Her papers also form a part of By the People, the Library of Congress’s crowdsourced transcription project. New materials from the Clara Barton Papers, including her Red Cross File, have been added to the By the People website for volunteers to transcribe and review during Barton’s birthday month. Please consider contributing your time and expertise to make Barton’s papers more accessible to researchers!

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!

[1] Diary of Clara Barton, December 25, 1863, Box 1, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Clara Barton: Professional Angel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 118-119.

[3] Diary of Clara Barton, December 25, 1868, Box 3, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[4] Diary of Clara Barton, December 25, 1872, Box 3, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[5] Diary of Clara Barton, December 25, 1906, Box 7, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[6] Diary of Clara Barton, December 25, 1902, Box 7, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Diary of Clara Barton, December 25, 1902, Box 7, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8]1888-1889, Holiday Greeting, Compliments of Clara Barton, President of the American Association of the Red Cross, Washington, D.C.,” 1888, Box 149, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[9] Barton later re-published this story from this “Holiday Greeting” in her books: A Story of the Red Cross (1904) and The Red Cross in Peace and War (1912).

[10]Greetings,” National First Aid Association, circa 1905, Box 149, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[11]Christmas Greetings,” National First Aid Association, circa 1909, Box 149, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.