14 Facts About Clara Barton

Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain
Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

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 this day 197 years ago.

1. SHE ALMOST DIED WHEN SHE WAS 5.

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 HER 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 SHE 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. SHE 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 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. SHE 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. SHE 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 THOUGHT SHE 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. HER 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 WAS 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. SHE 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. SHE 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. SHE 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. SHE 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."

6 Facts About International Women's Day

iStock.com/robeo
iStock.com/robeo

For more than 100 years, March 8th has marked what has come to be known as International Women's Day in countries around the world. While its purpose differs from place to place—in some countries it’s a day of protest, in others it’s a way to celebrate the accomplishments of women and promote gender equality—the holiday is more than just a simple hashtag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, let’s take a moment to explore the day’s origins and traditions.

1. International Women's Day originated more than 100 years ago.

On February 28, 1909, the now-dissolved Socialist Party of America organized the first National Woman’s Day, which took place on the last Sunday in February. In 1910, Clara Zetkin—the leader of Germany’s 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party—proposed the idea of a global International Women’s Day, so that people around the world could celebrate at the same time. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held; more than 1 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark took part.

2. The celebration got women the vote in Russia.

In 1917, women in Russia honored the day by beginning a strike for “bread and peace” as a way to protest World War I and advocate for gender parity. Czar Nicholas II, the country’s leader at the time, was not impressed and instructed General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to put an end to the protests—and to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. But the women wouldn't be intimidated and continued their protests, which led the Czar to abdicate just days later. The provisional government then granted women in Russia the right to vote.

3. The United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day in 1975.

In 1975, the United Nations—which had dubbed the year International Women’s Year—celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th for the first time. Since then, the UN has become the primary sponsor of the annual event and has encouraged even more countries around the world to embrace the holiday and its goal of celebrating “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

4. International Women's Day is an official holiday in dozens of countries.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration around the world, and an official holiday in dozens of countries. Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Uganda, Mongolia, Georgia, Laos, Cambodia, Armenia, Belarus, Montenegro, Russia, and Ukraine are just some of the places where March 8th is recognized as an official holiday.

5. It’s a combined celebration with Mother’s Day in several places.

In the same way that Mother’s Day doubles as a sort of women’s appreciation day, the two holidays are combined in some countries, including Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. On this day, children present their mothers and grandmothers with small gifts and tokens of love and appreciation.

6. Each year's festivities have an official theme.

In 1996, the UN created a theme for that year’s International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future. In 1997, it was “Women at the Peace Table,” then “Women and Human Rights” in 1998. They’ve continued this themed tradition in the years since; for 2019, it's “Better the balance, better the world” or #BalanceforBetter.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

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