Born in 1821, Clara Barton gained fame as the founder of the American Red Cross. Her road to this accomplishment was not an easy one. She began her career as a schoolteacher and then briefly accepted a position in the U.S. Patent Office in 1854. It was not until the outbreak of the American Civil War that her real work began.
Barton saw the need for an organization that could effectively distribute food and medical supplies to the troops in the field. This was then handled by the War Department and U.S. Sanitary Commission, but the entanglements of government bureaucracy made the process an relatively ineffective one. Barton took it upon herself to travel with the Army, which she referred to as "my whole family." She sometimes would travel more than a thousand miles in the dead of night with her "whole family" and subjected herself without complaint to the rigors of Army life. Her efforts were highly appreciated at battle sites, especially at Antietam and Fredricksburg, where commanding officers wrote glowing reports on her to Washington.
After the war ended, Barton set herself to the process of finding and identifying prisoners, missing persons, and dead soliders buried in unmarked graves. The long days and nights spent working during and after the war eventually wore Barton down. In 1869 her doctor ordered her to rest and recuperate in Europe after a near physical and mental breakdown.
While on this "vacation" in Europe, Barton encountered the International Committee of the Red Cross. Having heard of her background, they recruited her to assist their efforts during the Franco-Prussian War. Barton's health began to fail again, and after two years of working with the Red Cross during the war, Barton was forced into a temporary retirement in 1872. After she recovered, she returned to the United States to campaign for the formation of an American branch of the Red Cross.
For ten years she lobbied for her cause, but was rebuffed by the government's fear that an American branch of the Red Cross would create unnecessary foreign entanglements. It was not until 1882 that the U.S. Senate would ratify the Geneva Convention which effectively formed the American Association of the Red Cross.
The peacetime accomplishments of the American Association of the Red Cross under Clara Barton included flood and hurricane relief programs. Barton's organization also garnered support for international campaigns, including the sending of supplies to Russia during the famine of 1892 and Armenia in 1896.
At the age of 77, Barton continued to distinguish herself. She traveled to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. It was here that she would create controversy of a new kind. Unwilling to delegate responsibility and insistent that she could do it all herself, Barton was active on the battlefield. Her methods were called into question and her own organization began to debate her abilities. The national Red Cross and local chapters began to squabble and a rift was created. In 1904, Barton was forced to resign from the organization she founded. Unwavering, Barton continued to work in various relief work until her death in 1912 at the age of 91.