Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Celestial Brethren

May 21, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller



“And if you chance to feel that the positions I occupied were rough and unseemly for a woman, I can only reply that they were rough and unseemly for men.”—Clara Barton (at Cedar Mountain)


What is red and white, carries an iconoclastic symbol, and is an inversion of the Swiss flag? The American Red Cross started with a shy New England girl, born to be a nurse. To learn about Clarissa Harlow Barton, take a tour of the Clara Barton Museum.

Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, was named after Florence, Italy, the city of her birth. Sarah and Captain Stephen Barton christened their daughter Clarissa (Clara), after the protagonist of the British novel Clarissa, Or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson. Raised in the Universalist Church, Clara started her life on a farm in Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day, 1821, the youngest of five children. Fond memories were the times her father, a former army officer, shared stories of the Northwest Indian War.

When Clara was ten, her brother, David, fell while working on repairing a barn.  She recalled of the medical practice of using leeches to suck out his “bad blood”: “My little hands became schooled to the handling of the great, loathsome, crawling leeches which were at first so many snakes to me.” The two years she spent nursing him endowed her with a sense of purpose.

Behind its quaint exterior, the Barton farm harbored horror. Her sister Dolly suffered from a mental disorder; her great-nieces shared anecdotes that Dolly became so deranged that Stephen instilled bars on her window and locked her in her room. Stephen and Sarah’s shouting matches turned the house into a battleground. A cousin faced charges for a bank robbery. In her 1907 memoir, The Story of My Childhood, Clara reacted to those who commended her intrepid spirit that they “have been wont to dwell upon my courage, representing me as personally devoid of fear. However correct that may have become, it is evident I was not constructed that way, as in the earlier years of my life I remember nothing but fear.” 

To combat Clara’s crippling shyness, the Bartons felt she should work as a teacher in North Oxford’s one-room schoolhouse; the sixteen-year-old excelled in relating to her students—her boys, as she referred to them. In 1852 she transferred to a school in Bordentown, New Jersey, where she taught from the recently published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. To provide for the impoverished, Clara instituted New Jersey’s first free public school where enrollment grew from six to six hundred. The town hired J. Kirby Burnham as the new principal needed for his testosterone. His salary was six hundred dollars; Clara’s was $250. Her resignation elicited her statement, “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.”

For a fresh start, Clara moved to Washington, D.C., where she became one of the first female employees of the federal government in her role as a copyist for the U.S. Patent Office. When Interior Secretary Robert McClelland pressured her supervisor into firing female federal workers, Clara did not lose her position, but her salary decreased to half of what her male coworkers earned. The office was rife with rumors that Clara was the mother of biracial children; she was subjected to jeers as she walked the gauntlet to her room. On March 4, 1861, the office closed so its employees could be part of the crowd of ten thousand to witness the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln.

The motto of the Prince of Wales, “I serve,” based on the German phrase “Ich dien,” was a precept Clara followed upon the eruption of the Civil War. The Baltimore Riot of 1861 resulted in the clash between the Massachusetts militia and Southern sympathizers, where the wounded ended up in the unfinished Capitol building. Clara hurried to the makeshift hospital and was aghast that some of injured men were her boys—her former students. She arranged for donations and delivered the supplies in her mule-drawn wagon.

Wherever the need was greatest, Clara was there. In Antietam, Maryland, she was in such proximity to the battlefield that a bullet passed through her sleeve and killed the soldier to whom she had been offering a sip of water. She shrugged off praise of her bravery by explaining its source, “It made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.” Her tireless devotion led surgeon James Dunn to write, “General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”

After the war, Clara organized a “missing man” bureau, authorized by President Lincoln, to discover the fate of soldiers to bring closure to their families. Her New York Times obituary stated that of the thirteen hundred graves in Andersonville Prison, she had identified all but four hundred. During a lecture tour after the war, Clara fought the hydra head of prejudice against the formerly enslaved and women. Through her activism, she befriended Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Worn down physically and psychologically, in 1869 Clara boarded The Caledonia, bound for Switzerland, where she learned of an organization whose emblem was a reversed Swiss flag: a red cross on a white background. The following year, during the Franco-Prussian War, Grand Duchess Louise of Baden beseeched Clara to put the Red Cross principles into play. Several photographs of Clara show her wearing a large amethyst pin in the shape of a pansy, a gift from the Grand Duchess. Tsar Nicholas II presented her with a silver cross of imperial Russia for her relief working during his empire’s famine. When she returned home, Clara convinced President Chester Arthur to sign the American Red Cross into law.

At age seventy-five, she and her Red Cross workers travelled to the Ottoman Empire, the site of the Armenian genocide. As a Muslim country, Turkey objected to the cross insignia, and Clara arranged for its obliteration on flags and armbands. The five-foot dynamo was in Havana, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War where the seventy-seven-year-old worked sixteen-hour days.

After twenty-three years as president of the Red Cross, in 1904 Clara’s opponents forced her to retire with the charge she was incapable of dealing with the behemoth she had willed into existence. Devastated, she remained indefatigable, and at age eighty-three, she started an association for emergency preparedness.


Clara Barton Birthplace Museum

America’s iconic nurse travelled the world, but the home of her birth retained a special niche in her soul. She recalled, “I love the old days all over again, every hour is as plain in my mental view as the best picture drawn before my eyes. The spot dearest to me there, the most like home, is the old house where my youth was passed. . . . It was a rather newly built house where I commenced my earthly pilgrimage.”

The modest white structure with black shutters is located at 66 Clara Barton Road. On view is Sarah’s wooden clock with fruit painted on its base, and a spinning wheel. A memento from Stephen is his brown leather wallet. David’s photo, sword, and Civil War commission, is the focus of the fireplace mantel. A highlight is the mobile field desk, either fashioned or purchased by David, that accompanied her on her travels. The desk holds a letter Clara wrote to her friend Mary Norton, whose framed photograph rests on its surface. Visitors tour the kitchen where a table holds period porcelain plates. Miscellaneous objects: a fountain-pen holder with several slots, a wooded bucket, (a reproduction), metal pitcher, Clara’s 1902 passport to Russia, a handheld brass school bell, her niece’s porcelain doll.

In the parlor is Sarah’s melodeon and her framed portrait hangs on the wall above the instrument. Clara’s bedroom holds a quilt with the names of forty-eight Civil War veterans and the date, 1868, and the first Red Cross First-Aid kit. There are several World War II Red Cross outfits on display.

The woman born on Christmas Day passed away on Good Friday, at age ninety, at her home, Glen Echo, Maryland, now a historical site. Her last words were, “Let me go. Let me go.” After seventy-five years of selfless devotion, it was time. Her burial was in North Cemetery, Oxford, in the family plot where her tombstone bears the names of the four battles in which she had participated. Nearby is a granite red cross. Upon her passing, the Angel of the Battlefield joined her celestial brethren.


A View from Her Window

When Clara looked from the window, she saw the adjacent barn-similar to the one in which her brother’s accident had segued into her life’s passion.


Nearby Attraction: Huguenot Fort

French Protestant refugees built the settlement, of which only a few stones remain. A stone cross bears the inscription, “In memory of the Huguenots exiles for their faith who made the first settlement of Oxford 1687.”