The Legacy of Gilded Age Heroine Clara Barton

Patricia O’Connell

Clara Barton makes a cameo appearance in HBO’s hit series The Gilded Age as she seeks to raise funds for the fledgling American Red Cross. In founding – and funding – one of the first national, secular charitable organizations in the U.S., Barton is shown seeking the help of the influential, wealthy, and well-known.

While the series is fiction, it largely hews to fact regarding Barton and her humanitarian efforts, not only about the Red Cross but also her prior work nursing soldiers during the Civil War. For those efforts, she earned the moniker “The Angel of the Battlefield.” Indeed, it is for her nursing efforts and her work with the Red Cross that Barton is best known.

Yet her accomplishments and significance go beyond those impressive credentials. Here is a look at multiple facets of Barton’s legacy, and the lessons they offer for women today.


Contrary to popular belief, Barton was never a professional nurse, nor was she trained as one. At the age of 11, she acquired nursing skills while tending to her beloved older brother David, after he was injured in a construction accident.

My little hands became schooled to the handling of the great, loathsome, crawling leeches which were at first so many snakes to me, and no fingers could so painlessly dress the angry blisters; and thus it came about, that I was the accepted and acknowledged nurse of a man almost too ill to recover,” Barton wrote in her memoir, The Story of My Childhood.

Her determination to assist her brother helped her overcome her fear and made the family physician trust much of David’s care to Clara.


Granted, the battle for equity in the workplace is far from over. But Barton was likely one of the first women to demand equal pay for equal work – and take action over it. At the age of 18 she became a teacher in her native Massachusetts. Some 15 years later, she moved to Bordentown N.J., where she established the first free school. She quit after she discovered that a man was being paid twice her salary for the same job.

This was her first experience with inequity at work, but not her last. After leaving Bordentown, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office – an unusual position for women at the time. She was paid the same salary as men, though that victory was short-lived.

A year later, she was demoted – on the grounds of opposition to women working in government – and her salary reduced. In 1858, her position was eliminated by President Buchanan’s government. She left Washington and returned to work in the Patent Office after the election of President Lincoln.


Her return to Washington placed her close to the scene of the Baltimore Riot of April 19, 1861, which marked the beginning of bloodshed in the Civil War. It also marked the beginning of Barton’s work tending to the wounded. Over the years, that would include nursing, reading to soldiers and writing letters for them, collecting and distributing supplies, and finally, tending to the wounded on battlefields. One surgeon she worked with wrote of her, “In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.”

As the Civil War drew to a close in the spring of 1865, Barton was still eager to assist somehow. With President Lincoln’s blessing, she founded the Missing Soldiers Office and over the course of four years helped reunite soldiers with families, inform families of the fate of dead soldiers, and identify and lay to rest unidentified bodies for both Union and Confederate soldiers.


Barton consistently and repeatedly fought for her beliefs and rights, whether it was to work in government, to serve on the battlefield, to help soldiers and their families after the war, and, perhaps most importantly, to get the United States to sign the Geneva Treaty in 1881 – 17 years after it was drafted. The 1864 Treaty ensured that sick or wounded soldiers, surgeons, nurses, hospitals, suppliers, and civilians offering aid would be considered neutral and protected on battlefields. Such people would be under the protection of the “Red Cross” – a white flag emblazoned with a red cross, a play on neutral Switzerland’s red flag with a white cross.

She pled the case to three Presidents – Garfield, Buchanan, and Arthur, who finally signed the Treaty – from 1877 to 1881. Thus the path was  paved for the establishment of the American Red Cross in 1881, which Barton led as its first President for 22 years.


Barton relied on friends and supporters to help fund her assistance efforts as far back as the Civil War. When it came time to raise funds and awareness for the Red Cross, she did likewise, counting prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass among her supporters. Her own prominence gave her entrée among influential people in Europe, who begged her to take the idea of the Red Cross back to America.


The International Red Cross started out as a way to assist the wounded during wartime. The American Red Cross did likewise, until Barton saw that providing disaster assistance to all Americans was a way she could expand its mission and do good as the United States was still healing from the divisive effects of the Civil War.

Today, the American Red Cross has six main areas of service: National Blood Services, Disaster Management Services, Safety Services, Health Services, Welfare Services, and Red Cross Youth, with numerous programs under each, ranging from blood drives to swimming classes to onsite relief in the wake of such events as Hurricane Katrina.


Her family thought her timid as a child, and she never lost that sense of it about herself. “My timid sensitiveness must have given great annoyance to my friends. If I ever could have gotten entirely over it, it would have given far less annoyance and trouble to myself all through life,” she wrote in her memoir.

The woman who strode across battlefields confessed, “To this day, I would rather stand behind the lines of artillery at Antietam, or cross the pontoon bridge under fire at Fredericksburg, than to be expected to preside at a public meeting.”

Yet she did not let those feelings inhibit her service. After the war, she spent two years giving paid speeches, for a fee of $75 or $100 – the same amount writer Ralph Waldo Emerson received for appearances. She donated a portion of her fees to charities aiding the poor, and war widows and orphans.

Barton is a study in contradiction and conviction. She had no formal training as a nurse yet received great acclaim for her nursing skills. Considered timid, she risked her life numerous times while aiding the wounded in several wars. The woman lobbied not one but four presidents for various causes.

Ultimately, however, she is an inspiration. She laid the foundation for what would become one of the most prominent, successful, well-regarded nonprofits in the United States, reliant on the contributions of corporations, collaborations with celebrities, and the efforts of countless individual volunteers. Her story reminds women that they need not settle for less than equal treatment, pay, opportunity – and recognition.


The Business of Running the Red Cross

The American Red Cross is not only one of the oldest U.S. charities, it is one of the largest. According to Charity Navigator, the organization had revenues of some $2.63 billion in 2020 (the latest year for which figures are available). It was outpaced only by Feeding America, with $3.3 billion.

The American Red Cross is funded largely by donations from individuals, foundations, and the corporate sector, underscoring the deep link between charities and Corporate America. Companies who commit $3 million or more annually include Amazon, Lowes Companies, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation, and Wells Fargo. In addition, Latter-day Saint Charities and the USAA Foundation also give in that amount.

A total of 21 companies, foundations, and organizations pledged amounts of $1 million or more through the Annual Disaster Giving Program and Disaster Responder Programs. Another 39 pledged at the $500,000 level.

Funds are also raised through the sale of licensed merchandise, ranging from first aid kits to clothing to “manikins,” and the Red Cross receives cost-recovery charges for certain services, including providing blood and blood products, and health and safety training courses.

Its current CEO, Gail McGovern, who has been in the job since 2008, is credited with helping to turn around the organization’s fortunes by applying a more business-like approach. When the former management executive and Harvard Business School faculty member took over, the Red Cross was running at a deficit. Says McGovern about running a non-profit compared to a business, “…you really have to not only lead with your head, you have to lead with your heart.”