Clara Barton became known as “the Angel of the Battlefield” for her brave work as a nurse during the Civil War, yet that name belies her character as a woman of strong grit and determination who never backed down from a good fight.
Barton was living in Washington, D.C. in April 1861 when a battered regiment from Fort Sumter arrived in the unprepared capital. She immediately sprang into action collecting supplies and whatever the soldiers needed to recuperate. Barton had found her life’s mission.
Throughout the war she continued her tireless, heroic work. She said, “While our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.”
This very spirit is still very much alive in the Red Cross’ Service to the U.S. Armed Forces.
After the war, Barton moved to Europe to rest and it is there that she first learned of the International Red Cross during her time in Geneva, and contemplated founding an American branch. When she finally returned to the U.S., she officially founded the American Red Cross on May 21, 1881, but only after five years of resistance from U.S. politicians. She prevailed and singlehandedly ran the organization for the next 23 years.
Part of Barton’s legacy is that she helped make it possible for women to have careers, and nursing has always been an integral part of the Red Cross. In 1959, the Lee County Chapter of the American Red Cross became the second chapter in the nation to establish the School Gray Lady Program, placing nurses in school clinics across the county. In a letter, Mrs. Robert Clapper, chairman of the chapter in 1965, states, “Over the years, women of all ages have volunteered for training and have given many hours of service in Lee County school clinics.”
In her letter dated 1965, she cites 16,122 incidents of sick and injured children requiring care from 153 Gray Ladies during that school year. She notes that the work of the Gray Ladies is at the very heart of the Red Cross mission.
Ladies were eligible to work in clinics after completing an extensive course in first aid, given by the Red Cross. Their training allowed them to care for children’s minor injuries and ailments in school, but it sometimes kicked in to save lives outside school – as it did when one woman was able to save her son’s life due to the instruction she had received in the course.
The volunteer service provided by the Gray Ladies was vital to healthcare in Lee County.
Today, the American Red Cross is one of the largest humanitarian and disaster relief organizations in the country. Although the Gray Lady program no longer exists, the Southern Gulf Chapter, which includes Collier, Lee, Hendry and Glades Counties, continues to deliver important services to the community, most recently seen in response to local wildfires, flooding and Hurricane Irma.
To learn more about the American Red Cross visit redcross.org or call 239.278.3401.