She was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts. Much younger than her four siblings, she was a shy, anxious child. She spent two years nursing an invalid brother back to health before going to work as a teacher at the age of 15. Teaching gave her confidence, but she left the classroom after 18 years, resigning in anger when a principal's position she expected went instead to a man. Single and intent on supporting herself, she took a job as a clerk in the Patent Office in Washington, where she was the lone woman in her office. No one saw anything extraordinary in Clara Barton. Then the war came.
After the opening battle at Manassas in July 1861, wounded Union soldiers were brought to several makeshift Washington “hospitals.” The Patent Office was one. Patients were placed on tables, “knocked together from pieces of scaffolding, and surrounded by cabinets holding models of invention,” Barton wrote. Shocked how ill-prepared the Union was to care for the wounded, Barton became not just a nurse, but also a one-woman soldiers' aid society. Gathering medicine and other supplies, she visited battle sites and field hospitals, not only to comfort the wounded, but also to prod army surgeons she considered careless into attending to their duties.