Clara Barton did not have any formal training in nursing. She, like many women in the nineteenth century, acquired her nursing skills by nursing a member of her own family. In Barton's case it was her older brother, David, who was seriously injured in a fall during a barn raising. Clara was only eleven years old, but she took the lead and caring for him for two years until he is fully recovered. These skills would serve her well when the Civil War broke out.
While the majority of Barton's work during the Civil War entailed providing medical supplies and food to the hospitals on the battlefields, she did assist the surgeons on many occasions. She removed the bullet from a wounded man's face after the Battle of Antietam, served under enemy fire at Fredericksburg, and nursed many wounded soldiers after the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina. In 1864 she assisted with the nurses for the Army of the James at the request of General Benjamin Butler. Her duties included organizing and moving the tent hospitals, and assisting with the wounded sent north from the battles around Richmond.
Barton understood the necessity of providing nursing care and emotional support as well as supplies after natural disasters, and ensured that the Red Cross was able to care for the health and well-being of victims as well as helping with food, clothing and shelter. Providing medical supplies and assisting with the evacuation of the wounded would become core services provided by the Red Cross.
"I learned to take all directions for his medicines from his physician (who had eminent counsel) and to administer them like a genuine nurse. 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 draft the angry blisters, and thus it came about, that I was the accepted and acknowledged nurse of a man almost too ill to recover."
-- Clara Barton, The Story of My Childhood, 1907
"I hear from no one and indeed I scarce write at all, and no one would wonder if they could look in upon my family and know besides that we had moved this week - yes, moved the family of fifteen hundred men, and had to keep our house-keeping up all the time, and no one to be ready at hand and ask us to take tea the first night either."
-- Clara Barton, letter to Fannie Vassall, September 3, 1864
"My sleepy emotions awoke me and a dear, blessed woman was bathing my temples and fanning my fevered face. Clara Barton was there, an angel of mercy doing all in mortal power to assuage the miseries of the unfortunate soldiers."
-- Colonel John J Elwell, after the attack on Fort Wagner, July 11, 1863. From William Eleazer Barton, the Life of Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross, Vol. 1, 1922