In this month’s Civil War Bivouac, I want to introduce you to a major player in the Civil War, and in American history. This person was not a Major General, Colonel, President, or even marching soldier. She was a woman who heard military stories and the tragic tales of the casualties of war when she was a young girl. She took all of this knowledge, and with a heart filled with compassion and a will of iron, used her assets to start one of the most enduring institutions still in existence today ~ The American Red Cross.
|Clara Barton circa 1866|
"The Angel of the Battlefield"
CLARA BARTON was one of America's greatest heroines—a genuine patriot and humanitarian. When she saw pressing needs of those in distress, she gave every bit of her courage and strength to take matters in hand, and see them through.
She was born on Christmas day in 1821 in Oxford, Massachusetts, to a farmer, who had been a soldier in his younger days. Her father regaled her with war stories that she would carry deep within her and would inspire her later on in her adult life.
Clara was shy. To overcome her shyness, she started teaching at the young age of 15. At some point, she was requested to teach at a private school. It was during this period that she saw the real need for free education. She helped set up one of the first free public schools in the state of Massachusetts. Eventually, in 1854, she moved to Washington and it became her permanent home. In Washington, she worked in the U.S. Patent Office as a clerk.
In 1861, at the start of the American Civil War, a train loaded with Massachusetts soldiers came to Washington. The regiment had lost all of its supplies when attacked in Baltimore by Confederate sympathizers. The regiment was housed in the unfinished Capitol Building. Clara immediately saw a real need and went to work collecting sheets, handkerchiefs, socks, and anything they could use. She also cooked for the home state regiment.
After the battle of Bull Run in 1861, she heard that there was a terrible shortage of supplies—bandages, blankets, medicine—and set out advertising in local newspapers for donations. The response from the public was overwhelming. She established a supply depot to get the provisions and materials where they were needed quickly. In 1862, she won approval from the government to personally deliver supplies on to the battlefields.
“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.”
~Dr. James Dunn, surgeon at Antietam Battlefield.
In September of 1862, Clara Barton arrived at the famous “cornfield” in Sharpsburg, Maryland, not too far from Antietam Creek. How she got there is a story in itself—a true miracle by God. When she arrived, she got a full view of the gruesome side of war during the battle. She watched the fretful army doctors dressing wounds with corn husks or anything else they could find. The army’s medical supply wagon was far behind the quick moving Federal troops, and she gave the grateful surgeons her supply wagon.
Once there, Clara got to work quickly. With artillery shells and bullets flying, she cradled the injured and dying in her arms as she coaxed them to take a sip of water or bandaged their wounds.
As she bent over a wounded man to give him a drink of water, she felt something hit her sleeve. She looked and saw a bullet had pierced the puffy part of the sleeve. Unfortunately, the bullet hit the man she was caring for, and he died shortly thereafter. He died right there in her arms.
"A ball has passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve. I wonder if a soldier ever does mend a bullet hole in his coat?"
~Clara Barton at Antietam
With her dark dress, bonnet, and red bow, she was what we could call a living icon. Her unselfish mercy and compassion for the wounded earned her the title—The Angel of the Battlefield. Her self-appointed duties took her to some of the most horrendous battlefields in the war where she nursed the wounded, wrote letters to home for the men, and listened to their personal stories.
She worked in and out of the field until the end of the war.
In 1865, she started a new project. Clara helped with the effort to identify more than 13,000 unknown dead Union soldiers at the ghastly prisoner-of-war camp in Andersonville, Georgia. Her Civil War duties climaxed when she proposed that a national cemetery be built around the graves of the Union dead there at Andersonville. She helped raise the flag over the grounds at the dedication in 1865.
During a trip to Europe in 1870, she witnessed the conflict between Prussa and France. Once again, she was drawn to the battlefields to help. When she returned to the United States, she was more determined to establish The American Red Cross. The United States government was unenthusiastic about the idea because it could not imagine itself entangled in another brutal Civil War. Finally in 1881, at the age of nearly 60 years old, Clara convinced the government to identify the Red Cross as an aid for natural disasters.
Miss Barton never married. She continued her work in the field well into her seventies. She was the president of the American Red Cross until 1904. She died in 1912 at the age of ninety.
This is just a brief description of her life. In each of these stories, there is the tale of what she endured and fought for—what she won, lost, and battled against—so many depths to the complete story. Clara Barton was a true American heroine.
Who is your favorite real heroine of the past or present?
Between you, me and the gatepost,