Civil War Nurse, Founder of the American Red Cross
Clara Barton was the most famous of many women who worked heroically to provide care and comfort to wounded Civil War soldiers. In so doing, she and others like her raised the nation’s standards for the care of its fallen soldiers.
Born in Oxford, Massachusetts, in 1821, Barton began working as a teacher at age 15; in 1852 she founded a successful school in Bordentown, New Jersey. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Barton worked as a copyist in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. She soon became engaged in distributing useful items to troops from her native Massachusetts who were stationed in and around Washington. Her appeals to her home state resulted in generous shipments of shirts, socks, jellies, and other items to make the soldiers’ lives in camp more pleasant. After the first battle of Bull Run in 1861, she helped tend the many wounded who flooded into and around Washington. The experience made her determined to go to the battlefield next time, to be as close to the action as possible.
Tending to the wounded in the field was then considered unsuitable work for a woman, and military authorities were reluctant to grant her permission to enter the war zone. By August 1862, however, she succeeded in reaching the front in Virginia, accompanying several wagonloads of supplies for the soldiers. She arrived at the battlefield of Cedar Mountain four days after the battle and there had her first experience of tending the wounded on the front lines. Soon after she helped tend the much larger number of wounded from the second battle of Bull Run, winning the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” At Antietam she was close enough to the action that a stray bullet passed through the sleeve of her dress and killed a man to whom she was handing a drink of water.
After Antietam, Barton was laid up for some time with typhoid fever. Back to work by December, she was at Fredericksburg for the major battle fought there that month and was once again under fire while tending the wounded. In May 1863 she accompanied her brother, a captain in the quartermaster corps, to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where she remained for several months, missing the great eastern campaigns of that spring and summer, but conducting a personal campaign of her own—an affair with a married colonel. After the failed assaults on Fort Wagner, Barton was back tending the wounded. Eventually, by means of constant entreaties, complaints, and requests to draw supplies from the quartermaster, she made herself unwelcome on Morris Island, and Gen. Quincy Gillmore ordered her back to Beaufort. Barton was outraged as well as deeply depressed and contemplated suicide.
She recovered, however, returned to Washington, and was soon tending the vast numbers of wounded from Grant’s Overland Campaign and subsequent operations against Richmond. As wounded from the great campaign inundated the town of Fredericksburg, now a rear area, Barton acted forcefully to ameliorate appalling conditions; she convinced Sen. Henry Wilson of Massachusetts to pressure the War Department into taking immediate vigorous action to see that the wounded received at least marginally adequate food, shelter, and care. Once again Barton also helped with resources she raised privately.
As the dual siege of Richmond and Petersburg began, Barton found her way to the Army of the James in its lines on Bermuda Hundred. The U.S. Sanitary Commission, U.S. Christian Commission, and various state relief agencies were already setting up facilities to care for the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac, and she did not want to share her sphere of activity with those agencies or indeed with any other caregivers except perhaps a few independents like herself. Barton never could get along with fellow workers who were not under her authority, and she routinely clashed with other nurses. With the Army of the James more or less all to herself, Barton made a good impression on its commander, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler, who assigned her to provide care and nutrition for the soldiers in a mobile field hospital.
Late in the war, Barton turned her energies to finding missing persons and gravesites—a staggering task, since a majority of the Union war dead had no known gravesites. She gained Lincoln’s approval and set up a private organization that she called Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army. She succeeded in accounting for several thousand men, though these were only a small fraction of the total number of missing from the war. She also supervised the registration of Union soldiers’ graves at Andersonville, Georgia, the notorious Confederate prison camp where thousands had died. She helped oversee the establishment of a national cemetery there, prompting the Andersonville Survivors’ Association to make her an honorary member. Thereafter, she went on the lecture circuit for two years with great success and became a national figure.
Traveling in Europe to rest and recover her health, Barton was on hand for the Franco-Prussian War, and once again she took an active role in trying to help soldiers and civilians who had been affected by the conflict. While in Europe she was impressed with the newly organized International Red Cross, and she determined to set up such an organization in the United States. Returning to America in 1873, Barton lobbied for congressional ratification of the first Geneva Convention, an international treaty aimed at ameliorating the effects of war on soldiers and civilians. After years of petitioning and agitation, she succeeded in establishing the American Red Cross in 1881.
Clara Barton was fearless, dedicated, and fiercely determined, but she was also headstrong and insatiably hungry for praise and recognition. Along with other women such as Mary Ann Bickerdyke and Dorothea Dix, she helped open the way for women in military nursing, and she brought welcome and much needed care and supplies to thousands of wounded soldiers. She was hindered, however, by her inability to administrate or to work with others cooperatively. Nevertheless she was part of an important forward step in the care of sick and wounded soldiers.
Andersonville; Civil War; Nurses, Military
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