Clara Barton: The Civil War and the American Red Cross
The importance of the American red cross to the United States of America nowadays is never underestimated due to the massive amount of miracles the agency has brought about during times of disaster. However, back in the late 1800s a woman named Clara Barton was having a significant amount of trouble trying to get the U.S. to form the Americanized version of the already operating foreign Red Cross. She was determined to establish a united American Red Cross to provide aid to not only war victims and families but to the ever growing population of disaster victims who were losing everything in times of crisis. From following cannons in the Civil War and going to the Geneva Convention to launching the Red Cross and providing relief until she died, Clara Barton quickly became one of the most influential American women of the 19th century.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born in Massachusetts on Christmas Day in 1821, almost as if she was a present sent from Christ himself. She was the last of five children and her parents Stephen and Sarah Barton were extremely strong willed people setting up Clara with a much needed inherited characteristic. Her father was a war veteran who instilled discipline in the children resulting in them being very studious and active. Clara had a huge appetite for work and recognition and was never really happy unless she faced some kind of difficult challenge. She was constantly standing up to people and wouldn’t let anybody push her around, especially because she was a woman. For example, while other women activists were committed to causes of abolition or educational reform or female suffrage, Barton went for more male dominated preserves: the federal bureaucracy and the world of war (Burton, 1995).
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After Clara left her current job of teaching for a little bit due to illness, she soon started noticing changes around her city as well as the country. “She saw the North shocked and frightened by the Dred Scott decision, and the South thrown into frenzy by John Brown’s raids. Anger mounted, bitterness grew, and each passing event sharpened the issue, widened the breach between men of the North and those of the South ( (Pace, 1941, p. 21)” Even though she was sure the men of her great nation would surely not fight against each other, shots were fired on April 12th, at Fort Sumter and the Civil War had begun. When the troops started marching to Washington, Clara noticed that there were several Massachusetts boys that she recognized that were now soldiers going off to fight in a war they were not prepared for. She was sure Washington was unable to properly supply them with bedding and clothing. She marched through the Senate Chamber that was housing her hometown soldiers and talked to a few she knew. Through doing this she discovered that the boys had already endured a small battle in which their luggage had been taken from them. So now they were left on a scorching hot day with nothing but the hot wool uniforms they had on. This was unacceptable to Clara and she immediately ran back to her house to scrape up anything she could find. She brought sheets to be cut up into little pieces for handkerchiefs and towels, as well as needles, threads, button, forks and spoons, candles, and scissors. She spent the rest of the day handing out supplies and nursing the men, but she still felt like she needed to do more. The next day she went back and provided entertainment for the impatient soldiers by reading local newspapers from their hometowns to cheer them up (Pace, 1941).
It was on this day that she realized that she would no longer teach, and that it was here helping out the soldiers in times of war in which she belonged.
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“But now there was work to be done, and, in her pity for the men, she must force herself to forget her own qualms (Pace, 1941, p. 27).” This was Clara’s attitude of having to ignore her inclinations to run away from the disastrous and bloody scenarios of war and be strong enough to help treat the wounded, even though the task seemed almost impossible at time. However, an even greater challenge soon arrived as Clara began to realize that a massive amount of men were dying simply because they were not getting help fast enough. Many of the men could be saved if they had been fed sooner or picked up off the rain soaked dirt earlier. It was thinking about this over and over that led Clara to come up with the bright idea to get women to help. She claimed that no one would care more than mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters of the war victims and so she put an ad in the newspaper asking for help and supplies. She couldn’t afford to pay anyone or have anyone help her store the items, but she did get an overwhelming supply of goods that would help a great deal. She went so far as to even convert her entire living space into storage for supplies. Even though Clara was thoroughly impressed by the enormous generosity, she still struggled with the idea that men were dying because it took them almost three days to get to the hospital (Burton, 1995).
She then made the most rash and unexpected decision ever made by a woman during these times: to help and treat me on the battlefield.
She knew that it would hard, but she could endure it. But now she had to get permission to go through the lines and onto the battlefield. She went to the Governor of Massachusetts and agreed to tell him about some men guilty of treason who were selling the enemies equipment that she learned about by keeping in contact with some of the soldiers, if he would give her a pass to go into the war zone. The governor agreed and immediately arrested the twenty five men and told Clara he gives her his hearty approval. However she reached a bit of a setback when a local surgeon, whose permission was necessary, wrote to the governor telling him that it was not a good idea for Clara to receive permission to act as a nurse. So she gathered up her belongings and headed to Washington, stopping in every town on the way to try to convince women to help her, and had every intention of trying to convince whoever it would take to get permission. Finally, she got a note from the Surgeon General of the United States Army, William A. Hammond, on July 11, 1862 giving her permission to go about the war zone and distribute help as needed (Barton, 1928).
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A short time later she was given an enormous wagon with three mules and some mule drivers to help her move the supplies to wherever she needed to go.
Next up on Clara’s list was the Second Battle of Bull Run, where she was immediately bombarded with wounded and dead soldiers. She set up beds of hay for the men to lay on while two fires were set up. With one fire she began to boil water to bathe the wounds, and the other she used to cook food for the starving men. As she moved throughout the group, treating and caring for each man, she began to get a lot of letters from the men to send home to their families. This made it increasingly difficult to even continue, but Clara being Clara mustered through it and gracefully helped as much as she could in what felt like an endless task. The next morning an officer told Ms. Barton that “we must expect a raid any hour. We must move the wounded as rapidly as possible, and I suggest that you leave at once (Pace, 1941, p. 40).” Clara was pretty much laughing at the officer for thinking she would leave now, especially when there was so much work to do. She immediately started helping to load men into the wagons to be carried to nearby hospitals. Once again Federal officers kept trying to get Clara to leave, fearing that she would captured because the enemy would view her as a Yankee. Clara’s response directly summarized her entire character when she said “I’m neutral. I am here to care for Northerners and Southerners alike. I won’t leave a wounded man here- not if I’m taken prisoner forty times over! Besides, when the attack comes, there will be more men-like those out there- to be cared for. I’ll wait for them (Pace, 1941, p. 41).”
She was soon awakened the next morning by gun fire and bombs and she realized that the Confederate army was making its way in close to her, with only her hometown Massachusetts men in between them. After a couple days of treating thousands of wounded and dead soldiers, the North retreated just in time for the supplies to run out, and she, as well as the rest of the men, made their way to Alexandria. Along the way she started to make friends with the men, especially the important military operation secret-holding ones, which would come in handy later on when she realized that she needed to know when an attack would occur so that she could be there first thing to treat the wounded. When someone sneakily told her about Harper’s Ferry, she was on her way. However, even though she was pleased that her connection had worked, when she arrived she was stuck behind all of the medical wagons and everyone was setting up camp and going to sleep, making her extremely impatient and disappointed. So what she decided to do, against orders, was demand that her wagon drivers wake up and take her to the scene of the battle anyways, ahead of everyone else so that she could get to the wounded right away. Thankfully, Harper’s Ferry was a little tiny encounter and had ended before Clara got there. But little did she know that the great bloody Battle of Antietam was just around the corner (Barton, 1928).
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By following the cannon she pulled up just in time for the first shots. She found a trail nearby and assumed it would lead to a house, a great spot to house and treat victims. When she got to the house she was surprised to see that there was already tables set up for the first wounded men, and Doctor Dunn, a man she knew was there to great her happily claiming that that they desperately needed her supplies. This had to be the worst battle yet, with bodies piling up like crazy and smoke feeling everyone’s lungs up and making it hard to see. Plus she was right in the middle of it and bullets were flying by her. “There was no time to think of them or fear them. Even when one whizzed by, ripping the sleeve of her dress, Clara scarcely paused to pay attention (Pace, 1941, p. 57).” After fire ceased, and she cared for the last wounded soldier, she was more than ready to go home, proclaiming that “in a war everybody loses (Pace, 1941, p. 57).”
She didn’t get to rest for long though because next came the Northern attack on Fredericksburg. Bodies were carried into a twelve room house she had found nearby, and quickly the enormous house was crowded with hurt soldiers. So many that you couldn’t walk through the house, and the critically injured people had to be put under a table in order to not be stepped on. They even started placing people on countertops and soldiers waited outside in the blistering cold for someone to die so they could take his place. However, she still didn’t know the magnitude of soldiers that were wounded. After she crossed a terrifying bridge over to Fredericksburg in the midst of the shooting and had some of her clothes shot off, she was astonished to see that there were thousands of bodies laying in the street because all the churches and schools and houses were filled up and turned into hospitals. Even though she was in the middle of dangerous and deadly warzone Clara wasn’t scared because she was “the most protected women in America…with the whole army as a guard (Pace, 1941, p. 59).” Although, she did find it rather difficult at times especially when she saw someone she knew or one of her young students that she used to teach all covered in blood. But Clara never once doubted her line of work because at the end of the day she was making a difference, not just in the men’s lives that she saved, but for their friends and families as well. Her duty to protect the fallen was giving many Americans the choice of life over death.
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“Go to Carolina-Charleston will be next, (Pace, 1941, p. 61)” was the next secret message she received from one of her sources, so within a few hours she was on a steam boat headed for the south. This was probably the worst experience of her life. Not only were people dying from bullets, but also from extreme heat and swarms of insects causing great amounts of fever. Not to mention she was on little islands on the South Carolina shore line half the time, and would often see men who could have been saved, fall into the ocean or be swept away by tides and not be seen again. And then, the army took a huge blow when Clara herself caught the fever and was sick for several weeks and didn’t fully recover until winter. However, she was increasingly homesick and decided to go home to New England for a little bit and rest up. A few weeks later she was back in Washington and ready to work. After receiving new passes to continue helping the army, she was off the Fredericksburg for what she knew would be another chaotic and horrific winter. When she arrived in Fredericksburg she saw that she was indeed right and there were probably more dead and wounded bodies that last time. Except this time, she was without supplies because they were taken by car and had not arrived yet, and she quickly realized that no one there knew what was going on.
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They were all pretty much just sitting around waiting for orders while thousands of men were perishing. So Clara decided to go back to Washington and demand help from the War Department. She told the military committee of the Senate about the horrible delay and conditions in Fredericksburg and by the next day they sent supplies and Clara went along to start helping out. By mid May she was done in Fredericksburg and soon received a letter telling her that she had been appointed Superintendent of Nurses for the Army of the James (Barton, 1928), and she must immediately head to camp Petersburg in Virginia. Even though most people thought it would be suicide for her to go to the south again because of how she got fever the last time, she simply responded “We can’t live out of our natural element, can we? I’ll keep quiet when the war is over (Pace, 1941, p. 82).”
There were four hospitals in Petersburg and Clara was in charge of them all and for the first time worked under military authority. She had a difficult task of constantly moving hospitals whenever she was ordered to and had to make sure every victim was transported and had a place to be put in the next hospital. Also, due to the cook falling ill she had to take over as the army chef and prepare huge amounts of food daily, which she usually did at night while everyone slept (Barton, 1928).
That was the beauty of her character; she never cared much about her own sleep or personal comfort, and often slept in tents with hay for bedding. Finally, General Lee from the South surrendered and Clara was able to back to Washington and sleep comfortably and fully clothed (Pace, 1941).
She spent the next four years helping people around the country track down the soldiers in their family and helped mark graves of buried soldiers and plant shrubs around them to make it more peaceful. Since she was investing all of her little remaining money in this task, she decided to start giving lectures about her war experience. She traveled the country and became know as a speaker, enlightening people about her duty and honor of protecting the men of the United States Army. One night, when about to give a speech in front of a large crowd, she became ill and had no voice. A doctor ordered her three years bed rest, and suggested she go somewhere abroad to keep quiet. So following the doctor’s advice, in September of 1869, Clara headed for Europe (Burton, 1995).
She arrived in Geneva, Switzerland and was immediately told by an attendant that some men wanted to see her for a business matter. Confusingly she agreed and was introduced to a man named Doctor Louis Appia who was an officer for the International Convention of Geneva, or most commonly known as the Red Cross. He explained to her that 22 nations had joined the Red Cross, and he was mystified as to why the United Stated had not agreed to become part of the much needed union. Clara, not knowing what the Red Cross was at the time, was informed how it was an “organization for the relief of suffering during wars. Among other things, all hospitals, everyone who works in them, the sick and wounded sheltered there, are to be treated as neutrals. No army will fire on them; nobody will try to take them prisoner (Pace, 1941, pp. 100-104).” Clara was astonished with the idea as she thought about all those men who could have been saved if she didn’t have to constantly move hospitals for fear of an attack. She was even more excited when she learned that the agency also prevented doctors on the war field as well as all medical supplies. The doctor went on to tell her of the Red Cross on a white flag insignia that they used because a cross is a universal symbol and could be used for all hospitals across the world. Clara, understanding and becoming extremely enthusiastic about the Red Cross, found it very hard to explain why the United States had not joined the convention yet. She assumed that maybe they hadn’t heard of it yet, and that surely they would welcome it. Although she wanted to rush over to America right away and start fighting and campaigning for the American Red Cross, she knew that she was still really sick and need to rest until she had enough strength to do so. She decided to rest in Corsica and had every intention on staying there until the unthinkable happened: France and Germany went to war (Barton, 1928)!
She soon found herself in Basle, the central depot of the Red Cross during the war, and was astounded by how much supplies they had. She was so breath taken by how everything was so organized and friendly. There was no chaos or threat of attack like there had been during the Civil War. Even though brutal bloodshed was taking place outside, there was never any form of violence or brawls anywhere that was marked with the Red Cross logo. Even though she enjoyed the peace and stability of the hospital, she was more than ready to be in the middle of the action and so she went off to Strasbourg. There she saw many refugees, including women and young children, all racing back to the Swiss border scared for their lives. Many times Clara was told to turn around and go back, but she kept marching on in typical Clara fashion. However, when she reached the town there was little to be done and so her next task was to try to get past German-lines. She went from town to town with an American flag on her wagon, hoping this would let her pass through. It was working for the most part, but some were suspicious. So Clara, knowing that most of the soldiers were unaware of what flags were for which countries, decided to pin a red piece of thread onto her coat in the shape of a cross.
She knew that they would understand the insignia and let her pass. She then started doing what she does best: helping the wounded. “Here there were plenty of clean white bandages and necessary medicines on hand. There was food to feed the sick, pure water for their thirst, and trained people to give them care (Pace, 1941, p. 112).”She soon began to notice how efficiently the Red Cross operated and how many lives were saved because they didn’t need to worry about supplies being held up or men laying in the mud for days without help. It was this that made her promise herself that she would go back to America and make people hear how important this was. She would make people sign that treaty even if it meant the death of her!
Finally, the war ended and Clara, after becoming a hero in Europe, journeyed back to America. However, she became extremely ill and was on bed rest for many months in Dansville, NY. Although she could not go out or talk to anyone, she took this time to read everything she could about the Red Cross and gathered her ideas for launching it in the U.S. After receiving a letter to the President from Doctor Appia explaining the Red Cross and its desire for the U.S. to join, Clara was off to Washington to speak to the president directly. President Rutherford B. Hayes was not really fond of the idea, and sent her from one man to another to try to get it approved, but much to her dismay no one thought the Red Cross was a good idea. It upset many people who felt that U.S. should not engage in any type of union with foreign countries. Thankfully, in 1880 there was an election and President James A. Garfield was elected. Garfield really like the idea and sent her off to Secretary of State Blaine with a note of approval. Blaine as well as every other cabinet member favored the idea, and soon there afterwards she was notified that the President was going to recommend Congress adopts the treaty. So Clara went to Washington and organized the National Society of the Red Cross. She was made president and couldn’t wait to start building the Red Cross up. But then tragedy struck and President Garfield was shot and died several months later (Burton, 1995).
She returned to Dansville, uncertain of what would happen to her beloved organization.
Then the biggest turning point in the American Red Cross history occurred. There was huge forest fire in Michigan and people were literally running away from the flames. Knowing that people would be hurt, homeless, and hungry she realized that the Red Cross should not just be a war relief program, but should also tackle natural disasters. Soon she was out in the smoke filled territories surrounded by people wearing the red cross logo with boxes of supplies and the Red Cross flag flying high in the air for the first time on American soil. Her work in Michigan gave her nationwide coverage and she soon started getting calls from cities that wanted to start their own chapter. And finally on March 16th, she was informed that the official American Red Cross treaty had been approved and signed! Clara claimed “I’ll go back to Dansville now and retire. My job is finished here (Pace, 1941, p. 132).” Of course she didn’t retire though because she went on to become an even greater hero and was on the scene of every major disaster up until her death on Good Friday in 1912.
As one can accurately say Clara Barton was one of the most honorable, important, and selfless women of the nineteenth century. Her bravery and the need to help out have led to one of the most heavily relied on disaster relief organizations in America, as well as around the world. Despite being a woman at times where women weren’t supposed to have anything to do with war or politics, Clara stood up and demanded some of the strongest around in order to protect the heroic soldiers as well as just American citizens in general. Her grace, solitude, nobleness, and effort will always be remembered and she will forever have a huge mark on American history.
Barton, Clara. A Story of the Red Cross Glimpses of Field Work. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1928. Print.
Burton, David H. Clara Barton in the Service of Humanity. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1995. Print.
Pace, Mildred Mastin. Clara Barton. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941. Print.