Monday, November 25, 2013

Clara Barton: Battlefield Angel, Embattled Spirit

Clara Barton (1821-1912)
Postage Stamp of 1943

What is Clara Barton known for? Yes: for that, certainly.  But what else is she known for?

A few years ago I would have had no answer to that question. Then, as a Red Cross volunteer, I was asked to prepare a presentation on Clara Barton. As I learned more and more about her life and accomplishments she moved up and up on my list of heroes.

Barton's founding of the American Red Cross resulted from a doctor's advice in 1869 that she travel to Europe to recover from fatigue so severe that her voice and vision had failed. The trip put Barton in touch with Europe's Red Cross movement, formed six years earlier. Instead of resting as her doctor had ordered, she characteristically volunteered for International Red Cross work during the Franco-Prussian war.

Barton returned to the U.S. and collapsed with what was diagnosed as "nervous prostration." For four years she was an invalid. To rouse herself she needed a new cause, and she found it in her determination to affiliate the U.S. with the International Red Cross movement. In 1881 she brought together a group of twenty-two citizens who became charter members of the American Red Cross, with Barton as President.

Other accomplishments?
  • She founded the first successful free school in New Jersey, initiating the establishment of free public education in that state. (1852–54)
  • She was among the first female employees of the U.S. government, as a clerk in the Patent Office. (1854–57)
  • She pioneered impartial battlefield care of wounded soldiers during the Civil War—"between the bullet and the hospital," she said—always at her own initiative, often at her own expense, and sometimes under fire. (1862–65)
  • She traveled with the Army in its post-war reclamation of the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, and in recognition of her services was invited to run up the flag over a completed cemetery of 30,000 graves with identifying headstones, only 400 of them inscribed "Unknown U.S. Soldier." (1865)
  • She was head of the government's Office of Missing Soldiers, upon the recommendation of President Lincoln, processing over 60,000 inquiries and accounting for 22,000 soldiers. See the images at the bottom of this posting. (1865–69)
  • She was perhaps the first woman to testify before Congress, presenting a successful petition for additional funds to support her Office of Missing Soldiers. (1866)
  • She was awarded the Iron Cross of Germany by Kaiser Wilhelm for her work among European civilians suffering from the Franco-Prussian war. (1873)
  • She waged a successful five-year crusade for Senate ratification of the Geneva Convention of 1864, overcoming the State Department's isolationist philosophy of avoiding alliances with other nations. (1877–82)
  • She served a year as Superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women, overseeing progressive policies advocated by such social pioneers as Dorothea Dix and Elizabeth Fry. (1883–84)
  • She attended the Third International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva, the first woman to serve the U.S. as an official diplomatic representative. (1884)
  • She persuaded the International Red Cross to adopt the American Red Cross practice—which she herself had established—of extending relief work beyond battlefields into civilian disasters such as earthquakes, fires, and floods. (1884)
  • She devoted countless months—till the age of 79—to directing civilian relief on the scenes of domestic catastrophes, such as the 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the 1893 hurricane in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, and the 1900 hurricane and tidal wave that struck Galveston, Texas.
  • She received the Second Order of Shekafet for exceptional service to the Ottoman Empire, never before awarded to a woman. (1896)
  • She campaigned for years to achieve a congressional Charter charging the American Red Cross with three responsibilities: educating the public about the Geneva Conventions, providing family communications for military personnel, and maintaining a system of domestic and international disaster relief. (1900; expanded 1905)
  • She founded the National First Aid Association of America, introducing family supply kits and teaching the public about basic first aid and disaster preparedness. (1905)

All of this Barton did in the face of continual, glaring discrimination against women. When, for example, her free school in New Jersey proved a thriving success, the governing board built a handsome new school, then brought in a male schoolmaster (salary $600) and made Barton his "female assistant" (salary $250). Barton resigned, broken-hearted:
I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay.
Similar discrimination by a male director and staff led to her departure from the U.S. Patent Office.

Another man, however—Surgeon James Dunn of Pennsylvania, observing Barton as she tended soldiers with arms mangled, legs missing, jaws blown away—gave her an honorific that has survived the decades:
In my feeble estimation, Gen. McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside her, ...the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.
"Twisted bodies, splintered bones, raw flesh, burning fevers, and fetid tired," Barton noted in her diary near the front at Petersburg. And to a close friend:
[Today] I have cooked ten dozen eggs, made cracker toast, corn starch, blanc mange, milk punch, arrow-root, washed faces and hands, put ice on hot heads, mustard on cold feet, written six soldiers' letters home, stood beside three death-beds—and now, at this hour, midnight, I am too sleepy and stupid to write even you a tolerable readable scrap.
After the battle of Fredericksburg, where she had found living men frozen to bare ground by their own blood, she wrote to a friend: 
I wrung the blood from the bottom of my clothing, before I could step, for the weight about my feet.
She describes her long trip back home to Washington, riding on wagons and a steamer, wading through mud from the Sixth Street wharf, climbing the long stairs to her room—"cheerless, in confusion, and alone"—where she sank down upon the floor, and wept.

This moment from Barton's experience, as reported to her friend, reflects a pattern of her life.
Barton the battlefield angel was an embattled spirit. Repeatedly, months or years of stupendous effort alternated with months or years of exhaustion, physical disability, and depression. Not depression simply from her exhaustion, I believe, but depression because she was not at her ordained posts of ameliorating civilian suffering, altering social structures, or tending those she called her "boys."

Barton loved her boys on the battlefield, but she hated the war that put them there. She hated all war:

Men have worshipped war till it has cost a million times more than the whole world is worth, poured out the best blood and crushed the fairest forms the good God has ever created. Deck it as you will, war is—'Hell.' ...All through and through, thought, and act, body and soul—I hate it. Only the desire to soften some of its hardships and allay some of its miseries ever induced me, and I presume all other women who have taken similar steps, to dare its pestilence and unholy breath. 

As for her service in civilian disaster relief, perhaps two tributes will suggest Barton's degree of dedication and sacrifice. At the conclusion of her eight months of relief and rebuilding following the cataclysmic flood in Johnstown, the editor of the Johnstown Daily Tribune wrote:
Hunt the dictionaries of all languages through and you will not find the signs to express our appreciation of her and her work. Try to describe the sunshine, try to describe the starlight. Words fail.
Shortly after the lethal Sea Islands Hurricane, Joel Chandler Harris, the collector of Uncle Remus stories and an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, traveled to observe and report on Barton's work:
I went to the Sea Islands with no prejudice against the Red Cross Society, but certainly with no prepossession in its favor. I had pictured it in my mind as a sort of fussy and contentious affair, running about with a tremendous amount of chatter and flourishing a great deal of red tape.... As a matter of fact, the Red Cross Society as I saw something entirely different from any other relief organization that has come under my observation. Its strongest and most admirable feature is extreme simplicity. The perfection of its machinery is shown by the apparent absence of all machinery. There is no display—no torturous cross-examination of applicants—no needless delay. And yet nothing is done blindly, or hastily, or indifferently.
After 1887 Barton enjoyed relief from her debilitating bouts of fatigue and depression, but in 1900 she found herself embattled in a new and ironic way. A prolonged internal struggle arose within the American Red Cross over her competence to continue as President. Accusations that had long shadowed her career came to the surface: negligent record keeping; exaggerated reports; dictatorial management—and now old age. She was 79. After four final years of dismaying controversy and discord, Barton resigned.

She was out, but not down. She continued vigorous in social causes into her 80s. Three months after her 90th birthday, her life now ebbing, she wrote to an old friend that she was "changing worlds." Nearing the end she spoke to her beloved doctor about a dream of being again on the battlefield amidst wounded soldiers:
I crept round once more, trying to give them a least a drink of water to cool their parched lips, and I heard them...speak of mother and wives and sweethearts, but never a murmur or complaint. Then I woke to hear myself groan because I have a stupid pain in my back, that's all. Here on a good bed, with every attention. I am ashamed that I murmur.
She died two days later,  April 12, 1912.


We today are fortunate to have excellent biographies of Clara Barton. I consider Elizabeth Brown Pryor's Clara Barton: Professional Angel an exemplary biography by any standard: clear and engaging, documented exhaustively but unobtrusively, its appreciative and critical perspectives finely balanced. For children of middle school age I highly recommend James Lincoln Collier's The Clara Barton You Never Knew.

In 1996 this name plate was discovered in a derelict building in Washington, DC, now recognized as formerly housing Barton's office. See a fascinating video account of the discovery:

Clara Barton published newspaper advertisements such as this
soliciting information about missing soldiers,
 or appealing for clothing, supplies, and contributions for her relief projects.
She wrote thousands of letters pleading for support.

This is the complete advertisement that is detailed above.
Barton distributed 100,000 copies of her lists of missing soldiers.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Coleridge on Scripture: "Heart-Awakening Utterances of Human Hearts"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)
Painting by Washington Allston (1814)

 "I have known many men who have done wonderful things,
but the most wonderful man I ever knew was Coleridge."
                                                          ...William Wordsworth

Upon his death in 1834, Samuel Taylor Coleridge left a manuscript that he had intended to publish under the title Letters on the Inspiration of the Scriptures. The book appeared posthumously as Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit.

Among Coleridge's most fundamental confessions is his overwhelming indebtedness and devotion to the Bible:
A large part of the light and life, in and by which I see, love, and embrace the truths and the strengths [of faith], has been directly or indirectly derived to me from this sacred volume.... In the Bible there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books put together; ...the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being.
Because of his devotion to Scripture, Coleridge is distressed by a teaching of the Anglican Church that he calls "the Doctrine":
This Doctrine, I confess, plants the vineyard of the Word with thorns for me, and places snares in its pathways.
The teaching that affronts Coleridge is the infallibility of scripture:
The doctrine in question requires me to believe...that all that exists in the sacred volume...was dictated by an Infallible Intelligence—that the writers, each and all, were divinely informed as well as inspired.
Coleridge is particularly scornful of Anglican clergy who do not believe the doctrine of infallibility yet dare not say so, continuing to perpetuate the doctrine, or simply keeping silent about it:
I am weary of discussing a tenet which the generality of divines...have ceased to defend, and yet continue to assert or imply.
Almost two hundred years after Coleridge, many clergy continue to defend, assert, imply, or simply keep quiet about the Doctrine, and I too have grown weary of discussing scripture's infallibility. I thoroughly admire Coleridge's arguments against the Doctrine, but his arguments are not the source of my affection for his book. Rather, my love for the Confessions grows from what the book reveals about Coleridge's devotion to biblical scripture as a sourcebook of human experience and a source of human healing, and from the corresponding passion of his language.

Throughout his life Coleridge struggled with medical ailments, procrastination, opium addiction, depression, and mental disturbance. On his book's first page he introduces his theme: 
Confessions of one who is neither fair nor saintly, but who, groaning under a deep sense of infirmity and manifold imperfection, feels the want, the necessity of religious support—who cannot afford to lose the smallest buttress.

Coleridge found his religious support in the Bible—specifically, in the lives of biblical authors and other biblical men and women whose struggles with faith mirrored his own:
Need I say that I have met everywhere [in the Bible] more or less copious sources of truth, and power, and purifying impulses—that I have found words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and my feebleness?

 Coleridge resisted the doctrine of scripture's infallibility because it robs the biblical authors—his indispensable companions in spiritual struggle—of their humanity. "Why," Coleridge asks rhetorically,
should I not believe the Scriptures throughout dictated, in word and thought, by an infallible Intelligence? Eagerly and earnestly do I answer: For every reason that makes me prize and revere these Scriptures—prize them, love them, revere them beyond all other books! Why should I not? Because the Doctrine in question petrifies at once the whole body of Holy Writ with all its harmonies and symmetrical gradations: the flexile and the rigid; the supporting hard and the soothing soft; the blood which is the life*; the intelligencing nerves, and the rudely woven, but soft and springy, cellular substance in which all are embedded and lightly bound together. This breathing organism...the Doctrine in question turns at once into a colossal Memnon's head**, a hollow passage for a voice: a voice that mocks the voices of many men, and speaks in their names, and yet is but one voice and the same—and no man uttered it, and never in a human heart was it conceived.
Among the men and women of the Bible who gave Coleridge companionship and comfort, the foremost was David—the "royal Harper," the "sweet Psalmist of Israel." David's Psalms play upon the strings of Coleridge's troubled heart with calming, saving effect. The idea that Infallible Intelligence dictated the Psalms invalidates David's human struggles, turning him instead into an automaton, as lifeless as David's harp would be without its player.

In the biblical authors, Coleridge writes,
I find a lesson of humility, a ground of humiliation, and a shaming, yet rousing, example of faith and fealty. But let me once be persuaded that all these heart-awakening utterances of human hearts—of men of like faculties and passions with myself, mourning, rejoicing, suffering, triumphing—are but as a Divina Commedia of a superhuman (Oh bear with me, if I say) Ventriloquist; [let me once be persuaded] that the royal Harper, to whom I have so often submitted myself as a many-stringed instrument for his fire-tipt fingers to traverse, while every several nerve of emotion, passion, thought, that thrids [threads] the flesh-and-blood of our common humanity, responded to the touch; [let me once be persuaded] that this sweet Psalmist of Israel was himself as mere an instrument as his harp, an automaton poet, mourner, and supplicant: [then] all is gone—all sympathy, at least, and all example. 

Readers can hardly fail to notice that Coleridge's paragraph here, after the first couple of lines, is a single sentence of manifold clauses nested within clauses. This pattern is expressive of Coleridge's mental exuberance and typical of his prose. As his spoken discourses sometimes exhausted his listeners, so Coleridge's writing often daunts his would-be readers.

Of a famous actor's performance in Othello, Coleridge wrote:
To see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.
This characterization was not wholly complimentary. Context makes clear that Coleridge found the actor's style uneven, alternating between electrifying and obscure.

So it is, I find, with Coleridge's writing in the Confessions. The passages that I have quoted here are lightning flashes. Between flashes Coleridge's logic is ever keen and his expression ever exact, but much is veiled in syntactical darkness. I have known conscientious students, assigned portions of the Confessions, to throw up their hands in defeat.

Experience has taught me that the principal difficulty arises from Coleridge's punctuation. We today are accustomed to shorter sentences punctuated by commas, semicolons, colons, dashes. Coleridge writes protracted sentences like those of the German philosophers who were his mentors, and he sometimes punctuates an entire paragraph with nothing but dashes. In the passage about David quoted above, for example, Coleridge employs the dash eight times. But dashes grant a reader's eyes no assistance in sorting out nested clauses. And the more passionate Coleridge's prose, the more dashes he uses.

For this reason I have taken the liberty of altering his punctuation and adding brief explanatory brackets, always preserving Coleridge's language unchanged.

If we are to enjoy Coleridge's Confessions, our eyes need time to become accustomed, and this demands persistence and patience. I recommend the effort. The reward is abundant: sharing heart-awakening utterances from the human heart of this wonderful man.

* "which is the life": a reference to Deuteronomy 12:23: "Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life...."
** "Memnon's head": a colossal stone head said to gave forth sound at dawn. The head was moved from its original site in Egypt to the British Museum in 1816, inspiring Shelley's poem Ozymandias.