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.


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