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  • Writer's pictureLisa Sysun

Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War

By Stephen B. Oates

Best known as the founder and first president of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton’s legacy as a courageous nurse and caregiver, serving on the front lines during many of the Civil War’s most famous battles, is remarkable. This book focuses on Clara’s extraordinary achievements during the Civil War.

Beginning her career as an educator, Clara eventually moved to Washington in 1855 and worked as a Clerk in the U.S. Patent office. Opposition to women in government offices reduced her position to that of a copyist and was ultimately eliminated under the Buchanan administration. Single and without support, she returned to her family home in Massachusetts. Returning to Washington in 1861 as a temporary copyist and convinced that her duty as a Christian revolved around helping Union soldiers now embroiled in Civil War, Clara set out to circumvent the societal restrictions on women going to the battlefield.

Starting in the summer of 1862, with no official government appointment or institutional affiliation, she became a one-woman aid society; writing letters, running ads, making contacts, collecting, storing and delivering medical supplies to makeshift field hospitals, often risking her life. One of her greatest supporters was Henry Wilson, Senator from Massachusetts.

Clara witnessed the horrors first-hand at Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Battery Wagner, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, andPetersburg. Working in deplorable conditions with only her perseverance to sustain her, Clara tended the sick, wounded and dying, doing her utmost to heal their bodies as well as their spirits. She organized mobile hospitals; cooking, cleaning, and assisting in surgeries and amputations when needed.

Her sense of duty was tempered by her need to be needed and valued. She suffered from bouts of depression when idle, or faced with opposition to her work, as was the case with her effort to find, identify and properly bury the 13,000 Union soldiers who died in Andersonville Prison Camp.

Andersonville was the hellish Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Central Georgia.  Clara befriended Dorence Atwater, a young Union prisoner, who, while working along the Commander of the prison camp, Captain Henry Wirz, secretly kept his list of the names and numbers of Union dead at Andersonville. She worked tirelessly to see that Atwater was honored, the soldiers identified, and their families notified. Atwater’s list was eventually published by Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune after the federal government had refused to circulate it. During this time, Clara sought Lincoln’s permission to open the Missing Soldiers Office, whose purpose was to find or identify soldiers killed or missing in action. From 1865-1868, Clara and her small staff received more than 63,000 requests for help. Of the 22,000 men located by the Missing Soldiers Office, 13,000 were in Andersonville.

During this time, Clara earned a living by delivering lectures around the country about her war experiences. At a lecture in the hall of a local YMCA, a man approached with a little girl. He looked familiar. Clara extended her hand and they spoke. He told her how she had saved his life three times; once at the Battle of 2nd Bull Run, once at Old Fredericksburg, and finally at Petersburg. Touched, she asked if the little girl was his daughter. “Yes,” he said, “she’s almost three years old and we call her Clara Barton.” Scores of veterans, in appreciation of all she had done for them, named their daughters after Clara. There were young Clara Bartons all over the United States, from Massachusetts to California. The woman who never married or had children was the namesake of a generation.

For the rest of her life, Clara’s real purpose, her passion, was to institutionalize the nursing and relief work she began during the Civil War. The “Angel of the Battlefield” became a “Professional Angel” and humanitarian whose relentless will, ambition, and sense of duty became a source of inspiration for decades to come.

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