Podcast Episodes

Angel of the Battlefield

This episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast was written and hosted by Jason Epperson with narration by Abigail Trabue.

Listen below:

Clarissa Harlowe Barton, or Clara, as she wished to be called, was only ten years old when she assigned herself the task of nursing her brother David back to health after he fell from the roof of a barn and received a severe head injury. She learned how to distribute the prescribed medication to her brother, as well as how to place leeches on his body to bleed him (a standard treatment at the time). She continued to care for David long after doctors had given up. He made a full recovery.

In this difficult time in the world, we look to heroes from our past as inspiration to help us find the resolution to possess even a small fraction of their helping spirit. Clara Barton’s life’s work began with her brother David but never ceased. The effects of her tenacity have rippled through the generations, and, in fact, the response to today’s pandemic crisis might have been very different were she never born.

On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, one of the most decorated women in American history, and the Clara Barton National Historic Site.

Introduction to Clara Barton:

Clara was a timid child all through her early life. To overcome her shyness, her parents persuaded her to become a schoolteacher. She achieved her first teacher’s certificate in 1839, at only 17 years old. She served for 12 years in schools in Canada and West Georgia. Barton fared well as a teacher; she knew how to handle rambunctious children, particularly the boys since as a child, she enjoyed her male cousins’ and brothers’ company. She learned how to act like them, making it easier for her to relate to and control the boys in her care. After her mother’s death in 1851, the family home closed down and Barton decided to further her education by pursuing writing and languages at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York, where she developed many friendships that broadened her point of view on many issues occurring at the time.

She returned to teaching, and in 1852, she was contracted to open the first-ever free school in New Jersey. She was successful, and after a year, she had hired another woman to help teach over 600 people. Both women were making $250 a year. This accomplishment compelled the town to raise nearly $4,000 for a new school building. Once completed, though, Barton was replaced as principal by a man elected by the school board. They saw the position as head of a large institution to be unfitting for a woman. She was demoted to “female assistant” and worked in a harsh environment until she had a nervous breakdown along with other health ailments, and quit.

The experience led her to quit teaching and move to Washington D.C. where she began work as a clerk in the US Patent Office. This was the first time a woman had received a substantial clerkship in the federal government and at a salary equal to a man’s salary. For three years, she received abuse and slander from male clerks until her position was reduced to that of copyist, and in 1856, under the administration of James Buchanan, she was fired because of her politics. After the election of Abraham Lincoln, she returned to the patent office as a temporary copyist, in the hopes that she could make way for more women in government service.

Her future would change when the first units of federal troops poured into the capital in 1861. The war had just begun, the troops were newly recruited, and residents in the capital were alarmed and confused. Barton perceived an immediate need in all this chaos for providing personal assistance to the men in uniform, some of whom were already wounded, many hungry, and some without bedding or any clothing except what they had on their backs.

She started by taking supplies to the young men of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry who had been attacked in Baltimore, Maryland, by southern sympathizers and were temporarily housed in the unfinished Capitol building. Barton quickly discovered that many were “her boys,” as she put it; she had grown up with some of them and some she had even taught.

She collected some relief supplies herself, appealed to the public for others, and learned how to store and distribute them. Besides supplies, Barton offered personal support to the men in hopes of keeping their spirits up: she read to them, wrote letters for them, listened to their personal problems, and prayed with them. She knew, however, that where she was needed most was not behind the lines in Washington but on the battlefields where the suffering was greatest.

Barton prodded leaders in the government and the army until she was given passes to bring her voluntary services and medical supplies to the scenes of battle and field hospitals. Following the battle of Cedar Mountain in northern Virginia in August 1862, she appeared at a field hospital at midnight with a wagon-load of supplies drawn by a four-mule team. The surgeon on duty, overwhelmed by the human disaster surrounding him, wrote later, “I thought that night if heaven ever sent out an angel, she must be one—her assistance was so timely.” Thereafter she was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” as she served the troops at the battles of Fairfax Station, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Charleston, Petersburg and Cold Harbor.

At Antietam, she ordered the drivers of her supply wagons to follow the cannon and traveled all night, actually pulling ahead of military medical units. While the battle raged, she and her associates dashed about bringing relief and hope to the field. She nursed, comforted, and cooked for the wounded.

Barton’s Story of Antietam, In Her Own Words:

On the way to Antietam, my wagons were at the rear of the army; the road was filled for ten miles with a solid moving mass. It was impossible to get by until they stopped for the night. You understand that if one wagon tries to pass another at such a time, it simply is pushed into the ditch. But at dusk, the train drew to one side of the road and halted for the night. At midnight I directed my drivers to harness quietly and drive on past them, if possible, without creating suspicion. We made the entire ten miles before daybreak and took our place in the rear of the headquarters wagon and moved on next day unquestioned – passing the field of South Mountain, the guns of which had rung in our ear all the day before. On the evening of the 16th of September we reached the valley of Antietam.

It was a miserable night. There was a sense of impending doom. We knew, every one knew, that two great armies of 80,000 men were lying there face to face, only waiting for dawn to begin the battle. It gave a terrible sense of oppression. Then the came was in a hollow which was filled with men and beasts; it was all used and made fetid by this press of human beings and animals. Before dawn I went up on the hill, and there I could sweep the country with my glass, see the countless watchfires of both armies, lying face to face, ready to spring, yet not a man to be seen. Before I left the hill, the dawn came, and the firing began away on the right. There was to be the beginning of the battle, and there I should be needed first. I hastened down; my men were all ready with their wagons, and ordered them to drive to the right, eight miles. We galloped the whole distance, and drew up behind the line of artillery which was covering our infantry and slanted away to the left. There was a big cornfield, and we drove in, and up towards an old barn which was standing in the midst. My men unharnessed the mules and tied them to the wheels and we were ready for work. They were always my helpers. We knew the wounded were in there somewhere, the men went in search of them. The corn was immensely tall, it entirely hid the house from us. Presently, the men came back saying, “yes, they are over there, the tables and surgeons” and I followed them through the corn and came upon the house. It had a high, broad verandah, and on this every kind of thing that pretended to be a table was standing, and on the tables were the poor men, and beside them the surgeons. They were the same with whom I had just been at the second Bull Run.

“The Lord has remembered us!” “You are here again”
“And did you want me?” I asked.
“Want you! Why, we want you above all things, and we want everything.”
“I have everything,” I replied
“Look here,” he said, “see what we need, and how much we need it, we have no more chloroform, no more bandages nor lint, no more liquor, nothing. See here” and he showed me some poor fellows whose raw new wounds were actually dressed with those rough corn leaves.

And this was the beginning of the battle. You must know that we had passed the supplies the night before; they could not come up until the fate of the day was decided. Those were their orders; they must not risk falling into the hands of the enemy. That was the point I always tried to make, to bridge that chasm, and succor the wounded until the medical aid and supplies should come up. I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner and I tried to fill that gap. My men unloaded the wagons, and brought up everything the good women of the country had provided; the wounded kept pouring in, and we kept working over them. After a time my stores for feeding the men began to give out; not the other things, oh no there were plenty of those; but of food I had naturally not enough for thousands, and by afternoon the line of wounded stretched out for five miles.

A curious thing happened there. I had twelve cases of wine, the first nine opened were packed in sawdust; but the last three, when we were nearly in despair of food, were packed in corn meal. My men were almost superstitious over that; they had the idea it must have changed some way from sawdust to meal. It was a lucky sign too, for when we went into the house to reconnoitre for food; down in the cellar we found three barrels of Indian meal and a bag of salt; there were three or four great kettles in and about the house, and we made gruel, gruel, gruel and my men carried it up and down the…

Towards sunset the third charge was made on the line of artillery covering our infantry. Of course, all day the cannonading had been close upon us; but the house and corn field were under the lee of a hill and the enemy’s guns were mostly trained on that hill so that the firing went over us. The upper stories of the house were riddled to be sure and several shells fell in among us and at the edge of the verandah, yet none explored to do harm, fortunately.

This third charge was the most terrific artillery duel I ever heard, and I have had some experience. The tables jarred and rolled until we could hardly keep the men on them, and the roar was overwhelming. After a while I looked around, and to my surprise saw all the surgeons gone, except one man, the chief, who was standing by a table where a man lay, but there was no one to help him with the operation.

“What has become of your assistants?” said I going up to him. “Don’t blame them, madam” said he. “They have been here through ghastly scenes since daylight and then cannonading is nerve-breaking. Don’t blame them that they have retired, and some have gone down the line to the wounded.”
“Very well” said I, “and how about this man? Do you want to go on with the operation? Can I assist you?”
“Can you stand it?” said he.
“Oh, yes” said I, and I took the chloroform. He gave me directions and we tended the man through the whole of the frightful firing.

With night the firing ceased, and I went to see about lighting up the barn. I had brought plenty of lanterns with me this time… When I came back from the barn I went into the house where I saw a solitary light burning. The surgeon was sitting in one of those dark, dank rooms with two inches of a candle by him, and his head on his hand, the picture of despair.

“You are tired, doctor” I said, going to him and putting my hand on his shoulder.
“Tired” he exclaimed, lifting his head with a wrathful gleam in his eyes, “yes, I am tired of this human incompetence, this neglect and folly which leaves me alone with all these soldiers on my hands, five hundred of whom will die before daybreak unless they have attention, and I with no light by that two inches of candle,” and he let his head fall on his hand again.
“Come, doctor”, said I gently, for from my heart I pitied him, “I want to show you something.” I took him to the door, and told him to look towards the barn; it was like a garden illumination of Chinese lanterns.
“What are they?” said he in amazement.
“Lanterns” said I.
“Lanterns, where did they come from?”

“I brought them. The men will be here in a few moments to light the house. You will have plenty of light and plenty of assistance. Don’t despair in your good work doctor”. He didn’t say a word, but he looked at me, and afterward set his own particular guard to keep close by me all the time, to follow me like my shadow … so that I should always have some one at my elbow to help me. The doctor and I have been good friends ever since. We worked through that long bloody night together, and the next morning the supplies came up, my things were all gone, my strength was all gone, they made up a bed for me of an old coverlet on the floor of a wagon; and I lay down on it, and was jogged back to Washington, eighty miles. When I reached there, and looked in the mirror, my face was still the color of gunpowder, a deep blue. Oh yes I went to the front!

American Red Cross:

Toward the end of the war, Clara Barton found herself writing to many families who inquired about men who had been reported missing. Here, again, she recognized a pressing human need and did something practical to address it. In the month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln wrote: “To the Friends of Missing Persons: Miss Clara Barton has kindly offered to search for the missing prisoners of war. Please address her . . . giving her the name, regiment, and company of any missing prisoner.” Barton established the “Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army” and operated it out of her rooms in Washington for four years. She and her assistants received and answered over 63,000 letters and identified over 22,000 missing men.

She participated in establishing a national cemetery around the graves of the Union men who died in the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. With the help of Dorence Atwater, who had secretly tabulated a list of the dead during his own imprisonment in Andersonville, and a team of 30 military men, Barton identified the graves of nearly 13,000 men. After she helped raise the U.S. flag over the Andersonville grounds at their dedication in 1865, she wrote, “I ought to be satisfied. I believe I am.”

She wasn’t.

Clara visited Europe in search of rest in 1869, where she was introduced to the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland, and read a book written by the founder of the global Red Cross network, who called for international agreements to protect the sick and wounded during wartime without respect to nationality and for the formation of national societies to give aid voluntarily on a neutral basis.

The first treaty embodying the Red Cross ideal was negotiated in Geneva in 1864 and ratified by 12 European nations, now known as the Geneva Convention.

With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Clara Barton once again went into a war zone. To protect herself with the newly accepted international symbol of the Red Cross (the reverse of the Swiss national flag which bears a white cross on a red field), she fashioned a cross out of red ribbon she was wearing and made tireless efforts to help the men on the field in countries far from her own.

Barton returned to America, intent on getting a country in reconstruction after a long and bitter war to ratify the Geneva Convention accords. Armed with a letter from the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Barton took her appeal to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877, but he looked on the treaty as a possible “entangling alliance” and rejected it. His successor, President James Garfield, was supportive and seemed ready to sign it when he was assassinated. Finally, Garfield’s successor, Chester Arthur, signed the treaty in 1882, and a few days later, the Senate ratified it.

Clara Barton, became the founder of the American Red Cross and would lead it for the next 23 years.

The Red Cross received its first congressional charter in 1900 and a second in 1905, the year after Barton resigned from the organization. The most recent version of the charter–which was adopted in May 2007 restates the traditional purposes of the organization, which include giving relief to and serving as a medium of communication between members of the American armed forces and their families and providing national and international disaster relief and mitigation.

The American Red Cross, with Barton at its head, was largely devoted to disaster relief for the first 20 years of its existence. The Red Cross flag flew officially for the first time in this country in 1881 when Barton issued a public appeal for funds and clothing to aid victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan. In 1884, she and 50 volunteers arrived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to help the survivors of a dam break that caused over 2000 deaths. In 1892, she organized assistance for Russians suffering from famine by shipping them railroad cars of Iowa cornmeal and flour. After a hurricane and tidal wave left over 5,000 dead on the Sea Islands of South Carolina in 1893, Barton’s Red Cross labored for 10 months, helping the predominantly African-American population recover and reestablish their agricultural economy. In 1896, Barton directed relief operations on behalf of victims of unrest in Turkey and Armenia, the sole woman and only Red Cross advocate the Turkish government allowed to intervene. During her last relief operation, in 1900, Barton distributed over $120,000 in financial assistance and supplies to survivors of the hurricane and tidal wave that struck Galveston, Texas, and caused more than 6,000 deaths.

During the Third International Red Cross Conference in Geneva in 1884, Barton proposed an amendment to the Geneva Treaty calling for expansion of Red Cross relief to include victims of natural disasters. Although some national societies were dubious, the resolution passed and became known as the “American Amendment.”

Over the years, several countries honored Barton with decorations, such as the German Iron Cross for her relief work in the Franco-Prussian War and the Silver Cross of Imperial Russia for the supplies provided during the famine of 1892.

The American Red Cross moved in a new direction near the end of Barton’s tenure as head of the organization when they delivered supplies and services to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Recipients of Red Cross aid included members of the American armed forces, prisoners of war, and Cuban refugees. This was the first time that the American Red Cross provided assistance to American armed forces and civilians during wartime.

In addition to leading the Red Cross, Barton maintained interests in other fields, such as education, prison reform, women’s suffrage, and civil rights.

Barton resigned as president of the American Red Cross in 1904. Leaving the organization she created, Barton turned her attention to establishing the National First Aid Association of America and served as its honorary president for five years. This organization, though small and short-lived, emphasized basic first aid instruction, emergency preparedness, and the development of first aid kits. She published several books on her life and on the Red Cross before she died on April 12, 1912, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, and was buried in the Barton family cemetery plot in Oxford, Massachusetts.

Barton’s legacy to the nation—service to humanity—is reflected in the services provided daily by the employees and volunteers of the American Red Cross throughout the nation and in troubled spots around the world.

Visiting the Clara Barton National Historic Site:

Barton’s family donated her papers and awards, along with numerous mementos, to the Library of Congress. The National Park Service manages what is now the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, which offers daily tours.

Glen Echo was her home for the last 15 years of her life and acted as the Red Cross Headquarters upon her arrival to the house in 1897. The structure illustrates her dedication and concern for those less fortunate than herself.

It’s the first National Historic Site dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman and preserves the early history of the American Red Cross. The National Park Service has restored eleven rooms, including the Red Cross offices, the parlors, and Barton’s bedroom.


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