- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

She was a little spinster with untidy hair, always plainly dressed and often painfully shy, but her outward appearance deceived. Clara Barton was a woman with an unshakable determination who showed unflinching courage when exposed to great danger. Known as the “angel of the battlefield,” she was adored by the Union troops whose welfare was her sole concern.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Dec. 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Mass., the only daughter and youngest of five children of Stephen Barton and the former Sarah Stone. Her schooling was much interrupted by her need to nurse her brother David, who had been badly hurt in a fall from a barn roof at the family home.

In 1850, she enrolled at the Liberal Institute in Clinton, near Utica, N.Y., and two years later, she became a teacher in Highstown, N.J. When she opened a school in Bordenstown, N.J., beside the Delaware River, it prospered, but she took offense when a male superintendent was placed over her, and she left.

Until then, she had known only small towns, but in 1854, she moved to the District, where she found dull but remarkably well-paid (for a woman) work as a clerk in the Patent Office. Apparently, her handwriting was of a high standard, essential for the documents she was required to copy. She was there for three years, and then the war took her, by her own decision, out of secure employment and obscurity. Although she was no seeker of publicity, she was to become famous.

Her determination to do all she could to help wounded soldiers was fired when she started to aid men of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment — some of whom she knew — who had been injured, some badly, in the vicious Baltimore riot of April 19, 1861. The secessionist mob had killed four of the soldiers.

She began a self-appointed task of obtaining the names and addresses of the wounded and writing to their families. This was a practice she would continue and that would win her respect and affection.

She never fell afoul of the hard-pressed Sanitary Commission, which not only approved of her work, but lent her support as well. She had no nursing experience; as a nurse, she probably would have clashed with the redoubtable Dorothea Dix.

Barton began to receive packages that were intended for individual soldiers, and she made sure they got them. This led to her accumulating vital medical supplies that were desperately needed. It also meant she would have to visit the battle zones.

After the Battle of Cedar Mountain on Aug. 9, 1862, she offered her wagonload of supplies. It took much persuasion and some tears before she was permitted to visit the makeshift military hospital at Culpeper, where her provisions were received with surprise and tremendous relief. Her relations with Army surgeons seem always to have been cordial.

She went with her wagons to Fairfax Station, where thousands of men were close to starvation. Hers was very much a personal mission, offering comfort as well as compassion. Little wonder the soldiers came to regard her as a ministering angel. Her true beauty was there for all to see.

Undoubtedly sensitive, she must have been horrified by what she saw after Antietam and Fredericksburg, the latter a disaster for the Union forces under Gen. Ambrose Burnside. “Farewell, sad Fredericksburg!” Julia Ward Howe wrote in one of her war poems.

Barton was present while battles were still raging, and on one occasion, part of her dress was ripped off by enemy fire. The field hospitals, although they were working flat-out, were unable to cope, and Barton voiced her dissatisfaction. Always a bundle of nervous energy, she had lost her shyness and gained self-confidence.

Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, sealed the fate of the Confederacy; a month later, President Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, were captured in Georgia. The war was soon over, but Barton’s work continued. At President Lincoln’s request, she went south with a party to Andersonville prison in Georgia, their grim task to identify the graves of Union fighters who had died in that place of infamy.

Her ambitions widened, and they always bore fruit. In 1869, she was in Switzerland, having become interested in the Red Cross. Later, she campaigned vigorously for an American branch, and this resulted in the United States signing the Geneva Convention. She served with the International Red Cross in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

In 1881, she was elected first president of the American Red Cross, a position she would hold until 1904. Somehow, perhaps when she was in retirement, she found time to write several books, one of them her autobiographical “Story of My Childhood.”

Clara Barton probably was always a small-town woman at heart, and she may have felt out of place in the frenetic atmosphere of wartime Washington. When it was time for her to lay down her burden, she went to live in tiny Glen Echo, and it was there on April 12, 1912, that this remarkable woman died, to be remembered as much for her warm humanity as for the breadth of her achievements.

Peter Cliffe, a retired corporate administrator, lives in Hertfordshire, England. He became interested in the Civil War while working with a multinational firm in this country.

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