Write About it Wednesday: Angel of the Battlefield

“When you are hungry and supper less, she told them, I will be too. If harm befalls you, I will care for you: if sick, I will nurse you and under all circumstances, I will treat you like gentleman.”

I started my research on the role of women in war with those that nursed men on the battlefield. When you think of famous nurses there are usually two that pop into your head: Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton. I had heard of Clara Barton, but truly knew very little. In fact, embarrassingly enough I thought she was the founder of the Red Cross. I have since seen her true humanitarian nature and the vast use of her ideas in practices still used today.

Clara grew up in a home that inspired a humanitarian outlook. Her first experience with nursing was due to the near tragic fall of her brother David during a barn raising event. She stayed by his side and was credited for his eventual healing. She began teaching at the age of seventeen, following in her siblings footsteps. She never married, but had many suitors including one who hit it big in the gold rush and deposited $10,000 in her bank account which was later used to help fund her aid work. She saw a need for a free school and offered to work for no pay. The enrollment in her school surpassed 600 pupils and a male principal was appointed to oversee because it was “too large for a woman to run.” This led to her resignation from the school she founded and her career as a teacher. She left for Washington D.C to stay with her sister and was appointed to a position over confidential information making the same pay as the male clerks. She was forced to resign under the Buchanan presidency due to her antislavery beliefs, but was later reinstated by President Lincoln. During this time she made friends with many people in politics and often sat in on debates in the Senate and House of Representatives. These friendships would be the foundation for her assistance in bringing the Red Cross to America.

As the Civil War broke out Clara became concerned with the welfare of the men from Massachusetts. She began collecting donations and requesting assistance for these men through letter writing campaigns and newspaper advertisements. After the Battle of Bull Run she saw that almost nothing had been done to prepare for medical treatment of wounded soldiers. Many men died because they hadn’t been treated quickly enough. Can you imagine? Many of them lay there for three or four days waiting to be seen. Husbands, sons, brothers all waiting and no one showing up. I know this was a time before medical advancements and research but the lack of foresight to know that some men were going to need assistance is distressing. Clara was eventually granted permission by the surgeon general to go with the men to the front as a nurse. She was chartering new ground for women, but only saw it as her duty to help the men who needed her most.

The war came to an end in 1865 and Barton saw a need for correspondence with families seeking missing soldiers. President Lincoln appointed her the general correspondent, but was assassinated before making arrangements for her to be paid. She eventually ran out of her own funds due to lack of payment for much of her work and had to begin a lecture tour over her life and work in the Civil War. She became ill and went abroad to recover. The President of the Red Cross found her abroad and convinced her to speak with the United States about joining. The U.S had already refused to join three times because they felt the treaty broadened their foreign involvement. The treaty was not signed until Barton started the Red Cross on her own and had the organization respond to natural disasters throughout the United States. This was a new concept for the Red Cross, but eventually became a role of the international organization. She had much success and remained the President of the American chapter of the Red Cross until 1905. She died at the age of 90 from double pneumonia.

This woman did not take no for an answer. If she saw a problem, she fixed it. If she saw a person in need, she helped them. If she saw that something wasn’t being done that should, she made it happen or did it herself. I thought her greatest accomplishment was bringing the Red Cross to the United States but she did so much more than that. From opening a school for free without any salary to bringing word to thousands of families about their loved ones lost during the war she left an impact across the nation. She even had Andersonville camp, the South’s infamous prison during the Civil War, turned into a national cemetery for the 13,000+ that were buried there. She was repeatedly turned down with her attempts to sign the treaty for the Red Cross but went ahead and organized it on her own. She developed a new way to assist people during natural disasters that hadn’t been done before to convince the President. She had the foresight to make the hard choices that needed to be made. She is truly a remarkable American, and I’m glad I was able to research her rich and fulfilling life. We owe a lot to this woman, in war time and peace


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