Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War

Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War

by Stephen B. Oates


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When the Civil War broke out, Clara Barton wanted more than anything to be a Union soldier, an impossible dream for a thirty-nine-year-old woman, who stood a slender five feet tall. Determined to serve, she became a veritable soldier, a nurse, and a one-woman relief agency operating in the heart of the conflict. Now, award-winning author Stephen B. Oates, drawing on archival materials not used by her previous biographers, has written the first complete account of Clara Barton's active engagement in the Civil War.
By the summer of 1862, with no institutional affiliation or official government appointment, but impelled by a sense of duty and a need to heal, she made her way to the front lines and the heat of battle. Oates tells the dramatic story of this woman who gave the world a new definition of courage, supplying medical relief to the wounded at some of the most famous battles of the war — including Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Battery Wagner, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg. Under fire with only her will as a shield, she worked while ankle deep in gore, in hellish makeshift battlefield hospitals — a bullet-riddled farmhouse, a crumbling mansion, a windblown tent. Committed to healing soldiers' spirits as well as their bodies, she served not only as nurse and relief worker, but as surrogate mother, sister, wife, or sweetheart to thousands of sick, wounded, and dying men.
Her contribution to the Union was incalculable and unique. It also became the defining event in Barton's life, giving her the opportunity as a woman to reach out for a new role and to define a new profession. Nursing, regarded as a menial service before the war, became a trained, paid occupation after the conflict. Although Barton went on to become the founder and first president of the Red Cross, the accomplishment for which she is best known, A Woman of Valor convinces us that her experience on the killing fields of the Civil War was her most extraordinary achievement.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780028740126
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 05/01/1995
Pages: 527
Sales rank: 285,150
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.70(d)
Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

About the Author

Stephen B. Oates is professor of history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the author of several acclaimed biographies of Nat Turner, John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Read an Excerpt

EPILOGUE: The Circuit

Clara's exploits made her perhaps the most famous eastern woman of the war: "I appear to be known by reputation by every person in every train I enter and everywhere," she wrote in her diary. Because she needed a personal income, she did take to the lecture circuit in 1866, giving variations of an address called "Work and Incidents of Army Life," which enabled her to relive her war experiences in front of an audience. To her surprise, she discovered that she was a gifted platform speaker, with a soft, melodious voice and a poetic cast to her descriptions that enthralled her audiences. Her newspaper notices were almost universally favorable, describing her talks as "animated," "instructive and enjoyable." One journalist stated flatly: "We have never seen an audience more interested or attentive." Lyceums, literary societies, and veterans' organizations affiliated with the Grand Army of the Republic all vied for her services. One GAR post named itself after her, which pleased Clara enormously, since she regarded herself as a war veteran.

She was so good that she was able to demand, and get, the same fees that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and other popular male lecturers received. She commanded $75 to $100 per performance, sometimes plus expenses. Such fees enabled her to earn a handsome net income, as much as $900 in a single month. Occasionally she donated all or part of her proceeds to charities for the poor or to soldiers' funds for widows and orphans, but most of the money she kept.

For two years after the war, Clara crisscrossed the country, speaking in cities and remote towns from Boston and New Haven toMilwaukee and Washington, Iowa. Her grueling schedule found her riding in smoky, monotonous trains by day and often by night, giving a lecture to strangers in a packed auditorium and grabbing what sleep she could in a railroad hotel before setting off again. Sometimes her accommodations were terrible. "Fearfully dirty room," she wrote in Dixon, Illinois, "filthy, the whole house so, could not sleep for filth and stench." She survived a winter train wreck between Decatur and Jacksonville, Illinois. When the train jumped the track, Clara found herself on the ceiling of an upside-down coach, pinned down by a hot stove, with coals scattered all over her. Atwater, who accompanied Clara as her assistant, helped her out of the smoking wreckage into the icy wind. Bruised, burned, and visibly shaken, she nevertheless proceeded to the next town, where a railroad superintendent gave her $50 for her loss.

Those who attended a Clara Barton lecture saw a small, slender, feminine woman, dressed perhaps in her light blue traveling dress, still looking younger than she was. She would stride to the podium to read her speech from a carefully prepared text, written in large, round script. At first her voice would be low and gentle, but then it would swell into singsong eloquence.

She spoke candidly about the inhibitions that had kept her from the field in 1861 and early 1862. "I struggled long and hard with my sense of propriety," she said, "with the appalling fact that I was a woman, whispering in one ear, and groans of suffering men, dying like dogs, unfed and unsheltered, for the life of the very institutions which had protected and educated me, thundering in the other. I said that I struggled with my sense of propriety, and I say it with shame before God and before you, I am ashamed that I thought of such a thing."

Then she transported her listeners back to Fairfax Station just after Second Bull Run, where she and her colleagues had labored among the wounded for three straight days and nights. She brought tears to many an eye when she told how she had found Hugh Johnson dying of an abdominal wound, had pretended to be his sister, and held him all night before putting him on the train. She took her readers on to Antietam, where a soldier had been shot dead while she cradled him in her arms...to the Lacy House, where the wounded lad of four words kept telling her "you saved my life"...to the bloody plain before Marye's Heights, where Sergeant Plunkett had saved the flag even though both of his arms had been blown away. As she moved from point to point in her narrative, there were often "outbursts of laughter over some ludicrous picture she was holding up before them," as one listener said. Perhaps it was the story of how she had shamed into submission the hardened mule drivers who had challenged her authority in 1862. "But when some brave scene poured forth in words of masterly eloquence," the listener said, "the applause was deafening." She recalled Belle Plain, too, and Fredericksburg in 1864, and the macabre stockade at Andersonville—"that eternal blot on the pages of humanity." When she spoke in Connecticut, she added a section on Atwater, the keeper of the death records," who still stood "unpardoned, a prison convict at large, deprived of his hard earned record as a soldier by dishonorable discharge, unrewarded for his services, disgraced," a boy "ruined in health, maligned, abused and persecuted, but still, unbroken in principle."

Why, she liked to say, had she talked so long about her "own little personal doings in the war"? "It is for this," she said: "to show you that from first to last I have been the soldiers' friend and have an honest right to speak for him." She was indeed "the soldiers' friend," having won the undying love, respect, and gratitude of countless thousands of veterans with whom she had served in the Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James. Wherever she spoke, the veterans turned out to cheer her and listen, transfixed, as she recalled their experiences together and their shared sacrifices. She praised the hard-working army surgeons who had served with her, and she exhorted everyone to look after the widows and orphans of the Union dead. When she spoke in the Midwest, she described meeting a destitute widow, with three small children, who had lost a husband and three sons in the war; one of the sons had starved to death at Andersonville. Clara reminded her audiences that the work of the Civil War remained unfinished as long as there were widows and orphans in need.

She was generous in praising the other women of the war, with whom, on the lecture platform at least, she felt bonded in a powerful sisterhood. During the war, she had stopped taking female assistants with her to the battlefront and hated sharing her patients and hospital—her power and her glory—with other women. In one lecture draft, speaking of the women of the war in the singular, she described how the Union woman had stood up "on the power" of her femininity and declared that the dangers to the country were her dangers, the perils to its armies her perils, the suffering of its defenders her suffering, the ruin of its government her ruin. She had bade her husband and sons to go fight in the army while she worked in her husband's place "in the field or the workshop or plied her needle day and night, took the covering from her bed, the carpet from her floor, the last curtain from her window, to send to some far away field, a hospital where perchance his wasted wounded form was lying." The woman of the Union had also organized relief societies in every town and village. She had "supplied the material" for the work of the U.S. Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission, which had earned her the wonder and admiration of every civilized nation on earth and had enabled her to "set the world an example easy to follow but hard to surpass through all future time and generations." Too, breaking the restraints of military etiquette, the Union woman had "made her way into every hospital" and even followed marching armies "far out upon the dusty road and on to the fighting field." As she labored for "liberty" and "humankind," Clara said, "she forgot even the argument which had always met her advancing footstep whichever way she turned—women are well enough in their places—wives and mothers and nurses at home—kind and tender but weak and unreliable and worth nothing in an emergency."

Clara did not say so, but the women of the war had done more, much more. Breaking the shackles of strict domesticity in unprecedented numbers, they had entered government service, secured retail jobs, and toiled in war-related industry; they had replaced male teachers who had joined the army and had run farms in the absence of army husbands. They had taken to the stump in support of emancipation and the Union war effort, had campaigned for Lincoln and Republican candidates, and had formed the National Women's Loyal League, which gathered 400,000 signatures in support of the Thirteenth Amendment and which taught women invaluable lessons in organization for the postwar years. On top of all that, some 400 uninhibited women had even enlisted in the Union army disguised as men.

Women, black and white alike, had made equally impressive gains in the male realm of military nursing. According to Jane E. Schultz, more than 18,200 women had worked in Northern military hospitals as paid matrons, nurses, laundresses, and cooks. Their service eroded the popular idea that women's war work ought to be strictly voluntary, an extension of the home. Approximately 3,214 women had served in Dix's department alone. Among the laundresses and cooks, as Schultz points out, were some 2,000 black women, many of them escaped slaves. An estimated 2,000 other women had toiled in army hospitals as unpaid volunteers and independents like Clara. In sheer numbers alone—more than 20,000 all told—women hospital workers had made an indispensable contribution to the Federal cause.

By invading a hitherto male domain and proving that they could function ably there, Union women helped bring about a profound change in American nursing itself. Impressed by their wartime record, the president of the American Medical Association, Samuel Gross, urged the United States to train a corps of women nurses equal to that produced by the Nightingale Training School in England. Toward that end, several women who had served in the 1862 hospital transport service led postwar efforts to set up women's nursing schools in the United States, the first of which opened in the 1870s. Regarded as "a menial service" before the war, nursing became a trained, paid profession for women after the conflict.

In no comparable previous period had American women demanded and won so many new opportunities in the field of nursing and medicine, teaching, retail sales, government employment, and political activity. Even if such gains did not fundamentally alter what one author called "the gender hierarchy of northern society," they did offer women more options for employment and chances for personal fulfillment than they had had when the war began. While it was true that Clara and other women actually lost their government jobs in the year immediately following the war, the number of women wage-earners in the 1860s rose by 60 percent or more. By war's end, Clara told a group in Boston, the American woman was at least "fifty years in advance of the normal position which continued peace and existing conditions would have assigned her."

What was more, the war had given Clara and her entire generation of women a new sense of worth. "Only an opportunity was wanting for woman to prove to man that she could be in earnest," Clara declared, "that she had character, and firmness of purpose—that she was good for something in an emergency." The women of the war had not only demonstrated their competence to men, Clara believed, they had also proved it to themselves. By expanding the limits of what was possible, they had "dug grand and deep and laid firm and forever the cornerstone of future womanhood."

Clara also took a bold feminist stance on the platform, in the process revealing the ways the war had shaped her political views. She had always, she said, been "at heart and long before the idea took shape in words a firm and indignant supporter of women's right to all privilege that any rational beings could enjoy." But her wartime friendship with Frances Gage, plus her own liberating achievements, transformed Clara's quiet beliefs into open advocacy. At the lecture podium, she proclaimed her emphatic support for "perfectly equal rights" for women, including the right to vote, and she shared the platform with Susan B. Anthony and other feminist leaders at women's conventions.

On one postwar issue, however, Clara clashed bitterly with some established leaders of the woman's rights movement. That issue concerned the political rights of the former slaves, the "three millions of God's poor neglected, long-abandoned, late-remembered, down-trodden children of the dust," as Clara called them, whose cause she ardently defended. Her friendship with Fanny Gage and her contact with blacks at Port Royal and Andersonville had made her acutely sensitive to the plight of the freed people, so much so that Clara asserted that black men ought to have the vote even before women did. Clara said as much at a convention of the Equal Rights Association, held in New York in 1869. Invited to speak on the war, her sphere of work, she defended black suffrage as "a part of the war," an extension of emancipation, pointing out how much Southern blacks needed the ballot to protect themselves from their former masters. In effect, as she said later, she told the convention, "Finish my work first, then I am ready with heart and soul for yours."

With that, Clara took sides in a fierce debate within feminist ranks about the timing of women's suffrage demands. The debate focused on the projected Fifteenth Amendment, which sought to protect the former slaves by enfranchising black men. The amendment did not include women, black or white. One women's rights group, led by Julia Ward Howe, endorsed the amendment, agreeing with its Republican framers that black suffrage was already controversial enough and would go down to defeat if women's suffrage were linked to it. Better, they believed, to get the blacks enfranchised first. Clara's friend, Fanny Gage, agreed with this position. Another feminist group, led by Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, opposed the amendment as "an open, deliberate insult to American womanhood." Anthony and Stanton considered it extremely unfair that uneducated black males should gain the elective franchise while educated white women were denied it. The struggle between the two women's groups reached a climax at the 1869 convention, where Anthony and Stanton tried but failed to unite the delegates behind a projected Sixteenth Amendment that would enfranchise women. Shortly after that, the Anthony-Stanton faction formed the National Women's Suffrage Association, whose leaders and members were mostly women and whose goal was to rally national support for a woman's suffrage amendment. The rival group, with the endorsement of well-known Republicans and reformers like Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Frederick Douglass, then founded the American Woman Suffrage Association, which made a point of seeking male support.

Word reached Clara that some feminist leaders thought her speech at the 1869 convention had degraded their sex. She fervently disagreed. How, she asked, could she, who was "well fed, warmed & clothed with the privilege at least of appealing to the law" if she were in danger, put herself before "the thousands of hungry Negroes"—she had seen many of them in southwest Georgia—"waiting in fear, trembling and uncertainty all through the South, surrounded by an enemy as implacable as death"? Their need for the ballot was urgent. "I only meant to be understood like this," she told Mary Norton: "no person in that house would or could be more rejoiced than I to see the franchise bestowed upon every person capable of using it without regard to race, color, or sex, but if the door was not wide enough for all at once—and one must wait, or all must wait, then I for one was willing that the old scarred slave limp through before me.... I had no heart to pull or thrust him back in spite because he was already in advance of me, but I should claim the right to go next, and immediately. This might have been all very unwise, but it was like me, and I could not take any other ground. Heaven knows I have no desire to degrade my sex...but the cause is not to be hastened by quarreling with men as men, nor with races nor with anyone."

The last line underscored another crucial element in Clara's feminism. Because she had "identified with men" since childhood, she refused to quarrel "with men as men" and rejected an antimale stance of any kind. Indeed, she expressed her sympathy for men and believed that they would one day accept women as their equals. "Man is trying to carry the burdens of the world alone," she insisted. "When he has the efficient help of woman he should be glad, and he will be."

Even so, she was not going to beg men for rights that ought to have been hers at birth. Once, when asked to sign a petition asking for women's suffrage, Clara indignantly refused. "Of whom should I ask this privilege?" she demanded. "Who possessed the right to confer it? Who had greater right than woman herself? Was it man and, if so, how did he get it? Who conferred it on him? He depended upon woman for his being, his very existence, nature and rearing. More fitting that she should have conferred it upon him."

For Clara, the lecture circuit had its moments of genuine surprise, which made all the controversies and arduous traveling worthwhile. In Cleveland, where she lectured to "a splendid house," John Elwell called on her—with his wife. Four times breveted for bravery in the war, he still walked with a limp. He had hurt himself again in back-to-back accidents at Elmira in 1864: first a carriage in which he was riding had overturned, hurling him against a stone step and breaking many bones; not long after that he had stumbled while descending the steps from his office and had fallen head forward, refracturing the leg he had broken on Hilton Head. When the war ended, he had come home to Cleveland and had taken up law and medicine again. He was delighted to see Clara, and over the years wrote her passionate and tender letters recalling their love affair in 1863.

During one address in a town west of the Mississippi, as she recalled Antietam and the bullet-ridden farmhouse hospital to which she had brought desperately needed supplies, Clara told how the surgeon in charge had toiled among the dead and dying all that bloody day, and how she found him at night slumped at a table, in despair because the single candle burning beside him was all the light he had for a thousand wounded men. Clara told how she took him to the door and pointed at a lantern glowing in the barn, saying that she had brought four boxes of them. The surgeon, she said, was too overwhelmed to tell her thanks. As she spoke, a gentleman sprang from his chair, leaped on the stage, and told the audience: "Ladies and gentlemen, if I never have acknowledged that favor, I will do it now. I am that surgeon."

In another lecture, held in the hall of a local YMCA, Clara's audience was especially enthusiastic. When she reached the end with a poetic tribute to the "dead on the field of battle," people were amazed to discover that she had spoken for an hour and a half. Afterward, as Clara shook hands with well wishers, she noticed a man approach the platform with his arm around a little girl; he wore a light blue soldier coat and walked with a limp. Something about his manner, and his lined, weatherbeaten face, jarred Clara's memory. She excused herself and strode to him with her hand extended.

"Have we met before?" she asked.

"Yes," he said, "three times."

Still clasping his hand, Clara said quietly, "Well, tell me."

"At the battle of 2nd Bull Run when I was shot through the body and had lain on the field for days with nothing to eat, you came out of the woods and met the wagon that was taking me off and climbed up onto the wheel and fed me."

"I remember", Clara said softly, and waited for him to continue.

"Before my wound had entirely healed," he said, I rejoined my regiment at Falmouth—and the next day went to the battle of Old Fredericksburg, had this leg shattered in the charge of Saturday and lay out on the field in the cold till Monday night—my hands and feet were frozen. When we got over the river there were so many wounded there was no shelter for us. And you had the men scrape the snow off the ground and gave us warm drink and kept hot bricks about us all night—you had them heated in the camp fires."

"I remember," Clara said, her lips trembling a little.

"I lost you then for nearly two years—when one terribly hot day in front of Petersburg, when from our marching nearly our whole brigade fell with exhaustion and sunstroke, I among the first—for I hadn't the strength I had at Bull Run—and while I lay there on the ground you came with whiskey & water for us all and had me taken to the hospital tents and you bound my head in ice and I was too crazy to tell you that I knew you but I did—and your care saved my life."

When it was clear that he was done, Clara withdrew her hand from his and touched the cheek of the child standing next to him. "And is this your little girl?"

"Yes," he said, running his hand through her hair. "She is almost three years old and we call her Clara Barton."

Scores of other veterans also named their daughters after Clara. There was Clara Barton Leggett, daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Leggett, who had lost his leg on Morris Island and credited Clara with saving his life. There was a Clara Barton Whitaker, a Clara Barton Thompson, a Clara Barton Hoffman, a Clara Barton Clausson, and a Clara Barton Bergh. Sally Gardner, wife of the splendid young man whom Clara had nursed after the Baltimore riot and who had been killed at the Crater, wrote Clara that a daughter had been born after his death and that she was named Clara Horace Gardner. Harry and Mary Barnard, the young lovers of Antietam fame, had married after Clara had left them in Frederick, Maryland; their first child, Clara Barton Barnard, was born in 1864. Before long, there were young Clara Bartons all over the United States, from Massachusetts to California. In these young women who bore her name, the spirit of childless, spouseless Clara lived on.

According to Union army surgeon F. H. Harwood, Harry Barnard retained a romantic, sentimental view of war, once telling his young children: "War is the scourge of tyrants, the shield of the oppressed, the nurseling of brave men and lofty deeds; the theatre where heroes enact melo-dramas on the world's stage to the thunderous music of bursting artillery." Clara disagreed with that view, emphatically. The unprecedented violence and ghastly human suffering she had witnessed in the Civil War made her a confirmed hater of "the war side of war" and an eloquent critic of men for waging it. "Men have worshipped war," she asserted, "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. Take 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."

Even so, for the rest of Clara's long life, it was the Civil War that fired her imagination, the Civil War to which she kept returning in her lectures, her reminiscences, her correspondence, and her dreams. As with millions of others in her generation, the Civil War was the central defining event of Clara's life. She discovered in nursing and the relief of suffering a real purpose to her existence; after years of searching, she had found her calling. After the war, she became a "professional angel" and humanitarian whose relentless will, ambition, and sense of duty took her to war fronts in foreign lands. She went on to found and become first president of the American Association of the Red Cross, thus institutionalizing the nursing and relief work she had begun in the Civil War. At the age of seventy-seven she was still in the field, serving in hospitals in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. As she lay dying in 1912 at the age of ninety, her thoughts perhaps leaped back to the war in which her life's work had begun—back to that troubling time in 1861 and early 1862 when she had wanted desperately to serve her country but had been held back by societal restrictions on women going to the battlefield. Her last words were: "Let me go; let me go!"

Copyright © 1994 by Stephen B. Oates

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Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
glauver More than 1 year ago
Stephen B. Oates has mined the letters of Clara Barton and merged them into Civil War history to paint a portrait of a woman trying to find her niche on the battlefield. Clara could be both prickly and passionate. She seemed to find more than her share of conflict with officers, bureaucrats, and even other women involved in nursing. She also carried on an affair with a married officer, daring conduct in that era. She was courageous in caring for the wounded but was easily discouraged and depressed. Oates skillfully weaves in the background of the battles and campaigns she was a witness to and gives vivid sketches of her many friends and foes. Civil war buffs should not miss this portrait of a woman who was a pioneer in battlefield nursing and caring for the sick.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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