Saturday, September 30, 2017


By: Ashley Kath-Bilsky

The United States of America was divided. Political and social tensions between the Northern and Southern states had escalated to the point where it seemed apparent a deadly, unstoppable storm was about to break, one not caused by nature but by man.

The storm hit in April 1861.

On 12 April 1861, Fort Sumter, a U.S. military post located off Charleston, South Carolina, surrendered to a siege by the Confederate Army.

A trainload of Union soldiers were also attacked in Baltimore, Maryland by group of Confederate supporters. The injured were taken to the new Capitol building in Washington, D.C. Upon hearing this, a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office went to the temporary hospital to help tend the wounded. That clerk was CLARA BARTON, and her decision to volunteer at a makeshift hospital would not only change the course of her life but define her destiny.

“It has long been said, that women don’t know anything about war. I wish men didn’t either. They have always known a great deal too much about it for the good of their kind.” ~ Clara Barton

As Clara did whatever she could to help the wounded, she must have remembered the vivid stories her father had told her about his experience as a soldier during the French-Indian War. As such, she understood what War meant, what it cost in bloodshed, in lives lost, and the aid that would be needed.

Determined to do more, Clara organized the collection of food, clothing, and medical supplies. For months she solicited donations, and even contacted family and friends in Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey. Soon, donations were sent to her attention in Washington and were of such great number they were inventoried and stored in a warehouse, ready to be distributed at a moment's notice.

The Second Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia happened on 30 August 1862. The Union Army had fallen to Confederate forces, with 10,000 dead and thousands wounded. When Clara heard this news in Washington, she was not only prepared to deliver much needed supplies, but do whatever she could personally to help.

Accompanied by two assistants named Lydia Haskell and Ada Morell, Clara loaded three boxcars with supplies. The three women then boarded the train that would take them from Washington to Fairfax Station, Virginia.

They arrived to find 3,000 wounded soldiers, and at once began distributing supplies as well as helping tend the wounded. From bandaging wounds to securing tourniquets to bleeding stumps after field amputations, they assisted wherever possible.

Clara kindled a fire in the downpour of a thunderstorm and prepared soup and coffee. She soon realized they did not have enough tin cups, plates, and dishes for 3,000 men. In addition, she had just one kettle and two water buckets. Still, she persevered and improvised. Cans and jelly jars were used as makeshift serving pieces. In short order, all the men received bread, soup, and some form of nourishment. Yet, this was only a minor hiccup in the challenges Clara, Ada, and Lydia would face.

Human suffering and death surrounded them.

They worked without faltering. During the long night, they continued to administer care and words of comfort to wounded and dying soldiers. Socks and slippers were fitted on cold feet; woolen blankets were wrapped about trembling, feverish bodies. And when there were no more quilts or blankets to offer, straw was used to fend off the damp cold about the men. It was while tending one such young soldier, she felt his uninjured left arm reach out for her and saw tears in his eyes. As she comforted the boy, he identified himself as one of her former students who used to "carry her satchel home for her". Her diary would later record the bittersweet reunion. "My faithful pupil, poor Charley. That mangled right arm will never carry a satchel again."

"I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them." ~ Clara Barton

Hours later, the surgeon approached Clara and told her a soldier, not expected to live much longer, had been crying out for his sister, Mary. The surgeon asked if Clara could pretend to be his sister and help the young man find some comfort during his final moments. Clara immediately went to the boy's side, and cradled him in her lap, assuring him that his sister was there. When morning came, against all odds, the soldier had survived. Still, death lingered near. Aware that Clara had been the one to comfort him, he thanked her and then asked her to promise him something. He wanted to be placed on the train back to Washington, so that his dead body would be returned to his mother. Clara made sure he was put on the train, later learning he lived long enough to see his mother and sister before he died.

[Pictured: Military Pass Issued to Clara Barton during Civil War]

The threat of another attack was expected. Clara helped dig graves and bury the dead. As wagons of wounded kept arriving, more medical assistance was needed, and more soup had to be prepared to feed the men.

“My business is staunching blood, and feeding fainting men.” ~ Clara Barton

Heavy rain battered the tents. Clara and her two devoted assistants never stopped working. After another train departed to transport more wounded soldiers back to Washington, Clara sought an empty corner and tried to sleep. Two hours later, the sound of wagons arriving with more wounded awakened her. The cycle of incoming wounded must have seemed never ending.

By 3:00 pm on Sunday, a message arrived. The Confederate Army were quickly approaching. When told she should leave, Clara refused until all the wounded had been transported as well. Two hours later, the wounded were safely away. Only then did Clara leave. She arrived back in Washington on Tuesday evening.

During the Civil War, Clara maintained a home in Washington, D.C., and continuously volunteered to tend the wounded at numerous battle sites including Harper's Ferry, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. In 1863, wanting to be closer to her brother, Captain David Barton, stationed in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Clara relocated her headquarters to Hilton Head and Morris Island, South Carolina.

It should be noted that during the Civil War, Clara established hospitals for the wounded from the Battle of Fort Wagner. She also distributed supplies to the Union Army after the failed siege at Charleston. Clara by now had created a network of volunteers and numerous contributors of necessary supplies.

Quite a remarkable woman, this Clara Barton, but who was she?

"I early learned that next to Heaven, our highest duty was to love and serve our country, and honor and support its laws.” ~ Clara Barton

Born in North Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day in 1821, Clarissa "Clara" Harlowe Barton was the daughter of Stephen and Sarah Barton. She had four older siblings: Dorothy 'Dolly' (age 17), Stephen (age 15), David (age 13) and Sally (age 10). In addition to her parents, Clara's siblings all helped raise her, educate her, and nurtured within her a love of learning, personal discipline, compassion, and (to coin a phrase) true grit.

Her father was a horse breeder and successful farmer. He was also a highly respected member of the community who often moderated town meetings. A humanitarian, her father personally funded a home for the poor, and impressed upon his children the need to help the poor and homeless. The man Clara referred to as her "soldier father" also impressed upon her an "undying sense of patriotic pride". As a little girl, she would sit in his lap and listen to him tell her of his time as a soldier. She listened with great attention as he spoke of military strategy and tactics, as well as the many battles during his service.

Clara's mother was a hardworking matriarch who believed time was best served learning skills and helping others. She taught her youngest daughter sewing, cooking, and gardening. Her eldest sister was already a teacher when Clara was born and helped care for her baby sister. Her older brother, Stephen, also had been a teacher for a time and a skilled mathematician who taught Clara arithmetic. Her brother, David, loved farming and the outdoors. In addition to teaching Clara how to tie a square knot, hammer a nail, and throw like a boy, he taught her how to ride a horse with great skill. Clara's sister Sally was closest in age to her, but still 10 years older. Sally who Clara later described as "lovely as a summer morning" was the sibling who introduced Clara to literature and poetry.

When Clara started school at four years of age, she could already read and write. On the first day of school, the headmaster, Col. Richard Stone, asked her to spell cat and dog. Clara replied she could spell artichoke. Needless to say, Col. Stone promptly placed her in the advanced reading class.

Despite her obvious intelligence, Clara was a very timid child. When she was eight years old, her parents thought she would benefit from attending a boarding school (run by Col. Stone) where she could live with other children her age. However, Clara was miserable separated from home and stopped eating. Her health began to suffer. Both Col Stone and the school physician recognized that Clara's would be happier and healthier returning home.

Clara began administering care to the sick where she was just 11 years old. Her brother, David, had fallen from the top of a barn he was helping to build. Although fine at first, he soon began experiencing feverish, debilitating headaches that caused him to be bedridden for two years. Clara quit school to help care for her brother. When doctors prescribed leeching, it was little Clara who followed doctor's orders and applied the "loathsome crawling leeches". David's condition worsened until a new, young doctor prescribed steam baths for David. His health improved dramatically. Leeching was halted, and David recovered three weeks later.

In 1834, Clara was now 13 years of age and returned to her studies. A tutor was hired and instructed her in history, English literature, language, and composition. In 1835, she enrolled in school. Her studies now included advanced philosophy, Latin, and chemistry. When not in school, Clara loved keeping busy. By now her oldest brother was running their father's textile mill. Clara wanted to work there and delighted learning how to weave cloth. Her parents objected to her working at the mill, but brother Stephen assured them she enjoyed it and it kept her busy. He even made a special platform for her to stand on where she took great pride in learning how to operate a flying shuttle on a large loom. However, a fire at the mill ended her weaving work. Clara then decided to pursue the family tradition of teaching.

In May 1838, Clara Barton stood at the front of her first classroom of 40 students in a one-room schoolhouse near her sister Sally's home. She was 16 years old.

After teaching in the one-room schoolhouse in Massachusetts for 12 years, Clara wanted to advance her own education. In 1850, she attended the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York. After completing a year of study, she moved to New Jersey where she had heard there were no free public schools. With grit and determination, she opened her own school in Bordentown, New Jersey. On the first day of school she had six students; by the end of the school year, she had 200 students. Clara's school in Bordentown became such a success that the community built a new, larger school building at a cost of $4,000.

Ironically, when the "new" Schoolhouse Number One opened in 1853, Clara was informed that a man had been hired to be principal of the school that she'd established. In addition, he would be paid twice her salary. Not surprisingly, Clara resigned from the school and also ended her teaching career. A year later, she relocated to Washington, D.C., where she became a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office.

The reason I have delved so much into the childhood of Clara Barton is because the experiences and influences that help develop the character of an individual are often forged in childhood. Clara's childhood clearly played an integral role in the development of not only her great intellect, but her character, and her strength. Her parents and siblings all took part in raising Clara, and took great time and attention to provide her with a quick mind, love of learning, compassion for others, and clearly a "never give up" attitude.

When the Civil War ended, Clara took a much deserved vacation to Europe. While in Geneva, she learned of the Switzerland-based RED CROSS, an organization for "international agreements to protect the sick and wounded during wartime and the formation of national societies to give aid voluntarily on a neutral basis".

Not surprisingly, upon her return to the United States, Clara diligently pursued the need for the establishment of an AMERICAN RED CROSS. With the organizational skills she first showed collecting necessary relief and medical supplies during the Civil War, as well as the wartime experience she witnessed firsthand and the dire need for volunteers to help tend those wounded in battle or wounded by life, she contacted friends, generals, and respected citizens like Frederick Douglass to create a RED CROSS organization in the United States.

Through her efforts, age the age of 60, CLARA BARTON, the "Angel of the Battlefield" became the founder of the AMERICAN RED CROSS in 1881. She would serve as its president until 1904, when she resigned at the age of 83.

On 12 April 1912, ironically 51 years after the attack on Fort Sumter, CLARISSA "CLARA" HARLOWE BARTON died at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland. She was 91 years old. On the battlefield, she helped tend the wounded and the dying. She saw the horrors and cost of war. The lives it took. She did what was necessary, volunteering her time and even risking her life to help others. Beyond organizing donations and seeing they were delivered where necessary, she remained to prepare food, saw those in need were warm and comfortable as possible. She read to them, helped write letters home, or prayed softly with them as they left this world.

She was called the Angel of the Battlefield during the Civil War, yet her legacy continues to this day with the AMERICAN RED CROSS and other charitable volunteer organizations that have followed her example. In light of all the natural disasters we have seen recently, and the importance of contributing and aiding those in distress or suffering great loss, it is clear to see how one life can make a difference and lead the way for individual volunteerism and collective humanitarian efforts.

Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West today. I hope you found this information about CLARA BARTON interesting, and perhaps inspiring. ~ AKB


The American Red Cross

Clara Barton Birthplace Museum, North Oxford, Massachusetts

Clara Barton: Civil War Hero, Founder of the American Red Cross - by Susan E. Hamen, ABDO Publishing, 2010


  1. What a great read. I recognize the name but had no idea about everything she was involved with. Great American woman for certain. Thanks Ashley.

    1. Thank you, Paisley. So happy you enjoyed this post.

  2. History has certainly shown us what brave, intelligent, and innovative women we have had throughout our history. I probably would have run away at the thought of having to care for and feed 3,000 men. What a challenge that had to have been for Clara.
    I have never seen a picture of Clara Barton until I read this piece.
    My sister used to collect dolls and made clothes for them starting at the age of 6. My parents liked to install in us knowledge without making it boring. So, they gave us these little historical dolls that came with a booklet about their accomplishments. One of those dolls was Clara Barton. I have to appreciate the lengths our parents went to in order to teach us. Of course, your article told me so much more about this devoted and awesome woman, Ashley. Thank you!

    1. Sarah J - Your parents sound so great. Clearly, their love of history and its importance continues in your life and work. I was so impressed the more I learned about Clara Barton. For example, she was one of the first women to be employed by the federal government. After the war, her home in Washington was used as headquarters to find missing soldiers. Another interesting fact is that many soldiers honored her by naming their daughters Clara. The name became quite popular after the Civil War. I think it is so important to learn about women like her, and her life. We all need to realize that every life can make a difference to help others. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Very inspiring article, Ashley. Clara Barton exhibited the kind of love and self-sacrifice more human beings, especially world leaders, need to emulate. An amazing woman!

    1. I wholeheartedly agree, Lyn. Now more than ever. Thank you for your comment.


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