Angel of the Battlefield: An Unexpected Gift


As a child, I was addicted to a series of biographies written for children. They were undersized volumes, with a textured blue cover and the name of the featured person written in a kind of script. One of those books told the story of Clara Barton. Her courage, determination, and devotion to the soldiers of the Civil War have stayed with me all these years.

Clara Barton, 1905

When many people think of Clara Barton, they may think of the American Red Cross, which she founded. But the actions that motivated her to pursue that establishment were amazing and admirable. I’d like to share some of that story, especially the unexpected gift she became to the American soldiers of the Civil War and their families.

Clara Barton was born in Massachusetts in 1821, moving to Washington, DC in 1854. She worked as a clerk in the patent office and earned the same salary as men. Unfortunately, Secretary of the Interior, Robert McClelland, didn’t like women working in government positions, so he demoted her to copyist and to making $.10 per hour. (She had been making $1,400 annually as a clerk.)

Her job was eventually eliminated and she returned to Massachusetts but returned to her former position in Washington, DC when Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860. When Union soldiers were attacked in Baltimore in 1861, she rushed to create a makeshift hospital. Thus, began her medical career.

Clara Barton was not just your average nurse. She was known for requesting and organizing supplies, and eventually badgered government leaders to bring her volunteer services and supplies to the scenes of battle. In August 1862, one surgeon at a field hospital called her “The Angel of the Battlefield.”

She was known for getting into the thick of things, repeatedly risking her life to care for wounded soldiers. She was quoted as saying:

I always tried . . . to succor the wounded until medical aid and supplies could come up—I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.

Her compassion and dedication were often apparent. She wrote about her experiences, this one at Fort Wagner in July 1863:

I can never forget the patient bravery with which they endured their wounds received in the cruel assault upon Wagner, as hour after hour they lay in the wet sands, just back of the growling guns waiting their turn for the knife or the splint and bandage, not a murmur, scarce a groan, but ever that patient upturning of the great dark eyes, to your face, in utter silence, which kept one constantly wondering if they knew all they had done, and were doing? and whenever I met one who was giving his life out with his blood, I could not forbear hastening to tell him lest he die in ignorance of the truth, that he was the soldier of Freedom he had sought to be, and that the world as well as Heaven would so record it…

Barton returned to Washington, DC in January 1865. She had collected a treasure trove of data about the soldiers she had encountered, and began writing to families who had reported soldiers missing. As a result of her work, President Lincoln, appointed her General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners:

Her job was to locate missing soldiers and respond to inquiries from the grieving friends and relatives of these lost men. She established the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States and employed twelve clerks to assist her in this monumental task.

She and her assistants responded to more than 63,000 letters from families searching for lost sons and husbands and friends, most of which required some kind of research. This eventually led to the publication of Rolls of Missing Men that were posted across the country so that anyone with knowledge of their whereabouts or death could contact her. By 1868 they had identified more than 22,000 missing soldiers, but many more remained unaccounted for.

Nor only did she set the stage for creating this position, but she also wrote a powerful final report to the 40th U.S. Congress in 1869. This was part of her final recommendation:

With a view, therefore, of remedying any defect in the existing laws upon the subject, and of removing any uncertainty or propriety of adopting a resolution similar in substance to the following:

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress assembled, That hereafter all persons who served in the army or navy during the war for the suppression of the rebellion, and who are now borne upon the rolls of their respective commands as missing or unknown, and of whom no traces have yet been found, shall be considered as having died in the line of duty, and their legal heirs and representatives, upon proper proof of their being so recorded, shall be entitled to the bounties, back pay and pension the same as if they had been otherwise accounted for.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully,

Clara Barton

 She was a unique gift to this country.

Thank you, Clara Barton

There are 15 comments.

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  1. MarciN Member

    A beautiful post about a great person in American history. Thank you.

    • #1
  2. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo

    That was awesome; she was awesome.  Thank you, Susan.

    • #2
  3. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    That was awesome; she was awesome. Thank you, Susan.

    Thanks, @bossmongo and @marcin! To think that she did these acts on her own, wanted to go to the battle scenes, and was appointed as a woman to that very important role was amazing. I wish we could package her grit and determination!

    • #3
  4. PHenry Member

    Clara Barton has long been one of my favorite Civil War personalities.  She is the prototype for everything a nurse/caregiver should be, and as brave as any of the soldiers she cared for.  All the more astounding when you consider the obstacles she faced as a woman in a society that paid little heed to then. 

    Thanks for a great post that reminds us of true selfless virtues. 

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    PHenry (View Comment):
    Thanks for a great post that reminds us of true selfless virtues. 

    Thanks, @phenry. In putting the story together, I kept marveling at her courage and fortitude. When people complain about the focus on men and not women in our history, they clearly haven’t read the story of Clara Barton and the example she set for women!

    • #5
  6. MarciN Member

    @susanquinn    I think we read the same series of biographies. But the one I read had orange covers, I think. I can still picture the shelf at my little town library. Now I’m wondering if the series was in blue.

    It was all women–Betsy Ross, Martha Washington, Dolly Madison, Louisa May Alcott, Juliet Gordon Low, and my favorite Clara Barton. I read them all one summer as part of a reading program at the library. Every time I read one and brought it back, I got a little red dot on a card the librarians were keeping. At the end of the summer, I got a certificate of some sort that meant a lot to me. :-)

    I think of that series all the time and what a great influence it had on me. It made me sympathetic to the idea of telling stories of more women achievers in elementary and middle school textbooks. In the seventies when I was in educational publishing, I liked the idea very much because of that wonderful series of books I had read as a little kid. I have never felt limited because I was a woman–because of that series. And they were definitely role models for me, people I aspired to be like. So the early proponents of changing textbooks I think were right to do so.

    It’s hard to believe such a positive change could have morphed over the years to the weirdness it is now. At the beginning, it was a pretty good idea.

    Loved this post so much. :-)

    • #6
  7. Rodin Member

    We learn a name and basic facts as children (or at least we used to) including Clara Barton. But your account reveals depths that should have been taught and a stark lesson in why we cannot lose history — the bad and the good.

    • #7
  8. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    MarciN (View Comment):
    @susanquinn I think we read the same series of biographies. But the one I read had orange covers, I think. I can still picture the shelf at my little town library. Now I’m wondering if the series was in blue.

    That’s it!! Actually, I’m sure many I read were blue, but now I’m wondering if some could have been orange? Was it a medium orange, not real dark or real light? think you are younger than I am, so maybe later editions came out in orange. And yes, I forgot they were all women! Gosh, I wish I could figure out how to find them. I tried online but I don’t know the publisher or author(s). I don’t know if we had the same recognition system (the dots), but I loved our little local library.  Eventually a new facility was built, but it was not as intimate. Thank you for enriching my memory!

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Rodin (View Comment):

    We learn a name and basic facts as children (or at least we used to) including Clara Barton. But your account reveals depths that should have been taught and a stark lesson in why we cannot lose history — the bad and the good.

    Hear! Hear! Thanks, @rodin! I loved learning a lot of history (and still do) through biographies.

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    I also didn’t make the connection between Clara Barton–and Esther, hero of the Purim story. Purim is celebrated today!

    • #10
  11. Clifford A. Brown Contributor
    Clifford A. Brown

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    I also didn’t make the connection between Clara Barton–and Esther, hero of the Purim story. Purim is celebrated today!

    Clara Barton is best paired with Florence Nightengale, who took a group of female nurses to the Crimean War (1853-6) and imposed what we now consider basic medical sanitation. That significantly improved survival rates for British soldiers, first exposed to modern firepower before Americans ran into the same terrible killing machine. 

    The engine behind the drive for hospital reform in the mid-nineteenth century was Florence Nightingale (photo, left). After her tremendously successful humanitarian venture at the Scutari Barrack Hospital during the Crimean War, Nightingale was able to convince the world of the necessity of improving hygiene and sanitation as well as having trained professional nurses tending the sick in the hospital wards. According to medical historian Guy Williams, when she arrived at Scutari “there were plenty of rats, lice and fleas, but there were very few knives, forks, or spoons. Miss Nightingale and her nurses, who were allowed just one pint of water per person per day for washing and drinking and for making tea, [yet]…the ladies’ own personal circumstances were hardly hygienic.”(4) With hard work and determination, she turned the situation around and by the time she returned to England, she had become a national heroine.

    This conversation is part of our Group Writing Series under the March 2019 Group Writing Theme: Unexpected Gifts. There are plenty of dates still available. Tell us about anything from a hidden talent to a white elephant. Share a great surprise or memorable failure (oh, you shouldn’t have!). Our schedule and sign-up sheet awaits.

    April’s theme will be posted after the Ides of March.

    • #11
  12. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl

    I’ve read about Clara Barton as a Civil War nurse and Red Cross founder since I was a third grader…when dinosaurs roamed our playground.

    But! Thank you for this additional information in her life story. I didn’t realize that she organized and provided the help to the families of the missing soldiers. What an amazing, and much-needed service! All the more reason I hold her as one of my heroes!

    • #12
  13. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret

    Thank you for bringing forth your awareness of this woman’s contribution to our country. Most of the story you shared with us  was unknown to me.

    So humbling to realize all the work she undertook and the impact she must have had on so many lives.

    It is also chilling to realize that there were 22,000 soldiers missing in action.


    • #13
  14. Shauna Hunt Inactive
    Shauna Hunt

    Wow! How inspiring! I had a series of books I read when I was growing up. Those kind of books never leave you. Great books are a blessing. And yes, Esther is one of my heroes, too. The entire story makes a great read. 

    • #14
  15. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Above Top Secret

    It is hard for people in the late 20th and early 21st Century to understand what the duties of the average nurse happened to be in the 1800’s.

    In addition to administering  whatever medications were available, helping with the diagnosis aspect of injuries and illness, also they often had to make from scratch a baby incubator for a premie or underweight newborn. They routinely chopped wood, made the fires in the fireplaces, kept the floors and surfaces clean, boiled the water, and provided TLC.

    Incubators would be made from wooden frames, lined with hot bricks, and then blankets would be placed in the set up so the new babies could be kept warm without being burned.

    • #15

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