Clara's Heart

Article excerpt

Clara Barton struggled with bureaucratic insensitivity all her life. Her biggest problem was getting official permission to do good.

Born Christmas Day, 1821, Barton showed a talent for organizing charity when she established the first free public school in Bordentown, New Jersey. After enrollments soared, the local school board pushed her aside.

When the Civil War erupted, she felt driven to help. After learning that soldiers from her home state of Massachusetts were quartered in the U.S. Senate chambers without beds or supplies, she brought items from her home and, with her own money, purchased and prepared food for them.

Barton discovered that ambulances, medical supplies, and hospital construction were not high priorities for the Union military bureaucracy. Henry Halleck, the Army's general-in-chief, dismissed them as "effeminating comforts."soldiers commonly died on the battlefield waiting for treatment, yet the Medical Department, valuing bureaucratic ritual over need, refused to change policy. Frustrated, Barton collected supplies and personally arranged their distribution.

Barton eventually accumulated three warehousefuls of supplies and persuaded the Army to help distribute them at the front. At great personal risk -- a bullet ripped through her sleeve at Antietam and killed the injured soldier she was aiding--Barton fed troops and helped evacuate the wounded. Nearly two years into the war, the Army finally agreed to contribute supplies to her volunteer efforts. She devised a plan for each state to establish a distribution agency where it had a substantial regimental presence.

Barton encountered bureaucratic resistance everywhere. When the War Department ignored a sergeant's requests for a furlough--despite the fact that both of his arms had been blown off in battle--an outraged Barton escorted him to the office of Massachusetts senator Henry Wilson. She then explained that his furlough request was being disregarded and handed the senator the necessary paperwork. When Wilson extended his welcome, Barton commented, "You will pardon the sergeant for not offering you a hand--he has none."The soldier left on furlough the following day.

Exhausted by such struggles, Barton sought rest in Europe. In 1870, the Grand Duchess of Baden enlisted her help with the International Red Cross's relief effort for civilian refugees and wounded soldiers in the Franco-Prussian War. Admiring the systematic organization and efficiency of the institution, Barton undertook a one-woman effort to found an American chapter of the Red Cross. She sought congressional approval for the organization's involvement in wartime humanitarian aid, but was initially thwarted by fears of foreign entanglements. …