Barton's Lifetime of Compassion

Article excerpt


She was a little spinster with untidy hair, always plainly dressed and often painfully shy, but her outward appearance deceived. Clara Barton was a woman with an unshakable determination who showed unflinching courage when exposed to great danger. Known as the "angel of the battlefield," she was adored by the Union troops whose welfare was her sole concern.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Dec. 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Mass., the only daughter and youngest of five children of Stephen Barton and the former Sarah Stone. Her schooling was much interrupted by her need to nurse her brother David, who had been badly hurt in a fall from a barn roof at the family home.

In 1850, she enrolled at the Liberal Institute in Clinton, near Utica, N.Y., and two years later, she became a teacher in Highstown, N.J. When she opened a school in Bordenstown, N.J., beside the Delaware River, it prospered, but she took offense when a male superintendent was placed over her, and she left.

Until then, she had known only small towns, but in 1854, she moved to the District, where she found dull but remarkably well-paid (for a woman) work as a clerk in the Patent Office. Apparently, her handwriting was of a high standard, essential for the documents she was required to copy. She was there for three years, and then the war took her, by her own decision, out of secure employment and obscurity. Although she was no seeker of publicity, she was to become famous.

Her determination to do all she could to help wounded soldiers was fired when she started to aid men of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment - some of whom she knew - who had been injured, some badly, in the vicious Baltimore riot of April 19, 1861. The secessionist mob had killed four of the soldiers.

She began a self-appointed task of obtaining the names and addresses of the wounded and writing to their families. This was a practice she would continue and that would win her respect and affection.

She never fell afoul of the hard-pressed Sanitary Commission, which not only approved of her work, but lent her support as well. She had no nursing experience; as a nurse, she probably would have clashed with the redoubtable Dorothea Dix.

Barton began to receive packages that were intended for individual soldiers, and she made sure they got them. This led to her accumulating vital medical supplies that were desperately needed. It also meant she would have to visit the battle zones.

After the Battle of Cedar Mountain on Aug. 9, 1862, she offered her wagonload of supplies. It took much persuasion and some tears before she was permitted to visit the makeshift military hospital at Culpeper, where her provisions were received with surprise and tremendous relief. …