Notes on Antietam
Excerpted and transcribed from an essay entitled, "Clara Barton and the International Red Cross Association", Clara Barton papers, Library of Congress, reel # 109, beginning at frame # 409.
Notes on Antietam
On the way to Antietam my wagons were at the rear of the army; the road was filled for ten miles with a solid moving mass. It was impossible to get by until they stopped for the night. You understand that if one wagon tries to pass another at such a time, it simply is pushed into the ditch. But at dusk the train drew to one side of the road and halted for the night. At midnight I directed my drivers to harness quietly and drive on past them, if possible without creating suspicion. We made the entire ten miles before daybreak and took our place in the rear of the headquarters wagon, and moved on next day unquestioned - passing the field of South Mountain, the guns of which had rung in our ear all the day before. On the evening of the 16th of September we reached the valley of Antietam.
It was a miserable night. There was a sense of impending doom. We knew, every one knew, that two great armies of 80,000 men were lying there face to face, only waiting for dawn to begin the battle. It gave a terrible sense of oppression. Then the came was in a hollow which was filled with men and beasts; it was all used and made fetid by this press of human beings and animals. Before dawn I went up on the hill, and there I could sweep the country with my glass, see the countless watchfires of both armies, lying face to face, ready to spring, yet not a man to be seen. Before I left the hill, the dawn came, and the firing began away on the right. There was to be the beginning of the battle, and there I should be needed first. I hastened down; my men were all ready with their wagons, and ordered them to drive to the right, eight miles. We galloped the whole distance, and drew up behind the line of artillery which was covering our infantry and slanted away to the left. There was a big cornfield, and we drove in, and up towards an old barn which was standing in the midst. My men unharnessed the mules and tied them to the wheels and we were ready for work. They were always my helpers. We knew the wounded were in there somewhere, the men went in search of them. The corn was immensely tall, it entirely hid the house from us. Presently, the men came back saying, "yes, they are over there, the tables and surgeons" and I followed them through the corn and came upon the house. It had a high, broad verandah, and on this every kind of thing that pretended to be a table was standing, and on the tables were the poor men, and beside them the surgeons. They were the same with whom I had just been at the second Bull Run.
"The Lord has remembered us!" "You are here again"
"And did you want me?" I asked.
"Want you! Why, we want you above all things, and we want everything."
"I have everything," I replied
"Look here," he said, "see what we need, and how much we need it, we have no more chloroform, no more bandages nor lint, no more liquor, nothing. See here" and he showed me some poor fellows whose raw new wounds were actually dressed with those rough corn leaves.
And this was the beginning of the battle. You must know that we had passed the supplies the night before; they could not come up until the fate of the day was decided. Those were their orders; they must not risk falling into the hands of the enemy. That was the point I always tried to make, to bridge that chasm, and succor the wounded until the medical aid and supplies should come up. I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner and I tried to fill that gap. My men unloaded the wagons, and brought up everything the good women of the country had provided; the wounded kept pouring in, and we kept working over them. After a time my stores for feeding the men began to give out; not the other things, oh no there were plenty of those; but of food I had naturally not enough for thousands, and by afternoon the line of wounded stretched out for five miles.
A curious thing happened there. I had twelve cases of wine, the first nine opened were packed in sawdust; but the last three, when we were nearly in despair of food, were packed in corn meal. My men were almost superstitious over that; they had the idea it must have changed some way from sawdust to meal. It was a lucky sign too, for when we went into the house to reconnoitre for food; down in the cellar we found three barrels of Indian meal and a bag of salt; there were three or four great kettles in and about the house, and we made gruel, gruel, gruel and my men carried it up and down the...
Towards sunset the third charge was made on the line of artillery covering our infantry. Of course, all day the cannonading had been close upon us; but the house and corn field were under the lee of a hill and the enemy's guns were mostly trained on that hill so that the firing went over us. The upper stories of the house were riddled to be sure and several shells fell in among us and at the edge of the verandah, yet none explored to do harm, fortunately.
This third charge was the most terrific artillery duel I ever heard, and I have had some experience. The tables jarred and rolled until we could hardly keep the men on them, and the roar was overwhelming. After a while I looked around, and to my surprise saw all the surgeons gone, except one man, the chief, who was standing by a table where a man lay, but there was no one to help him with the operation.
"What has become of your assistants?" said I going up to him. "Don't blame them, madam" said he. "They have been here through ghastly scenes since daylight and then cannonading is nerve-breaking. Don't blame them that they have retired, and some have gone down the line to the wounded."
"Very well" said I, "and how about this man? Do you want to go on with the operation? Can I assist you?"
"Can you stand it?" said he.
"Oh, yes" said I, and I took the chloroform. He gave me directions and we tended the man through the whole of the frightful firing.
With night the firing ceased, and I went to see about lighting up the barn. I had brought plenty of lanterns with me this time... When I came back from the barn I went into the house where I saw a solitary light burning. The surgeon was sitting in one of those dark, dank rooms with two inches of a candle by him, and his head on his hand, the picture of despair.
"You are tired, doctor" I said, going to him and putting my hand on his shoulder.
"Tired" he exclaimed, lifting his head with a wrathful gleam in his eyes, "yes, I am tired of this human incompetence, this neglect and folly which leaves me alone with all these soldiers on my hands, five hundred of whom will die before daybreak unless they have attention, and I with no light by that two inches of candle," and he let his head fall on his hand again.
"Come, doctor", said I gently, for from my heart I pitied him, "I want to show you something." I took him to the door, and told him to look towards the barn; it was like a garden illumination of Chinese lanterns.
"What are they?" said he in amazement.
"Lanterns" said I.
"Lanterns, where did they come from?"
"I brought them. The men will be here in a few moments to light the house. You will have plenty of light and plenty of assistance. Don't despair in your good work doctor". He didn't say a word, but he looked at me, and afterward set his own particular guard to keep close by me all the time, to follow me like my shadow ... so that I should always have some one at my elbow to help me. The doctor and I have been good friends ever since. We worked through that long bloody night together, and the next morning the supplies came up, my things were all gone, my strength was all gone, they made up a bed for me of an old coverlet on the floor of a wagon; and I lay down on it, and was jogged back to Washington, eighty miles. When I reached there, and looked in the mirror, my face was still the color of gunpowder, a deep blue. Oh yes I went to the front!
Did You Know?
Clara Barton is probably the most famous American nurse who was never a real nurse. She cared for wounded soldiers in the Civil War and as President of the American Red Cross she organized over 18 relief efforts, but she was a former school teacher and government clerk.