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Looking back at her childhood, Clara Barton remembered "nothing but fear." She saw herself as an introspective, insecure child, too timid to express her thoughts to others. Yet this girl who felt terror in all new situations possessed qualities that enabled her to overcome that fear, indeed to become a woman universally acclaimed as courageous.
Barton was born on December 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, and named Clarissa Harlowe Barton. Her parents had four other children, all at least 10 years of age when she was born. Thus Clara--as she was always called--was born into a world of adults and, as she later recalled, "had no playmates, but in effect six fathers and mothers."1
Clara Barton's mother, Sarah Barton, spent little time with her daughter. She was an erratic, nervous woman, with a reputation for profanity and a violent temper, who spent most of her time in compulsive housework. When Barton was six, her sister Dolly became mentally ill and the family had to lock her in a room with barred windows. Dolly's illness combined with her mother's bad temper must have added to Barton's timidity, but it never affected her loyalty to her family.
As an adult, Barton taught school for 10 years and then felt compelled to "find a school...to teach me something."2 She settled upon Clinton Liberal Institute in New York, where she was exposed to many aspects of social reform--abolitionism, women's rights, and education. Of women's rights Barton wrote, "I must have been born believing in the full right of women to all the privileges and positions which nature and justice accord her in common with other human beings. Perfectly equal rights--human rights. There was never any question in my mind in regard to this."3
After another stint teaching school, Barton left for Washington, D.C., in 1855, where she found a job as a patent clerk. At that time she was the only female permanently employed by the federal government. When the Civil War broke out, she was alarmed to hear that regiments were lacking such basic necessities as towels, handkerchiefs, serving utensils, etc. She called upon New Englanders to provide her with such items so that she might see that each regiment was properly fitted out. Such garnering of supplies against unforeseen disaster eventually became a central characteristic of her later relief work. For a year Barton contented herself with soliciting supplies. Then, as the horrible effects of battle were reported in Washington, she began to think of aiding soldiers directly on the battlefield. Nurses were urgently needed at the battlefield, but she wondered if it was seemly for a woman to place herself directly in the lines of battle: "I struggled...with my sense of propriety, with the appalling fact that I was only a woman whispering in one ear, and thundering in the other [were] the groans of the suffering men dying like dogs."4
Late in the summer of 1862, at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia, she "broke the shackles and went to the field."5 At Cedar Mountain and the subsequent battle of Bull Run (Manassas), she began a remarkable service which continued to the end of the war. At Bull Run, she found 3,000 wounded men lying in a sparsely wooded field on straw, for there was no other bedding. Most had not eaten all day; many faced amputations or other operations. She was unprepared for such carnage, but she distributed coffee, crackers, and the few other supplies she had brought. Scanty as her supplies were, Barton's aid was timely and competent. Army surgeon Dr. James I. Dunn wrote to his wife, "At a time when we were entirely out of dressings of every kind, she supplied us with everything, and while the shells were bursting in every direction...she staid dealing out shirts...and preparing soup....I thought that night that if heaven ever sent out a homely angel, she must be one."6
From that time on, Barton went from battle to battle, always bringing in needed supplies and nursing the wounded soldiers of both sides. She several times barely escaped injury or death from shells landing on the battlefields or the hospitals, but she never stopped her work.
Barton worked primarily alone--and she liked it that way. She did not seek glory, but she needed praise and did not wish to have it bestowed on the name of an entire group such as the Sanitary Commission, which was doing similar work. She liked being revered as an "Angel of the Battlefield." And, this woman who remembered always being afraid, deserved accolades. While serving others, she found she forgot herself. "When you stand day and night in the presence of hardship and physical suffering, you do not stop to think about the interest [of your work]. There is not time for that. Ease pain, soothe sorrow, lessen suffering--that is your only thought day and night."7
After the war, Barton worked to help ease the problems of newly-freed African Americans and for universal suffrage, writing reports and speaking at rallies. She also served as a vice president and featured speaker at the First International Woman's Suffrage Conference in Washington, D.C. She spent more than four years trying to identify more than 22,000 men missing in action and brought about the designation of Andersonville prison camp as a national cemetery. In 1868 while delivering a lecture in Boston, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent by her doctor to Europe for a rest.
1) In what ways was Barton's childhood unusual?
2) How did Barton feel about the rights of all people?
3 Why do you think Barton had difficulty deciding to go to the battlefields?
4) At one time, "homely" meant "domestic" or suited to the home, rather than unattractive. Yet when the press reprinted Dr. Dunn's description of Bartonís work at Bull Run, she crossed out the word "homely" and entered the word "holy." How does that incident help to explain Barton's perception of herself?
Reading 1 was adapted from Clara Barton, Clara Barton National Historic Site (Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, 1981).
1Elizabeth Brown Pryor, "The Professional Angel," part 2 in Clara Barton, Clara Barton National Historic Site (Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, 1981), 16.