Civil War “Angel of the Battlefield”
by Patricia L. Cummings
Clarissa Harlowe Barton (1821-1912), better known as “Clara Barton,” was born in North Oxford, Massachusetts. History
remembers her not only as the founder of the American Red Cross in 1881 but as a dedicated nurse who ministered to
wounded soldiers at the front lines of major battles during the Civil War (1861-1865). From a very young age, she was
highly influenced by her patriot father, Stephen Barton, Sr., who served as a Captain in the Indian Wars of the West. As she
sat transfixed, he recounted tales of the soldiers who had valiantly fought under his command. Her father described Clara as
“more boy than girl” and was proud to see her become a good equestrian and a sharpshooter. Standing only five feet tall,
the brown-eyed beauty possessed physical agility and stamina and a type of indomitable determination that eventually made
her a leader.
Experience Nursing Her Brother
When Clara was just 11 years old, she was called on to take care of David, her older brother. He was bed-bound for two
years after falling from the rafters of a barn during its construction. She disliked the prescribed treatments from his doctor
such as applying leeches to his skin to bleed him but she followed the customary medical advice of the day. By today's
standards, medical knowledge was still in its infancy. Nursing was the chosen career of one of Clara's aunts who served as
a mid-wife in Hallowell, Maine and whose work is recorded in the book A Midwife's Tale: the Life of Martha Ballard written
by historian, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, (New York: Vintage, 1991).
A pair of traveling phrenologists suggested that teaching would be a good occupation for Clara and might help her to
overcome her shy nature. Based on this advice, she accepted work as a teacher in a one-room school house in Worcester
County, Massachusetts with 40 pupils. She advanced her education at the Clinton Institute in Clinton, New York and later
founded a free public school in Bordentown, New Jersey. The new school flourished in its first year but instead of
rewarding Clara for her part in making it a success, a male administrator was hired at $600 dollars annually compared to
her own pay of just $350 dollars. Offended at this action, she left teaching forever after being a teacher for 10 years.
Work in the U.S. Patent Office
Clara continued to advocate for the rights of women all of her life, later aligning herself with the work of people such as
Susan B. Anthony. The first woman known to have ever secured a federal position working as a copyist in the U.S. Patent
Office in Washington, D.C., Clara’s services were rewarded with an annual salary of $1,400 dollars. Curiously, she was
dismissed from that lucrative employment opportunity at the same time she declared her allegiance to the Republican Party.
After Lincoln was elected in 1860, her political friends in Washington managed to pull strings and have her reinstated but at
a severely reduced salary.
Clara Provides Baskets of Food for the Troops
During the early months of the Civil War, Clara could be found loading up baskets with her own canned fruits and
vegetables and homemade baked goodies to bring to Army soldiers in the hills surrounding Washington, D.C. She made
sure that either her sister, Sally, or a male escort accompanied her, lest she be mistaken for one of the unsavory
opportunists who would comfort the soldiers at a price. The capitol city was physically located between “hostile Maryland”
and “secessionist Virginia” as described by Stephen Oates, author of A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War
((New York: The Free Press, 1994).
A quilt block in tribute to Clara Barton. The Clara Barton Rose was designed by
Mary A. McElwain who ran a quilt and gift shop in Walworth, Wisconsin and was
a quilt judge in the 1930s
Heading for the Front Lines
Clara's first experience with helping nurse wounded soldiers occurred on April 19, 1861 when she rushed to aid members
of the Massachusetts 6th Regiment in Baltimore, Maryland where they had been viciously attacked by a mob of angry
secessionists. At the end of the riot, 12 civilians and four soldiers lay dead. Determined more than ever to go where she
was most needed, (in her opinion, the battlefront), Clara obtained leave from her paid employment so that she could serve
as a volunteer Army nurse. At the time, nursing as a profession neither existed nor were there any official nursing schools
in the country. After her replacement agreed to work at half-pay so that Clara could continue to be sent some money, she
was able to maintain living quarters in the capitol city to which she could return as needed.
Memorable Brush with Death
Her friendships with high ranking federal officials and generals were instrumental in helping her to secure permission to
venture into areas where she could directly care for the wounded and dying under dangerous conditions. Indeed, Clara put
her own life in jeopardy on more than one occasion. At the Battle of Antietam, as she stooped over to give a sip of water to
a soldier on the ground, a bullet passed through the sleeve of her dress, hitting the man in the chest and killing him instantly.
Clara never repaired the sleeve, keeping it as a grim reminder of her near brush with death.
A Wartime Association
In another instance, to her utter shock and dismay, she watched as her beloved friend, Colonel John H. Elwell (1820-1900),
was shot from his horse as he charged forward at Battery Wagner, a battle site located on an island off the coast of South
Carolina. Imagine a sandy beach littered with the dead and dying. As bullets whizzed past her, blowing sand up into her
eyes, she assisted her intimate friend to safety. Married and with a family back in Ohio, Colonel Elwell earned both medical
and law credentials before the war. Best of friends with Clara, he found comfort in her arms. Extant love letters attest to
their physical expression of love, a clear deviation from Clara's strict religious upbringing.
Medical Issues Remove Clara from Action
As a first-hand witness to the violence of the war, Clara's diary entries provide a close view of her experiences and
tribulations and at times, her feelings of depression, despondency and defeat. She was full of anxiety and angst when she
was removed from action due to bouts of malaria and dysentery, common ailments that were rampant during the war, a
time when the causative agents of both conditions were unknown.
Time to Account for Dead and Wounded
Clara can be considered a heroine due to her deep sense of caring for the soldiers, as well as perseverance in the face of
adversity. When the war ended in 1865, her work was not yet complete. Using her own apartment as headquarters, she
devoted herself to the task of accounting for missing soldiers. Dorence Atwater, a young Union soldier who was held at
Andersonville Prison provided her with his hand written list he had secretly kept with the names of 13,000 known dead
soldiers. Clara personally answered more than 63,000 letters of inquiry from family members who wanted the closure of
knowing whether or not their loved one died during the War.
In Need of a Break
Exhausted and physically in need of a long rest, Clara journeyed to Switzerland in 1869. There she met individuals who
encouraged her to begin a chapter of the International Red Cross in the United States. She accomplished that task in 1881,
but as with everything else she attempted to do during her lifetime, she ran into many challenges before being able to firmly
establish the American Red Cross, an organization that is so familiar to us today.
Quilt Made to Honor Clara’s Service
Approximately one decade after the end of the war, Civil War veterans from New England who were members of Post 65
of the Clara Barton Encampment, Warren, Massachusetts, signed each of 49 quilt blocks of a 83" long x 90" wide
Friendship Album quilt and presented it to Clara Barton in honor of her great contributions. Today, the quilt is proudly
displayed at the “Clara Barton Birthplace Museum,” located at the site of her childhood home. America's bloodiest conflict
succeeded in the preservation of the Union and the abolition of the institution of slavery.
Memory of Barton’s Service Will Not Fade
Unlike the colors of the Clara Barton tribute quilt, the memory of the sacrifices of this important iconic nineteenth century
woman will not fade. Her life story, of which we have only touched upon briefly here, is the subject of a number of
biographies. Today, she is constantly remembered in America's classrooms as an outstanding historic figure.
“Angel of the Battlefield”
Dr. James Langstaff Dunn, a surgeon at the Battle of Antietam, once described Clara Barton as the “angel of the battlefield.”
Adopted by the Massachusetts 21st Regiment as one of its own, Clara Barton more than once declared her own position by
stating, “I am a soldier!” Indeed!
# # #
Thanks to Donna Joly, Public Relations Manager at the Clara Barton Birthplace Museum, for assistance in the preparation of
this article. For museum hours or to arrange a visit, please see the museum website: www.clarabartonbirthplace.org
Thanks to David Stansbury of www.davidstansburyphotography.com/ for his high-quality photo of the Clara Barton tribute
quilt described above (which was featured in the published version of this article in The Quilter magazine.
List of those who signed the quilt for Clara Barton (Each block measures 12 3/4" high x 13 1/8")
E.H.S. Wilson, 43d Mass. Co. K
J.A. Snow, 37th Mass., Co. A
N.W. Marston, 32d Mass, Co. E
J.G. Leach, 25th Mass., Co. C
R. Preston, 15th Mass., Co. F
S.W. Bridge, 2nd N.H., Co. A
Geo. W. Foster, 57th Mass., Co. A
Geo. F. Tucker, 15th Mass. Co. F
J.H. Brown, 34th Mass., Co. H
Dr. J.W. Hastings, 21st Mass.
O.C. Switzer, 15th Mass., Co. I
E.O. Weed, 2nd Maine, Co. K
E.C. Carey, 34th Mass., Co. I
G.W. Pierce, 12th Mass., Co. B
L.W. Gilbert, 34th Mass., Co. I
Wm. Clamance, 49th Mass., Co. A
Dr. Calvin Cutter, Surgeon, 21st Mass.
Gen. A. E. Burnside, Past. Com. Chief
A.J. Anoney, 25th Mass., Co. D
L.B. Healey, 1st Mass., Co. F, H, A
C.F. Root, 25th Mass., Co. B
Silas Bercume, 10th Mass., Co. K
John Thayer, 8th Mass., Co. H
Gen. Chas. Devens Jr., Commander-in-Chief-
Post 65 Clara Barton Encampment, Warren, Mass. / Organized Aug. 27th, 1868
Gen. J.A. Logan, Past. Com. Chief
W.H. Lombard, 46th Mass., Co. G
E.H. Hammond, 16th Vt., Co. E
C.E. Knights, 46th Mass., Co. I
John Porter, 2d Mass., Co. L
F.H. Moore, 43d Mass., Co. K
Gen. A.B. Underwood, Dept. Commander, 33d Mass.
H.J. Nichols, 1st N.H., Co. A
G.N. Ross, 51st Mass., Co. B
J.S. Tidd, 43d Mass., Co. K
Oliver Avery, 2d Mass., Co. L, H, A
E Avery, 1st R.I. Calvy, Co. F
W. H. Shepard, 42nd Mass., Co. K
J.P. Adams, 21st Mass., Co. C
Geo. Bliss, 34th Mass., Co. I
Amos Bliss, 22d Mass., Co. F
M. Collins, 2d Mass., Co. H, H.A. (Heavy Artillery Division)
D.S. Cooley, 46th Mass., Co. E
Chas. M. Calkins, 11th Maine, Co. H
W. A. Tolman, 42d Mass., Co. K
Joseph Prazo, 3d R.I. Calvy, Co. D
Stephen Avery, 1st R.I. Calvy., Co. F
Wm. Marshall, 34th Mass., Co. D.
R.P. Bestick, 4th Mass., Co. G
Copyright 2012. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter’s Muse Publications, Concord, NH. Patricia is a quilt history researcher,
certified master craftsman in quilting and professional writer. She writes books for publication as well as magazine articles
on topics of interest related to history and/or textiles. All rights reserved. e-mail: email@example.com