Clara Barton: Nursing Outside the Box

Clara Barton, ca. 1866

Clara Barton, ca. 1866

[WARNING: For the next few weeks, it’s going to be all Civil War all the time here at the Margins as we lead up to February 16, when Little Brown releases Heroines of Mercy Street into the world. I’ll try to keep the My Book! My Book! to a minimum and focus on the stories instead, but I may slip now and then because I’m excited. On the upside, there will be a couple of chances to win copies of the book and possibly other swag if I can get my act together.]

When I first began talking to Little Brown and PBS about writing Heroines of Mercy Street, most of what I knew about nurses in the American Civil War could be summed up in two words: Clara Barton.*

Barton first caught my imagination when I was seven or eight, thanks to a child’s biography that belonged to my mother. ** Coming back to her as an adult, I found that her story was more complex, and more amazing that I had realized. Instead of being the archetypical Civil War nurse, Barton was an original who worked outside the system. She avoided any alliance with the official nurses, though she did not hesitate to alternately charm and kick men in high places to get the support and permission she needed in order to provide comfort and medical care to “her boys” on the battlefield.

When the Civil War began in April, 1861, Barton was working as a clerk at the United States Patent Office , one of only four women employed by the federal government before the war. (In short, she was already a shin-kicker.) After Bull Run, she visited the wounded in the improvised hospital on the top floor of the Patent Office every day, bringing them delicacies and helping where she could.

Barton soon became a one-woman relief agency. She developed a personal supply network of “dear sisters” who sent her packages of food, clothing, wine, and bandages to distribute to the troops. In fact, she received so many boxes that she had to rent warehouses to store them.

Over time she became convinced that she was needed on the battlefield, where she could help men as they fell. When the Army of the Potomac was mobilized in the summer of 1862, Barton convinced the head of the Quartermaster Corps depot in Washington to assign her a wagon and a driver.

Armed with a pass signed by Surgeon General Hammond that gave her “permission to go upon the sick transports in any direction for the purpose of distributing comforts to the sick and wounded, and nursing them, always subject to the direction of the Surgeon in charge,” Barton delivered her supplies to the field hospital at Falmouth Station, near Fredericksburg. But she still felt she was not doing enough. When she heard that fighting had broken out at Cedar Mountain, she headed for the battlefield. Thereafter, in battle after battle, Barton ran soup kitchens, provided supplies, nursed the wounded, and tried to keep track of the men who died so she could tell their families what had happened to them. In between battles, she returned to Washington, where she collected the latest batch of supplies, wrote impassioned letters thanking the women who provided them, and fought with bureaucrats to be allowed to continue her work.

She became a such a familiar figure of comfort to wounded men, that scores of the men she helped on the battlefields named their daughters “Clara Barton” in her honor. But that wasn’t her only legacy after the war… [This is known in the trade as a cliffhanger. Don’t touch that dial.]

*Okay, six words: Clara Barton and Louisa May Alcott.

** I know I’ve mentioned them before, but I owe a debt of gratitude to the authors who wrote biographies for young girls about smart and/or tough women who sidestepped (or kicked their way through) society’s boundaries and accomplished stuff no one thought they could accomplish. (Now that I think of it, a lot of those biographies were set in and around the American Civil War–which like WWI and WWII opened doors to women that had previously been closed.) To any of you writing similar biographies today (and I know you’re out there), you’re making a difference. Thank you.

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