Clara Barton (The Angel of the Battlefield)

Civil War Nurse and Humanitarian


by Maggie MacLean

(Originally published on the Civil War Women blog at Used with author’s permission.)

Most people remember Clara Barton as the founder of the American Red Cross and an independent Civil War nurse. During the war she maintained a home in Washington, DC, but traveled with the Union Army, providing care and relief services to the wounded on many battlefields. The significance of the work she performed during and immediately after the war cannot be overstated.

Patent Office Clerk
Born in Massachusetts in 1821, Clara Barton moved to Washington, DC in 1854. There she worked as a clerk in the U. S. Patent Office from 1854 to 1857, the first woman to receive a substantial clerkship in the federal government. Her $1,400 annual salary was the same as that of the male clerks. Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland did not like women working in government offices and reduced Barton to a copyist with a pay rate of 10 cents for each 100 words.

Her position was eliminated when Democratic President James Buchanan was elected in 1856. She then returned to Massachusetts, where she lived with family and friends for several years. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860, Barton returned to her former position as a copyist at the Patent Office.

Riot at Baltimore
Clara Barton was working as a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, DC when the Civil War began on April 12, 1861. On April 19, 1861 soldiers of the 6th Massachusetts Infantry were attacked by Southern sympathizers in Baltimore, Maryland. The injured were taken to the new U.S. Capitol building in nearby Washington, DC, and Barton rushed from the Patent Office to the makeshift hospital to tend the wounded.

In the midst of all this chaos Barton saw the need for personal assistance to the men in uniform, some of whom were wounded or hungry, others without bedding or any clothing except what was on their backs. She gathered food, medicine and other supplies from her own household to distribute to the soldiers, then solicited friends from Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey to send needed items.

The response to her request for supplies for the troops was overwhelming, and she quickly learned how to store and distribute them. This marked the start of her career as a Civil War nurse and relief worker, but she never formally affiliated with any agency or group. Barton also offered personal support to the men in hopes of keeping their spirits up: she read to them, wrote letters for them, listened to their problems and prayed with them.

Relief on the Front Lines
Barton knew, however, that she was needed most on the battlefields where the suffering was greatest. She prodded leaders in the government and the army until she was given permission to bring her voluntary services and medical supplies to the scenes of battle and field hospitals on August 3, 1862.

Following the battle of Cedar Mountain in northern Virginia later that month, she appeared at a field hospital at midnight with a wagonload of supplies drawn by a four-mule team. The surgeon on duty later wrote: "I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a[n]... angel, she must be one - her assistance was so timely." Thereafter she was known as theAngel of the Battlefield.

Throughout the war, Barton and her supply wagons traveled with the Union army, giving aid to Union casualties and Confederate prisoners - at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Chantilly, Harper's Ferry and South Mountain. Transportation was provided by the army quartermaster but most of the supplies were purchased with donations solicited by Barton or by her own funds. (She was later reimbursed by Congress for her expenses.)

At Antietam
Barton was never satisfied with remaining with medical units at the rear of the column - hours or even days away from a fight. At the bloody Battle of Antietam (September 1862), she ordered the drivers of her supply wagons to follow the cannon and traveled all night. By the time of her arrival at about noon on September 17, Barton surgeons had run out of bandages, and were trying to wrap soldiers' wounds with corn husks.

Barton brought up her three army wagons loaded with bandages and other medical supplies. and organized able-bodied men to perform first aid, carry water and prepare food for the wounded. While the battle raged, she and her helpers brought relief and hope to soldiers on the field. In the face of danger, she wrote:

I always tried... to succor the wounded until medical aid and supplies could come up - I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.

As bullets whizzed overhead and artillery boomed in the distance, Barton cradled the heads of suffering soldiers. When darkness fell, she set up lanterns, also from her supply wagons, which enabled the army's medical personnel to work through the night.

At Fredericksburg
In December 1862, Clara Barton cared for the wounded from the Battle of Fredericksburg at the Lacy House (also known as Chatham). She again brought supplies and was assigned a room in the house where on December 11 she watched the bombardment of the town from the second floor. As wounded men were brought into the house, she comforted soldiers from both sides. She recorded some of her experiences there in her diary.

She spent most of the following day at the Lacy House which had become a hospital for the Union II Corps. Since the doctors were too busy to keep medical records during battle, she wrote in her diary the names of the men who died at Chatham and where they were buried. The heaviest fighting of the battle occurred on December 13, and she spent most of that day in Fredericksburg, surrounded by thousands of wounded Union soldiers.

Returning to Chatham, she spent the next two weeks there, where the wounded occupied every room of the house and "covered every foot of the floors and porticos." She wrote that they lay on the shelves of a cupboard, the stair landings and a man "thought himself rich" if he laid under a table where he would not be stepped on.

Still the 12,000 square-foot building did not contain enough space to hold all the wounded of the II Corps. Many were placed on blankets in the muddy yard, where Barton set up a soup kitchen in a tent to help these wounded soldiers, as they shivered in the cold December air, waiting for someone inside to die and make room for them.

In South Carolina
In April 1863, Clara Barton traveled to the Union controlled coastal regions around Charleston, South Carolina. At Hilton Head Island, she visited her brother Captain David Barton, an Army Quartermaster, and her fifteen year old nephew Steven Barton, who was serving in the military telegraph office. She also met and befriended Colonel John J. Elwell, with whom she supposedly had a romantic affair.

The following month Miss Barton met Frances Dana Gage, and together they worked to educate former slaves and prepare them for their life beyond bondage. Barton recorded in her diary that through Gage she had developed an interest in the growing movement for equal rights among women and African Americans.

At Fort Wagner
On July 14, 1863 Barton moved from Hilton Head to Morris Island in Charleston harbor. On July 18, she witnessed the horrendous attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina by the African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first official African American units in the war. The 1st South Carolina Volunteers (Union) of this regiment had been recruited from freed slaves from the area.

They were led by a colonel named Robert Gould Shaw who appeared even younger than his 25 years. When the soldiers were about 150 yards from the fort, the Confederates opened up with cannon and small arms which tore through the ranks of the 54th Massachusetts, killing Shaw and many African American soldiers. Barton wrote:

I can never forget the patient bravery with which they endured their wounds received in the cruel assault upon Wagner, as hour after hour they lay in the wet sands, just back of the growling guns waiting their turn for the knife or the splint and bandage, not a murmur, scarce a groan, but ever that patient upturning of the great dark eyes, to your face, in utter silence, which kept one constantly wondering if they knew all they had done, and were doing? and whenever I met one who was giving his life out with his blood, I could not forbear hastening to tell him lest he die in ignorance of the truth, that he was the soldier of Freedom he had sought to be, and that the world as well as Heaven would so record it...

Barton helped to establish field hospitals and distributed supplies to Union soldiers after the failed siege at Charleston. In the process, Barton herself became gravely ill and was evacuated to Hilton Head island. In January 1864, she returned to Washington, DC, to collect supplies and to

In Virginia
In May 1864, after the Battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House near Fredericksburg, Virginia, Miss Barton arranged for the opening of private homes for the care of wounded. Fredericksburg continued to be an important hospital and logistical center for the Union Army, as wounded poured in from the battles of General Ulysses S. Grant's Overland Campaign that spring and summer.

Also in May 1864, General Benjamin Butler began to construct his main defensive line shortly after landing at the town of Bermuda Hundred, Virginia. While Grant advanced toward the Confederate capital of Richmond from the north, Butler's Army of the James was to threaten that city from the east, but he was eventually stopped by Confederate forces under General P.G.T. Beauregard.

In June 1864, General Butler placed Miss Barton in charge of diet and nursing at the X Corps hospital near Point of Rocks, a plantation home that served as Butler's headquarters during the Bermuda Hundred Campaign. At this field hospital, Barton cared for the wounded from the almost daily fighting that occurred during the Seige of Petersburg.

Missing Soldiers Office
In January 1865, Barton returned to Washington, DC. Information Barton had recorded about her 'soldier boys' during the war and the regiments to which they belonged left her with a wealth of data about Civil War soldiers. Toward the end of the war, she began writing to families who inquired about soldiers who had been reported missing.

In March, President Abraham Lincoln appointed her General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. Her job was to locate missing soldiers and respond to inquiries from the grieving friends and relatives of these lost men. She established the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States and employed twelve clerks to assist her in this monumental task.

She and her assistants responded to more than 63,000 letters from families searching for lost sons and husbands and friends, most of which required some kind of research. This eventually led to the publication of Rolls of Missing Men that were posted across the country so that anyone with knowledge of their whereabouts or death could contact her. By 1868 the had identified more than 22,000 missing soldiers, but many more remained unaccounted for.

In her gutsy final report to the the 40th U.S. Congress in 1869 Clara Barton wrote:

It is now nearly four years since the cessation of active hostilities, and from the best information accessible to me I am led to believe that a large number, perhaps 40,000, once enlisted in our armies remain to this day unaccounted for. As there can be no motive for prolonged concealment, it is a reasonable presumption that those of whom no trace has yet been found have perished through the casualties and hardships of war. In most instances pay or bounty in some form must have been due their families at the time of their disappearance. It is well known that until recently the accounting officers of the treasury refused to settle with such families without evidence of the date of death...

With a view, therefore, of remedying any defect in the existing laws upon the subject, and of removing any uncertainty or propriety of adopting a resolution similar in substance to the following:

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress assembled, That hereafter all persons who served in the army or navy during the war for the suppression of the rebellion, and who are now borne upon the rolls of their respective commands as missing or unknown, and of whom no traces have yet been found, shall be considered as having died in the line of duty, and their legal heirs and representatives, upon proper proof of their being so recorded, shall be entitled to the bounties, back pay and pension the same as if they had been otherwise accounted for.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully,

Clara Barton

In 1869, her search for soldiers complete, Barton's doctor advised her to travel to Europe to restore her health. While in Switzerland, she learned about the Red Cross organization that had been established in Geneva in 1864. In 1880 the American Red Cross was established, the culmination of a decade of work by Barton. She served as the organization's first president until 1904 and worked as a volunteer in Cuba during the Spanish-American War (1898).

Clara Barton died in 1912, at the age of 90, at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland.

In 1996, Richard Lyons, a carpenter for the General Services Administration (GSA), discovered the sign for Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office and other artifacts in the attic after the building on 7th street, NW was scheduled for demolition. This is where Barton lived during and immediately after the Civil War, stored the supplies she received for her work on the battlefields, and later as an office to handle correspondence concerning missing soldiers.

As a result of the discovery, the building was preserved and GSA retained an easement for planned museum use. Restoration work on the space started in 2012. A welcome center will be opened on the first floor of the building, and the third floor, where Clara lived and worked. The museum also plans to create the Clara Barton Institute to offer training in her philosophy and how it applies to today's medical relief efforts. It is projected to be open by the end of 2013.

I have never been a huge Clara Barton fan because she was such an avid self-promoter, but by focusing only on her work during the Civil War, I have come to a new appreciation of the woman. Maybe this quote from a 1994 New York Times review of the book A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War by Stephen B. Oates says it all:

During this and many other battles, we witness Clara Barton, the American Florence Nightingale, setting up candle lanterns so that the surgeons could amputate all night, or ladling out mouthfuls of soup so that the dying could relieve their thirst, or distributing crackers to the starving or cloaks and blankets to the cold. These were among the ways she tried to improve the odds of the wounded and mitigate the agony of the doomed. We watch her pause to hold a man as he slips into unconsciousness, then bend down to another as he whispers a plea that she write to his mother to report his dying devotion. Eventually we follow her to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison camp in Georgia, where, after the war, she led the effort to identify the Union dead.

Clara Barton at Chatham
Civil War Trust: Clara Barton
Clara Barton Birthplace Museum
American Red Cross: Founder Clara Barton
NMCWM: Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office

Birth Location: 
North Oxford, Massachusetts
Birth Date: 
December 25, 1821
Death Location: 
Glen Echo, Maryland
Death Date: 
April 12, 1912