Clara Barton, Tough Broad

Another Civil War personality who has changed in my estimation is Clara Barton. Unlike Vallandigham, Lincoln, Joe Johnston et al., though, she has pretty much entered my personal pantheon of saint-like tough broads – a rare combination.

She’s famous, of course, for starting the American Red Cross, but during the war, Barton was a one-woman UN: She went all Doctors Without Borders as a freelance nurse; ran a kind of UNHCR for missing soldiers in Washington; and, with Dorence Atwater, was a de jure two-person UN War Crimes administrator at Andersonville. Imagine what the world would be like with a few more Clara Bartons in it!

Once Barton reached places where the Union and Confederate armies clashed, she cooked gruel, soups and meals for hundreds of patients. Her own apple pie made a good dessert. She changed bed sheets and cleaned bedpans to combat the soldiers’ common curse of dysentery. She cleaned and bandaged wounds — countless amputations among them. She walked along wards and offered sips of water or whiskey. She listened to the lovesick confidences of a soldier whose real name was Mary, a teenage girl runaway from her Maryland family, searching for her sweetheart in a Wisconsin regiment. A soldier wounded at Antietam begged her to cut an unbearable bullet out of his cheek. All Barton had was a penknife — but she did it, with another soldier holding his comrade’s head.

In other words, Barton did a lot of everything that desperately needed to be done.

Clara Barton

The more I learn about Clara Barton, the more in awe of her I become. She went from being a clerk at the outbreak of the war, to being a one-woman clearinghouse of information for families desperate to know what had become of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands. What a little force of nature!

It was her work in finding the whereabouts of missing soldiers that led her to the boarding house on Seventh Street, from which she operated the “Missing Soldiers Office – 3rd Story, Room 9” said the old metal sign which was also found, with “Miss. Clara Barton” printed at the bottom.

It was said that she collected boxes of letters from grieving families across the country, some sending pictures of their missing young men, with the hopes of finding where they were. Of course, the news was usually bad – most were buried in unmarked or poorly marked graves. Apparently as word of her endeavors spread, so did the inquiries and she is credited with handling over 55,000 pieces of mail during the time the small cramped office was open.