Before the Sanitary Commission or Christian Commission could get organized, Clara Barton was had forced her way through the red tape and military restrictions to get to the front.
Born on Christmas Day, 1821, Clara acquired her experience in nursing at an early age when she cared for an invalid brother as a child. At 15 she became a teacher and later worked as a copy clerk in the US Patent Office in Washington, D.C. from 1854-1861. Her work for the government was unique at the time for there were few women employed by the Government, particularly with a salary equal to that of a man, but Miss Barton was well qualified for the work by her fine, copperplate handwriting. But it wasn’t until she was 40 years old and the Civil War broke out that she was truly launched into what became her life’s work.
She became one-woman soldiers’ aid society, gathering medicines and supplies and turning up on several battlefields or at field hospitals to comfort the wounded and goad careless or indifferent surgeons. After the Union defeat at the 1st Battle of Bull Run in July 1861, she advertised in the publication Worsester Spy for donations of provisions for the wounded and received so many contributions that she initially set herself up as a distributing agency. But she wanted to do more for the men who were suffering in battle. Clara was a forward thinker in her day, advocating the treatment of soldiers as near the battlefield as possible. The common practice was to transport the wounded soldiers and treat them far from the battlefield. Knowing that nurses were urgently needed at the battlefield and that women could do the job just like Florence Nightingale, she “broke the shackles and went into the field” by convincing the U.S. Surgeon General William Hammond to let her go.
From mid-July 1862 to the spring of 1863, Barton operated as a freelance front-line nurse, distributing comforts and tending the sick and wounded of the Army of the Potomac. Her first experience on the front was caring for soldiers on the battlefield of Slaughter Mountain. Margaret Leech wrote an account of this experience in her book, Reveille in Washington: That night, in the mist and darkness, Miss Barton, with a little band of helpers, prepared to feed the crowd. She had almost no utensils but she had many boxes of preserves; and as jam jars and jelly tumblers were emptied, she filled them again and again with soup or coffee or bread soaked in wine. Monday brought many wounded who had lain three days without food. To insure that none should be loaded on the cars without receiving nourishment, Clara Barton personally fed that day’s arrivals in the wagons, climbing from wheel to brake. By evening, her supplies were almost gone. As the wounded still came in, she stirred the leftovers together; and, in the pouring rain, amid the uproar of the thunder and the artillery at Chantilly, the famished men greedily ate a concoction of hard crackers pounded into crumbs and mixed with wine, whiskey, brown sugar and water.
Clara learned many valuable lessons and was better prepared the second time: An army wagon, drawn by a string of frisky mules, was assigned to her by the Quartermaster’s Department. Her own baggage was contained in a handkerchief, but the wagon bulged with stores. She had even had the forethought to bring lanterns, so that the surgeons could see to work at night. She was calm and resourceful, always turning up with food and medical supplies just when they were needed most. On September 13, 1862, Clara learned that the supplies she was carrying to Harpers Ferry were desperately needed so she drove through the night, arriving at daybreak to help the wounded. President Lincoln was so impressed that he honored her with an invitation to review the troops with him. At Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Fairfax Court House, Fredricksburg, Antietam and the Wilderness she assisted the surgeons in stitching up wounds and in bloody amputations
Clara related her experience at Antietam would always be remembered for it was the first time she removed a bullet and saw a wounded soldier shot in her arms as she gave him water. Clara left the Army of the Potomac in the spring of 1863 and traveled to Hilton Head, South Carolina. After the siege of Charleston failed, Clara, who was ill, returned home in the North to retire from active life for a while. During her recuperation, Clara Barton’s friendship took advantage of her friendship with influential congressmen help bring political pressure to bear for reforms in army medicine. She also sent letters to government officials, philanthropists and civic organizations because there were no organized welfare program at the time. When she had recovered her strength, Clara went back to the front, this time to the Wilderness Campaign near the Rapidan River. The situation there was grim -- wounded men were severely burned in a brush fire and nonstop rains made it impossible for wagons to transport the wounded out. Clara took charge: Collecting four fast horses, she rode nonstop to the dock. There she boarded a steamer for Washington where she met with Senator Henry Wilson, then chairman of the Senate military committee. Clara Barton concisely related to him the condition of the wounded and implored him to help. She was so convincing and so earnest that early the next morning the quartermaster general and his staff rushed help to the battlefield. Barton spent two days getting supplies ready, and by the third day she was back on the scene of action.
In 1864 she served as superintendent of nurses for the Army of the James, her only official connection during the war. Working under General Butler, Clara relied on her judgment and allowed her to proceed without orders from superiors, an honor never conferred on a woman. In spite of her relative autonomy, she had difficulty taking orders and preferred to work on her own. Clara Barton gained national acclaim as “the angel of the battlefield,” but she was also “everybody’s old maid aunt,” fussing over the men she called “my boys.” After the war she continued to serve her boys by coordinating a national effort to locate soldiers who were missing in action. When discussing her experiences after the war she told audiences that “if her work in battle appeared to be rough and unseemly for a woman, they should remember that fighting was equally rough and unseemly for men. Later, Clara worked under the auspices of the International Red Cross in Europe to distribute relief to the French in the Franco-Prussian War. When she returned to the United States, she campaigned for the establishment of an American Red Cross. She headed the agency for 23 years after its incorporation in 1881. A poor manager, unwilling to delegate and more unwilling to share authority, Clara, then 83, was pressured to resign in June 1904. She died in April 12, 1912, at 91 years old.