How Clara Barton started saving lives

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 13, 2012

By Deirdre Parker Smith
SALISBURY — Clara Barton was not a nurse.
“I like to think of myself as an administrator,” she said last Thursday at Rowan Public Library.
The founder of the American Red Cross told the Friends of Rowan Public Library how she fought prejudice against working women to become the first woman ever hired by the federal government.
She was also one of the first women recognized and acknowledged as working in the battlefield during the Civil War. “They called me the angel of the battlefield,” she said.
If you’re thinking, “Wow, Clara Barton must be pretty old,” you’re only partly correct. Karen Vuranch portrays the compassionate Barton in the prime of her intensely focused life.
Barton summarizes her life’s work in Vuranch’s performance, enhanced by a period costume and elaborate hairdo.
“I saw a soldier who had nothing to eat for two weeks,” Barton said, and there was no place for him, “so I put him on the veranda and heated up bricks from an old building and put them around him to keep him warm.”
That was the simple beginning of her drive to serve. “I mostly fed and watered the men, I didn’t really nurse them,” she said.
She took a brief break from war work to be a teacher, subduing the class bullies by playing baseball with them.
She then started a school for poor children, but they wouldn’t hire her to be principal, because she was a woman.
It took an act of Congress, litterally, to get her officially hired by the U.S. Patent Office, under her own name. “Women took their husbands’ jobs when the war came, but they worked in their husbands’ name only.”
Men spat at her and used foul language and made unpleasant accusations because she was a working woman.
When President Buchanan was elected, he got rid of all the abolitionists, Barton said, “and so I was gone.” She went back to Washington, D.C., where she found the city woefully unprepared for the Civil War.
“I was most worried about the 6th Massachusetts Infantry,” in which “some of my family served.”
They ended up sleeping on the floor of the Senate chambers, and they had not eaten in three days.
“Now I knew my mission — send me supplies and I’ll get them to the Massachusetts boys.”
Barton told of how people took their buggies and a picnic to watch the Battle of Bull Run, not understanding what a bloody, awful war it was.
She learned the American government had no ambulance service for the soldiers. “Some would lie there for weeks, dying of thirst and exposure, and they could have been saved.”
Barton could not sit still in Washington when she saw a need.
She finally convinced Quartermaster Col. Daniel Rucker, who asked how many supplies she had collected. “Three warehouses full,” she proudly replied. He provided her a wagon train to bring supplies to the field.
The conditions were awful, there were “so few doctors and so many lives.” The places where the wounded were brought were “filthy, the floor covered in blood and other body fluids. … I tried to clean. … Then I knew my job. War is hell — I only wanted to allay the suffering.”
At the second battle of Bull Run, 8,000 men lay dying in a cornfield. “We wept while we worked, some fell from exhaustion.” Barton and others fed the men by hand. “I saw many of my former students.”
Barton and all who worked in the field could be captured and held as prisoners of war. At that second Bull Run, “I almost missed the train while tending to soldiers. I had to run to catch up and they pulled me on board.”
Once home in D.C., “I slept. I had worked for 90 hours.”
Soon enough, she got a telegram about a battle in West Virginia and loaded up the wagon train. Moving up to the front of the train, she was in the thick of the battle of Antietam.
Doctors were reduced to bandaging the soldiers with corn husks.
“I took my place at the operating table, holding arms and legs that were being amputated.” Her skirt was soaked in blood.
When she went back to Washington, she realized the doctor she worked with in the field had told her story, and she was famous. Thousands more women volunteered and then Barton began to get letters from mothers, wives, sisters looking for their loved ones.
“We found 20,000 soldiers.”
Now broke, she went on the lecture circuit, giving 300 speeches before collapsing. She went to Switzerland to recuperate and visit her sister, who took her to the International Red Cross, where the leaders were upset that America had not signed the Geneva treaty to provide a similar service in America.
And that’s how Clara Barton got the American Red Cross started in 1883, when she was 60 years old.
The chance to prove that the Red Cross was “the premier aid agency” came in the Johnstown flood of 1889, where a 75-foot wall of water destroyed everything in its path and left a massive pile of debris that included dead animals and dead people.
The Red Cross built temporary housing and gave out food.
Clara Barton was almost lost to history. Her successor ripped out every page in the Red Cross books that contained Barton’s name; she destroyed important pictures of Barton, and Clara died heartbroken.
Her revenge is that no one knows that woman’s name, and Clara Barton has been called one of the top five women in American history.
“She was the rock star of her time,” Vuranch said.
Barton would be proud.