'The angel of the battlefield'

"In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield." - Dr. James Dunn, surgeon at the Battle of Antietam

September 14, 2012|By JANET HEIM |
  • Clara Barton, who delivered bandages and lanterns to field hospitals and tended to the fallen during the Civil War, is honored with a monument and plaque, above, at Antietam National Battlefield.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

At a time when women were not allowed to travel without male companions to battlefields or tend to men who were not their relatives, Clara Barton nursed and comforted the wounded and dying on Civil War battlefields.

It was at the Battle of Antietam that Barton, who was to become known as the Angel of the Battlefield and who would go on to found the American Red Cross, would have her first experience on a battlefield on which bullets were flying.

Before that, Barton campaigned for about a year, collecting supplies while she waited, before she received permission from Col. Daniel Rucker, assistant chief quartermaster for the U.S. Army in charge of the Washington Depots, to assist at battle sites, said Susan Rosenvold, superintendent of the Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office, a satellite of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.

Rucker supplied Barton with wagons and assistants, and she loaded a wagon with medical supplies, most secured from local Ladies Aid associations, and headed to Sharpsburg from her Washington, D.C., home, said Rosenvold, who recently was awarded the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) Sesquicentennial Award for Scholarship. She is conducting research to try to determine in what areas of the battlefield Barton might have worked during the Sept. 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam.

By the time she arrived at Antietam, the battle, which began at dawn, had been raging for about six hours.

"Arriving at the northern edge of the infamous 'Cornfield' at about noon, Clara Barton watched as harried surgeons dressed the soldiers' wounds with corn husks," according to the National Park Service website at "Army medical supplies were far behind the fast-moving troops at Antietam Battlefield. Miss Barton handed over to grateful surgeons a wagon load of bandages and other medical supplies that she had personally collected over the past year."

Rosenvold said although there is no proof, she believes the Pry House would have been Barton's first stop, where she would check in with the medical director, Dr. James Dunn. The Pry House was Maj. Gen. George McClellan's headquarters and also served as the medical headquarters.

Rosenvold said she was "pretty confident" Barton was at an East Woods cornfield on the day of the battle. Most likely, she left her wagons at the Samuel Poffenberger farm and went to search for wounded in the cornfield, which had the highest casualty rate.

"She wanted to go straight to where the fighting was the hottest," Rosenvold said.

A well-documented account describes Barton holding up the head of a fallen soldier to offer him a drink when she felt a slight movement in the fabric of her sleeve. The bullet that passed through her sleeve hit the soldier in the chest, ending his life. Rosenvold thinks that most likely happened in the East Woods cornfield.

"She had several close calls with bullets. She never flinched or seemed anxious on the battlefield," Rosenvold said.

"I positively conclude that Miss Barton's wagons were at the Samuel Poffenberger farm by sometime mid-morning on into the evening of the Battle," Rosenvold said.

'True heroine'

"Undaunted, the unlikely figure in her bonnet, red bow and dark skirt moved on — and on, and on," according to an account on the NPS website. "Working nonstop until dark, Miss Barton comforted the men and assisted the surgeons with their work. When night fell, the surgeons were stymied again — this time by lack of light. But Miss Barton produced some lanterns from her wagon of supplies, and the thankful doctors went back to work."

It was at this battle that Barton was first called "Angel of the Battlefield," taken from this quote from Dr. James Dunn, a surgeon at the Battle of Antietam: "In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield."

Rosenvold said that based on Barton's written descriptions and eyewitness accounts from soldiers' diaries, she provided care for several days after the Battle of Antietam.

Historians agree that after the battle, Barton ended up at a hospital on the Samuel Poffenberger farm, working day and night.

"As far as I can tell so far, she was there about three days," Rosenvold said.

"She was very heavily engaged in providing comfort. She was not a real nurse and didn't consider herself a nurse."

After days without sleep, she was suffering from exhaustion and returned to Washington, D.C., to recuperate from a fever, only to move on to other Civil War battle sites after she regained her strength.

"She was tough," Rosenvold said.


Barton's presence on the battlefield and her insistence that got her there was unusual for women at the time. As a result, she gained fame as journalists wrote about her nationally and internationally.

"She was a very brave, forward-thinking ... woman of her day," Rosenvold said.

Her early days might offer a clue as to why that was the case.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born on Christmas Day 1821 in North Oxford, Mass., the youngest of Capt. Stephen and Sarah Barton's five children. Her two brothers and two sisters were all at least 10 years older than she.

"When she was young, Clara's father regaled her with his stories of soldiering against the Indians. Her brothers and cousins taught her horseback riding and other boyish hobbies. Although she was a diligent and serious student, Clara preferred outdoor frolics to the indoor pastimes 'suitable' for young ladies of that time," according to the park service website.

Growing up, she heard stories of her father's military experiences and she was a charter member of the Daughters of the Revolution, according to Rosenvold.

"She was one of these ultra-patriotic people" Rosenvold said.

When her oldest brother, David, fell from the roof of a barn he was trying to fix and was not expected to live, Clara nursed him for three years.

At one time, she taught school, which she was advised to do to cure her shyness. Barton then worked as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington.

When the Civil War erupted accompanied by "the cascade of wounded Union soldiers into Washington, Miss Barton quickly recognized the unpreparedness of the Army Medical Department" and began lobbying to be allowed to take medical supplies to the troops, the NPS website says.

Before the Civil War, it was socially unacceptable for women to nurse men who were not relatives, Rosenvold said. That social norm went by the wayside during wartime.

Rosenvold said Barton, who came from a family in which the girls were treated the same as the boys, struggled with this concept.

"She didn't understand why women couldn't do what men did. She was very independent. She did not have a lot of confidence in herself, but was persistent and determined," Rosenvold said.

And, she said, men didn't want women on the battlefield, for fear they would faint and get in the way of the men's work.

"Clara Barton and several other women proved them wrong," Rosenvold said.

Barton had planned only to treat Union soldiers, "but she melted quickly and treated everyone. She was very universally sympathetic with everyone," Rosenvold said.

Rosenvold said Barton noticed that black soldiers were treated last and worked to have that policy changed. When she founded the American Red Cross in 1881, one of the tenets of the organization was that everyone in need would be treated equally, no matter their race, gender or politics.

"She showed that one person could really make a difference," Rosenvold said.

The aftermath

Barton received a lot of media coverage during the Civil War. People started writing to her to see if she had seen their loved ones as she cared for wounded soldiers, prompting Barton to found the Missing Soldiers Office. She went on to serve in the Spanish-American War, sailing to Cuba in her 70s.

She died in 1912 at the age of 90, at her home in Glen Echo, Md.

A monument in Barton's honor was dedicated Sept. 9, 1962, at Antietam National Battlefield. It stands near the Joseph Poffenberger farm. A red brick cross that marks the base is made of bricks from the Massachusetts home where she was born.

Rosenvold said one of her future projects is to edit and put together Barton's diaries.

"She was an incredible role model, especially for young girls who lack confidence," Rosenvold said.

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