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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,218

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This is the grave of Clara Barton.

Born in 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, Barton grew up in a relatively well off family with a father who had fought under Anthony Wayne and was a locally important political figure. They were a reforming type family and believed strongly in female education, so Barton was sent to school with her brothers. Although subject to extreme shyness and depression, she managed to do well in school though her parents worried a lot about her mental health. Despite her social anxiety, Barton started teaching school at the age of 17 and that really helped her do better with life.

Barton taught in various schools for the next twelve years before going on to get more education herself, enrolling at the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York. She faced a tremendous amount of sexism too. At one point, she founded a school in New Jersey, raised the money, and made it happen. Then, once it was successful, the school hired a male to be a principal and demoted, leading to a nervous breakdown.

After that, Barton gave up teaching, moved to Washington, and got a job as a clerk in the US Patent Office. This was during the Pierce administration and I’m not sure why she was hired because no woman had ever been hired into the position before, not to mention she got an equal salary with the men. Well, they hated her with the heat of a thousand suns, bullied her, and made her feel terrible. Then in 1858, Buchanan had her fired because she was a strong Republican. She had to move back to Massachusetts after that to live with family, but came back to a lesser job in the Lincoln administration, hoping to create new ground for women.

Then the South committed treason in defense of slavery.

This is, of course, why you know Clara Barton. She basically pioneered modern American nursing in the war. The sanitary conditions for both sides in the war were horrendous, as you probably know. They never really got better in the South but they slowly did in the North, in no small part because of Barton. Nursing was seen as a male job, but the conditions were so bad and the men were so rough that it was just a disaster and was contributing to even more deaths.

Now, it took a lot of grit and determination for her to get to that point. Most of the generals were outright opposed to the idea of a woman in the camps. They thought it would lead to bad morals. She had to work to get at that point. She started by treating soldiers who survived the Baltimore Riot in 1861, when treason lovers in that city attacked American soldiers. Then she committed herself to raising supplies and sending medical supplies to the camps. She didn’t care which side the soldiers were on (a weakness perhaps), she would treat anyone. She couldn’t be ignored because she was so effective at getting northerners to send money and supplies to the camps and she delivered at a time when the government really couldn’t. That included bandages, clean sheets, and other things that contributed to sanitation, at least the best it could be at the time. She was at Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and other major battles. The generals mostly still hated this, but it was hard to deny that she was effective. At Cedar Mountain, when the main surgeon was just overwhelmed with all the amputations and such, she just took over and saved a lot of lives.

So finally, in 1864, Benjamin Butler named her head of the hospitals in the Army of the James. He was a weird dude but could always recognize a good idea when he saw one. Part of what made her effective is that she was very careful in screening her nurses. Basically, if you were hot you couldn’t get hired. She explicitly went for women not seen as attractive by mid-19th century standards in order to alleviate officers’ concerns about what having women around would do to the men. As for the men themselves, they were mostly thrilled to have anyone care about them at all and if it was a woman, all the better.

Barton also had a little fun in the war. Although she never married, she did have affairs from time to time, including one with Colonel John Ewell. Concerns about women at the battlefield, indeed.

After the war, Barton went on a lecture tour about her experiences. For three years, she spoke, often to large audiences. She got to know reformers such as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. She shared their politics. She also ran the Office of Missing Soldiers, to try and find soldiers who went missing in action and were presumed dead. But understand the trauma that battlefield death had on nineteenth century families. It wasn’t just like every other war. These people were consumed with the idea of the Good Death, which meant surrounded by your family who would see you off to Heaven. To be lost on the battlefield was just horrifying in all the ways it is still horrifying today, plus more. This is a big reason for the rise of spiritualism in the late nineteenth century, with all the knocking nonsense a way to communicate with the dead. So this was a really important job that built on her care giving during the war in a way that made a lot of sense to people at the time.

By 1868, Barton was exhausted and her doctor told her to take a vacation. Now that she had plenty of money, she went to Europe. While there, she became aware of the Red Cross, met all the relevant people around it, witnessed the Franco-Prussian War, and then brought the idea back to the U.S. That took a long time. Grant and Hayes didn’t take it seriously, with Hayes believing the U.S. would never again see a big war so why bother. But she got Arthur to make it a thing in 1881. Of course, Barton ran it and it would be an important thing during the Spanish-American War, when the American Red Cross went to Cuba. But even before this, the American Red Cross became central to American disaster relief at a time when the government really didn’t do anything for people who suffered through natural disasters such as floods and fires and tornadoes. Barton led fifty nurses to the Johnstown Flood for instance to help the survivors. She kept active through the rest of the century, ending her career by personally leading relief efforts after a hurricane decimated Galveston in 1900.

In 1904, now age 83, Barton was forced out as head of the American Red Cross because she had become impossible to work with and refused to engage in any meaningful leadership structure. This was the exact same time that the corporation was modernizing from being the personal fiefdom of the capitalist to an organizational thing and the same time that professions around the country were creating professional organizations. Barton was old school and there wasn’t much place for a woman in her 80s refusing to have accountability in her organization.

After this, Barton wrote her autobiography, which she published in 1908. She died of pneumonia in 1912, at the age of 90.

Clara Barton is buried in North Cemetery, Oxford, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other nurses in American history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Mary Breckinridge is in Lexington, Kentucky and Mary Eliza Mahoney is in Everett, Massachusetts. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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