The Battle of Antietam was one of the bloodiest in American history. In the midst of a battle that rages on, often senselessly, a woman works relentlessly to help the wounded and dying. The suffering from battle wounds, psychological trauma and infectious diseases is almost unimaginable. The woman bends to treat another wounded soldier when a stray bullet passes through her sleeve and kills the soldier. The nurse was Clara Barton. She works on, undaunted. Why, time and time again, would she put herself in these dire, life-threatening situations? Soldiers referred to Barton as the “angel of the battlefield”.
No doubt she was a humanitarian. Barton was also driven by other unique qualities and experiences, however. An examination of Barton’s life can help shed light on the motivations of this unique leader. Three broad questions will be addressed in this paper – Why did she do it? , What did she face? And how did these events affect her future pursuits? Why Did She Do It? The seeds for the person Clara Barton would become were planted decades before the Civil War. Her full name was Clarissa Harlowe Barton. She was barn in Oxford, Mass. On Christmas Day, 1821. A critical experience in Barton’s life occurred when she was only eleven years old.
Her brother David became seriously ill. Clara would assume the primary job of caring for him. It would prove to be a formative experience for the young girl. She was faced with suffering for the first time in her life. The empathy and thought process that would lead to her future career was triggered. She also discovered the need for knowledgeable nurses, along with her own talent for the job. Even so, Clara did not begin her career as a nurse. Barton became a schoolteacher at the age of seventeen. Her inquisitive, independent nature served her well as she crafted a successful career in education.
The onset of the Civil War changed everything. The impact of this war on the psyche of all Americans cannot be underestimated. The war was brutal on a scale never before seen. New weapons and tactics would result in the deaths of more than 600,000 by the end of the war (Nofi, 1992). Many more were maimed, psychologically traumatized or morphine addicted. Very few American families were left untouched by the suffering. Like many who would eventually enter the nursing corps, Clara Barton simply could not stand to watch the suffering without taking action.
The same instincts that compelled her to care faithfully for her brother overcame her again. Refusing to take any pay, Barton went directly to the front lines. Initially there was some criticism and doubt that she could withstand the brutality of war. Barton herself writes of this in a poem: What did they go for? – Just to be in the way? They’d know not the difference between work and play. (Barton, 2008) Always independent and determined, the initial resistence only served to motivate Clara. Her determination quickly became apparent to the Army, government and private donors.
Supplies began to flow in from all parts of the country. By 1864 she was in charge of a growing nursing corps. When the war started the corps had not even existed. Barton was not only motivated by suffering. She was deeply patriotic. Her father, a farmer and politician, had infused her with this love of country as a child. She believed that it was her duty to serve the nation she loved. Nearing his death, her father gave Clara some advice she would never forget. “As a patriot he had me [Clara] serve my country with all I had even with my life if need be” (Women in History, 2008).
As long as she lived, Clara remained true to those ideals. Religion was also an early influence on Clara’s life. Her parents had founded the Universalist Church in Massachusetts. At the time, most nurses came from religious orders. Clara did not come from this background but her Christian influences are still apparent. She says of her father: “He had me seek and comfort the afflicted everywhere. As a Christian he charged me to honor God and love mankind” (Women in History, 2008). Barton gained inspiration from Florence Nightingale, a nurse who revolutionized the profession in Europe.
Nightingale had become a nursing professor. She believed professional training was the logical future for the nursing profession. Until that point, nurses were essentially charity workers. their levels of expertise varied widely. The need for nurse far exceeded what charity could provide. According to Nightingale, it is a “necessity for recruits to receive a thorough training in nursing theory and practice” (Porter, 1997). Barton was career minded, patriotic and carried a strong sense of morality. In the end the thought of suffering was more than she could bear. In her own words she writes:
Of pity for woe and help for its need They saw, in high purpose a duty to do. (Barton, 2008) What did she experience? Clara was once a shy girl. She went into teaching in an attempt to cure this problem. If any shyness was left, the crucible of war would make her fearless. She went to where the worst suffering was. She was not afforded, nor would she have accepted any special protection. Barton was present at many of the most tragic and hard-fought battles of the war. Many times she was in danger from enemy fire. “Often arriving while the fighting was still going on, Barton was frequently under fire” (Nofi, 1992).
As terrible as it was the armed conflict was not the greatest danger of the war. More soldiers actually succumbed to infectious disease than to enemy fire. In the bloodbath that was the Civil War field hospital Barton was under constant risk of contracting diseases. In addition she was face to face with the tremendous psychological trauma the war caused. At the close of the war Barton went to the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia to search for missing Union soldiers. She attacked the grim task in the same manner as every other in the war.
Not only did she help to identify thousands of dead and missing in Andersonville, she also started a national drive to locate all people missing during the war. If there was somehow a bright side to the war for Clara, it increased her confidence and resolve. Nofi writes that “For many people the war was a liberating and maturing experience” (1992). Clara emerged from the war experience knowing that the potential contributions of nurses, and of women, had been grossly underestimated by society. How did these events affect her future pursuits? The war was a defining experience for Clara and many other women.
It was here that a growing women’s rights movement would take hold with Clara as a part of it. Clara embarked on her post-war career with an increased sense of defiance. In her poem she asks: Did these women [nurses] quail at the sight of a gun? Will some soldier tell us of one he saw run? (Barton, 2008) All of Barton’s influences, experiences and personality traits would merge in her postwar career. Barton wanted to transform nursing into a true profession, rather than just a charitable act performed by volunteers. Anyone who underestimated her ability to do so would be mistaken.
Barton was a rare leader who was only motivated further by resistence. Earlier in her career she had helped found a thriving school. Instead of hiring her as the superintendent, the school hired a man from outside. The man was paid double Clara’s salary. Clara was expected to remain subordinant. She did not. She left the school and became the first woman to work as a clerk in the U. S. Patent Office. Barton’s Civil War work would have been more than enough to secure her legacy. Her most well known legacy, however, was established after the war. With characteristic determination Barton founded the American chapter of the Red Cross.
At the same time she expanded its mission from wartime aid to general disaster relief. Establishment of the American chapter had not been a foregone conclusion. The International Red Cross was founded as a provision in the Geneva Convention of 1892. Since the U. S. had not signed the Geneva Convention, no Red Cross chapter was established there. Barton not only convinced the U. S. to form a chapter with an expanded mission statement, she eventually convinced it to sign on to the Geneva treaty as well. Conclusion A personality sketch of Clara Barton would contain many adjectives.
Caring, determined, moralistic, energetic, empathetic and driven would be just a few. She was a woman ahead of her time, but also intimately connected to it. Her goals were big, and, in many cases, she achieved them. Ultimately all her actions were driven by a well-defined sense of right and wrong. Suffering and discrimination, to Clara, were clearly wrong. She did not decide to do something about it. It was her life long duty as a human and as a Christian to do something about it. That sense of duty came from a combination of innate qualities, upbringing and experience.
Clara’s parents infused her not only with the confidence to take action but also with the responsibility to do so. The early experience with her brother prepared her for facing the horrors of war. She learned then that getting upset will only prevent a person from getting the job done. “Clara Barton’s two rules for action were unconcern for what cannot be helped and control under pressure” (Women in History, 2008). These rules show her pragmatic side and explain a lot about why she was able to accomplish so much. Barton died in 1912 at the age of ninety, undoubtedly feeling that she had much left to accomplish.
She taught, gave speeches and helped with relief efforts well into her eighties. She was a complex personality. Deeply caring, stoic and driven all at the same time. She forged a new path for women. That societal revaluing of women would be realized more fully in the 20th century. She also revolutionized the field of nursing, paving the way for the highly skilled and well-paid nurses of today. Would Clara Barton have called herself a feminist. She exhibited many of the qualities of a modern-day feminist. The likely answer, however, would be “no”. Her motivations came from a much deeper place.
She was only doing what needed to be done. To Clara, that was the responsibility of every human being. Sources Barton, Clara. (2008). “The Women Who Went to the Field. ” Accessed 10/5/2008 from: http://www. geocities. com/athens/aegean/6732/files/valor_barton. html. Nofi, Albert A. (1992). A Civil War Treasury. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Books. Porter, Roy. (1997). The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A medical history of humanity. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. Women in History. (2008). “Clara Barton Biography. ” Lakewood Public Library. Accessed 10/5/2008 from: http://www. lkwdpl. org/WIHOHIO/bart-cla. htm.
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