A Nurse’s Life: Review of Clara Barton, Professional Angel

By David Bruce Smith, Guest Contributor

Clara Barton: Professional Angel
By Elizabeth Brown Pryor
444 pp. University of Pennsylvania Press
$27.50

Sometimes, Clara Barton defied men of military might to pass through Civil War battle lines, and nurse “her” boys.

She had no formal medical training, but Barton was palliatively precocious, and titanically talented in raising robust quantities of resources and relief supplies.

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Image courtesy of University of Pennsylvania Press.

Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s 1987 Clara Barton, Professional Angel, remains the most definitive biography of the future founder of the American Red Cross, but some of what is divulged is not flattering.

Barton was youngest of five siblings. Her miller-farmer father adored her, but her mother was critical, and to Clara “her very identity was submerged in the priorities of the rest of the grown-up family…”

Barton, however, learned early on that the antidote to their implied disapproval was grinding academic achievement and a woeful schedule of work.

At eighteen—and with few professional prospects–Barton’s father insisted she become a teacher; she agreed, reluctantly, but soon discovered she had a facility to tame the truants, interest the idle, and control the class’s cacophony. Eventually Barton would have a distinguished twenty-year career in education hopscotching mostly in New England schools. Later, she had meaningful lifelong relationships with former students, some of whom she would save—or not—in combat.

In 1855 Barton relocated to Washington, DC. There, with the assistance of a congressman-friend, she got work as one of the first female clerks at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. But, when Fort Sumter was attacked in April, 1861, Lincoln’s call for a volunteer army to protect the Capitol discharged the latent patriotism she had inherited from her father.

Barton gathered up her grit, her girlfriends, and hung posters—citywide—that were subliminally saturated with Christian values of charity. Eventually, she accumulated enough necessities to fill three warehouses.

Between 1861 and 1865, Barton zigzagged between Washington and War. She walked through mud and blood-soaked ground from Culpepper to Charleston—was close to or at Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg–and existed in conditions that mimicked “her” men:

…countless private houses…had been converted to shelter for the wounded, she saw that the anguished  men covered the bare floor lying in their own blood and filth, some without arms and legs, others with jaws or hands flown away. Many…had lain on the field in the blistering sun until a flag of truce allowed them to be cleared off. Sunstroke, dehydration and shock increased their suffering…

During intervals away from the front, Barton prowled for friendships among the Powerful, the Political and the Presidential.  By the end, the fairly famous “Angel of the Battlefield”— skittish about her future opportunities–convinced Abraham Lincoln to endorse her proposal: make a Missing Soldiers Office—to re-unite families, and locate POW’s.

Ironically, peace and the Assassination dashed Barton’s assumptions about stellar success. The Department of War marginalized Lincoln’s sanction, and chose not to fixate on the 600,000 fatalities. Barton closed down in 1868, resolute that her work had been significant—out of more than 60,000 letters received, the destinies of 22,000 had been determined– but few were impressed with her statistics–and the beleaguered “activist” escaped to Europe to thwart the possibility of a nervous breakdown.

During her tour, Barton met Dr. Louis Appia, a representative from the Red Cross, who urged her to devise an American counterpart by ferreting out financiers to fund it. Twelve years later—in 1881—the American Red Cross was founded—she was elected president–but “official” recognition didn’t convey until President William McKinley “…signed a [1900] bill that formally incorporated [it] and gave a measure of protection to its insignia…”

Throughout the 19th century, Barton labored continuously for her organization, supervising flood, famine or natural disaster relief efforts in Ohio, Texas, Cuba, Turkey, and Armenia. But, she was suspicious of others, commandeered responsibilities, alienated co-workers, and angered acquaintances.

Barton was forced to resign her presidency in 1904, at the age of 83. Eight years later, she died.

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