Clara Barton, “Angel of the Battlefield”
August 3, 1862. On the morning of August 3, 1862, Clara Barton, a frustrated copier of documents in the US Patent Office, awoke in an army supply base at Aquia Creek on the banks of the Potomac. She had set out from Washington by tugboat the night before to resupply the Union’s Army of Virginia, which was trapped by rebel guerillas southwest of Manassas Junction. “They must be dying from want of care,” she feared, “and I am promised to go to them the first moment access can be had.” (1) So began the career of this extraordinary humanitarian, dubbed the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her one-woman service to the nation during the Civil War.
Three weeks earlier, armed with three warehouses full of supplies, she had sought to charm a colonel in the quartermaster’s office into giving her wagons and a pass to the front, where women were not welcome. Without official permission, and without a husband or brother to attend her, a lone woman would lose all respectability, be taken for a “camp follower,” and subjected to sexual innuendo and advances. As a copyist, Barton had experienced sex discrimination, and she knew how to get around both it and government bureaucrats. By the time she left the quartermaster’s office, the colonel had given her a wagon, a driver, and a pass “to go upon the sick transports in any direction for the purpose of distributing comforts to the sick and wounded, and nursing them.” (2)
As eager to display her patriotism as any Northern soldier, Barton longed for the frontlines. Ever since the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, including men from her hometown of North Oxford, had entered Washington wounded and bedraggled from a skirmish in Baltimore, she had been gathering food, clothing, and medical stores from Northern friends to supply troops stationed in the city’s makeshift hospitals and disease-ridden camps. She had volunteered in the hospitals, cried over wounded boys neglected by the army’s inadequate medical service, and sympathized with Dorothea Dix’s new nursing corps. If only she could serve these poor soldiers in the field, she surmised, they would receive the kind of compassionate and life-saving relief that the army failed to supply. Now with her pass in hand, she recruited a female assistant and a minister to shield her, and embarked for Fredericksburg.
No battle emerged on that first adventure, but a week later, back in Washington, Barton quickly seized upon the next opportunity. She hurried to Culpepper Court House, a makeshift relief station where she performed her first battlefront service after the slaughter at Cedar Mountain. A witness to mangled bodies wrecked by minie balls and forced amputations, she steeled herself with nerves of iron while resupplying doctors with bandages, comforting weeping soldiers, and cleaning floors awash with blood and slime. Her timely arrival at one field hospital in the middle of the night with bandages and medicines led a surgeon to recall, “[I]f heaven ever sent out a homely angel, she must be one.” (3)
Barton became famous for her subsequent service at the Second Battle of Bull Run and particularly at Antietam, where a bullet passed through the sleeve of her dress. A singular battlefield nurse, she was distinguished by her courage under fire and her efforts to locate missing soldiers after the war. But her lifework had only just begun; eventually she would found the American Red Cross and lead the organization for more than twenty years.
– Submitted by Lyn Blackwell
1) Clara Barton to Leander Poor, 2 August 1862, Clara Barton Papers, Library of Congress, quoted in Oates, Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, 53
2) Pass, CB Papers, Smith College, quoted in Oates, Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, 52
3) Dr. James Dunn in Conneautville Reporter, n.d., quoted in Oates, 63
Stephen B. Oates, Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, New York: Free Press, 1994.
Clara Barton, “Notes on Antietam,”