Clara Barton, The Angel of the Battlefield

by M-Gillies
Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross sitting at her desk.

Clara Barton, know as “The Angel of the Battlefield” founded the American Red Cross during the American Civil War.

Federal troops began pouring into the city of Washington, D.C. a city that had been placed under substantial military guard. The Civil War had just begun and the residents in the capital were alarmed and confused by the presence of the newly recruited troops. But for Clara Barton, a former clerk at the Patent Office whose anti-slavery opinions were well known, perceived an immediate need through all the chaos.

Born the youngest of six children, Barton moved from Massachusetts to Washington in 1854, but left in 1857 because of her views on slavery. It was only after Abraham Lincoln was elected as President that she soon returned to the capital.

That’s when the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment made their way from Boston to the nation’s capital. With 50 police officers escorting the troops through the city of Baltimore, a mob of Maryland’s Southern sympathizers began to grow, with mobs gathering and building blockades between the stations.

The atmosphere was full of disdain and it wasn’t long before the angry mob began throwing stones and bricks at the soldiers. Soon, individuals began opening fire upon the troops, resulting in one soldier being killed. As a result, the troops were ordered to return fire into the mob, resulting in four soldiers and twelve civilians being killed, with many more injured.

When the soldiers made their way to the train heading to Washington, the citizens of Baltimore learned more troops from the North were on their way, leading to riots that went on into the night, forcing the Mayor, George Brown and the police commissioner to order the railroad bridges north of the city to be burned.

For the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment, their arrival in Washington alarmed and confused the residents. Many of the soldiers had lost their belongings, others were wounded, all were hungry and without bedding or clothing other than what they had on their backs.

That’s when Barton began her Civil War service. She wasted no time in bringing supplies to the young men of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry, finding them temporary housing in the unfinished Capitol building. Soon, she was providing them with clothing, assorted foods and supplies for the sick and wounded on behalf of such organizations as the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

But Barton’s support didn’t end there. She offered personal support to the soldiers by reading to them, writing them letters, listening to their problems and praying with them.

Throughout the war, Barton continued to contribute to the aid of soldiers, acting primarily as an organizer of supply delivery, and arriving at battlefields and hospitals with wagons of sanitary supplies. She further worked to identify the dead and wounded so families would know what happened to their loved ones. But even thought she was a supporter of the Union she served both sides in providing neutral relief, earning her the name of the Angel of the Battlefield.

When the Civil War ended, Barton soon made her way to Georgia, where she would assist a young clerk and former prisoner of the Andersonville prison camp, Dorence Atwater, identify the Union soldiers in unmarked graves who had died at the Confederate prison. It was there that Barton would pour over lists of missing soldiers and match them with Andersonville’s Death Register and captured hospital records. With her help, Andersonville’s national cemetery was established and because of her aid, she was given the honor of raising the American flag for the first time.

After returning to Washington in 1865, Barton established the Missing Soldier’s Office and hired numerous clerks to respond to the more than 60,000 letters she had received from families inquiring about their loved ones. When the Office closed in 1867, Barton and her staff had identified more than 20,000 missing soldiers, including nearly 13,000 who had died at the Andersonville Prison.

By 1869, Barton had travelled to Europe, where for the first time she learned about the Geneva Convention, which had been established in 1866, but which the United States had not signed. It was also during her travel to Europe that she learned of the International Committee of the Red Cross and soon became its strongest advocate. By 1880, the American Red Cross was established, with Barton serving as the organization’s first president until 1904. After her resignation, she continued her humanitarian and philanthropy efforts until her death on April 12, 1912 at the age of 90.

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