- Historic Sites
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
Early biographies of the great, independent women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were most often written by admirers so ardent that their pages of unrelenting praise now defy reading. “Sensitive by nature, refined by culture,” wrote the anonymous author of one biographical sketch of Clara Barton in 1876, “she has nevertheless taken unaccustomed fields of labor, walked untrodden paths with bleeding feet and opened pioneer doors with bruised fingers, not for her own aggrandisement but for that of her sex and humanity.”
True enough. There have been few more impressive, more courageous, more resourceful women in the history of any country. Barton richly deserved the nickname Angel of the Battlefield, given to her by the Union men for whom she cared during the Civil War. She created the American Red Cross and ran it for twenty-two years, helped persuade the United States to abandon its instinctive distrust of international treaties and sign the Geneva Treaty, brought help to the helpless from Antietam to Armenia, and ceaselessly advocated equality for women all the while.
But it is a little startling to learn that the author of that fulsome tribute to Clara Barton, prepared for inclusion in a women’s encyclopedia edited by Susan B. Anthony, was Clara Barton herself. This and much more is revealed in a fine recent biography, Clara Barton: Professional Angel, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987). Based largely on the extraordinary thirty-five-volume diary her subject kept for more than four decades, it shows how complex and contradictory Barton really was.
The author is especially shrewd at tracing the roots of her subject’s curious personality to her no less curious childhood. Barton was born in 1821, the youngest by far of five children of a Massachusetts sawmill owner. “I had no playmates.” she remembered, “but in effect six fathers and mothers.” Her real mother seems to have been at least half-mad, storing vegetables until they had begun to decay before serving them to her family, never sleeping past 3:00 A.M., cursing so often and so vehemently that a small granddaughter, taken in to see her laid out in her coffin at last, was most struck by the fact that during the entire visit the old lady “never swored once.” Barton’s eldest sister was wholly mad, kept in a locked room with barred windows, in fact, from which she once escaped just long enough to attack a relative with an ax. Both her brothers were charming, but erratic, and so unscrupulous in business that Barton lived in constant fear of their arrest.
Perhaps understandably the little girl identified most closely with her fond, steady father, whose generous local philanthropies she admired. She did not play with dolls and was proud that she could “throw a ball or a stone with an underswing like a boy and not a girl.”
But her father’s genuine affection alone was not enough to instill in her a sturdy sense of her own worth; all her life she would feel deserving only when in the service of others, would crave the kind of serious individual attention and unstinting praise she felt her turbulent, distracted family had failed to give her. “Instead of feeling that my freedom gave me time for recreation or play.” she wrote, “it seemed to me like time wasted, and I looked anxiously about for some useful occupation.” She found it beginning at the age of eleven, nursing her brother David through a two-year illness. When he recovered, she felt no elation, only a sense that she no longer had an important role to play, and she cast about the neighborhood for others she might help heal.
Attractive and tiny—she stood barely five feet—she turned away at least three suitors as a young woman and began seeking new needs to fill, first as the founder of a New Jersey public school so successful that a man was appointed to oversee her work, then as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office, one of the federal government’s first female employees.
But it would take the Civil War to engage all her fierce energy. She was not, legend to the contrary, the first woman to shoulder the task of supplying Union soldiers, but she was certainly the best known.
Despite her genteel upbringing, Barton was never a prude. When she learned that soldiers appreciated tobacco and whiskey at least as much as blankets and bandages, she happily complied. “You would smile at the sight of the half yard slabs of plug lying this moment on my table waiting for Dr. Sidney’s Basket of Whiskey to arrive she wrote a member of the family. “Dainty gifts, you will say, but all necessary my dear Coz—this I conceive to be no time to prate of moral influences”; and while stationed on Hilton Head off the South Carolina coast in 1863, she seems to have conducted a passionate romance with a married colonel.