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Queen Barton

July 2024
6min read

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.

Nonetheless, she worked exclusively behind the lines at first, fearful that if she went to the battlefield, she might be thought a camp follower; it was her beloved father, on his deathbed, who encouraged her to go to the front. Her place, she came to see, was “anywhere between the bullet and the hospital,” and even her harshest critics never plausibly questioned her bravery. Her face sometimes blue from gunpowder, she ministered to the wounded and dying at Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Chantilly, South Mountain, and Antietam, where, when Rebel artillery seemed sure to hit the field hospital and all the male surgical assistants had fled, she stood her ground, holding the rolling operating table steady so the surgeon could complete his work. “I wrung the blood from the bottom of my clothing,” she recalled, “before I could step, for the weight about my feet.”

But if her courage was incontrovertible, her accounts of her wartime experiences were not. She could not resist exaggerating her genuine achievements, claiming that she had spent five days on one battlefield when she’d gone home after two, for example, and that patriotism made her refuse her Patent Office salary for the duration when she’d actually lobbied hard for it.

The war was the high point of her career, but it was only the start of her career of service. She dreaded inactivity above everything—“I must not rust,” she said—and undertook a postwar lecture tour so strenuous that she collapsed and was sent to Europe to recuperate. There she threw herself instead into the work of the International Red Cross, to which she dedicated all but the last few years of her life.

From the first her great cause and her own celebrity were inextricably linked in her own mind. “I must attend to all business myself,” she said. She made all decisions and dispensed all funds, so regally autocratic that even her most loyal subordinates took privately to calling her “the Queen” and “the Great I Am.” She invariably led her staff into disaster areas herself, coming to the aid of victims of the Johnstown flood, the Galveston hurricane, famine in Russia, and the fighting in Cuba—where, at seventy-seven, she found herself once again bent over a campfire, making gruel, just as she had almost thirty years earlier.

She preferred her assistants to be “meek, patient, faithful,” a perfect description of her closest aide, Dr. Julian Hubbell, a far younger man so worshipful that he called himself “her boy,” took up medicine only because she asked him to, and did not complain even when she coldly drove off the young woman he had hoped to marry. Notwithstanding the devotion of Hubbell and other unswerving allies, Barton always saw herself as alone and embattled; all criticism, no matter how mild, she believed proceeded from base motives.

On the evidence of this new study, it may be a little hard to like Clara Barton, but it is impossible not to admire her.

She last took the field in 1903, when typhoid devastated the little Pennsylvania town of Butler. A local man remembered seeing her at work there: “She…stepped out into the dark, wild night, with her small staff, and a little colored girl went before her with a lantern…we pictured the light going on and on through the night until it should stop over the stricken town…and the suffering people there would look upon it as the light of a great soul.…” That was just how she would have liked them to look upon it. The Red Cross would remain a one-woman show so long as she was its head; she had often said, “When the people got a hold on the Red Cross they would be uncontrollable.”

The people finally were. In 1900 Congress had granted the Red Cross a charter aimed at making it more efficient and systematic. Led by Mabel Thorp Boardman, an able member of the new board who yearned to become Barton’s successor, dissidents charged that the old lady was egocentric, capricious, careless with finances. She defeated them soundly in 1901 and had herself proclaimed president at eighty-one. “Victory after victory was won,” she wrote, ”… our foes were slain at our feet.”

But her enemies eventually prevailed. The Red Cross was wrested from her and reorganized in 1904, as part of an agreement under which a Senate probe of her handling of funds fully exonerated her of any wrongdoing. She went on to found the National First Aid Association, but things were never the same, and at her home at Glen Echo, Maryland, she comforted herself by communing with long-dead allies through a medium. She noted proudly in her diary that Lincoln, Grant, and Kaiser Wilhelm I all continued to support her work from the spirit world.

On the evidence of this balanced new study, it may be a little hard to like Clara Barton, but it is impossible not to admire her. She was still caring for indigent relatives at eighty-five, rising at dawn and marching to the barn to milk her cows, her best-loved decorations pinned to her calico dress. Shortly before her death from pneumonia at ninety-one, in 1912, she apologized for having groaned with pain in her sleep. After all the uncomplaining soldiers she had nursed, she told the faithful Hubbell, “Here on a good bed, with every attention, 1 am ashamed that I murmur.”

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