When the Civil War broke out, Clara Barton wanted more than anything to be a Union soldier, an impossible dream for a thirty-nine-year-old woman, who stood a slender five feet tall. Determined to serve, she became a veritable soldier, a nurse, and a one-woman relief agency operating in the heart of the conflict. Now, award-winning author Stephen B. Oates, drawing on archival materials not used by her previous biographers, has written the first complete account of Clara Barton's active engagement in the Civil War.
By the summer of 1862, with no institutional affiliation or official government appointment, but impelled by a sense of duty and a need to heal, she made her way to the front lines and the heat of battle. Oates tells the dramatic story of this woman who gave the world a new definition of courage, supplying medical relief to the wounded at some of the most famous battles of the war -- including Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Battery Wagner, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Petersburg. Under fire with only her will as a shield, she worked while ankle deep in gore, in hellish makeshift battlefield hospitals -- a bullet-riddled farmhouse, a crumbling mansion, a windblown tent. Committed to healing soldiers' spirits as well as their bodies, she served not only as nurse and relief worker, but as surrogate mother, sister, wife, or sweetheart to thousands of sick, wounded, and dying men.
Her contribution to the Union was incalculable and unique. It also became the defining event in Barton's life, giving her the opportunity as a woman to reach out for a new role and to define a new profession. Nursing, regarded as a menial service before the war, became a trained, paid occupation after the conflict. Although Barton went on to become the founder and first president of the Red Cross, the accomplishment for which she is best known, A Woman of Valor convinces us that her experience on the killing fields of the Civil War was her most extraordinary achievement.
Prolific biographer Oates ( Abraham Lincoln ) uses both primary and secondary sources in addressing the Civil War career of Clara Barton (1821-1912). He interprets her work as an act of self-discovery and part of a larger trend in which American women were finding a new sense of their collective worth. An "angel of the battlefield" who succored the wounded while under fire, Barton also raised funds and supplies through a network of women's support groups, while challenging the conventional belief that nursing was inappropriate for respectable women. Overcoming her initial inhibitions and demonstrating that women were more broadly capable than had been accepted, Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, opened the door for women in professions and politics during the second half of the 19th century. Oates here makes a useful contribution to women's history and Civil War studies.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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April 30, 1995
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Excerpt from Woman of Valor by Stephen B. Oates
EPILOGUE:The Circuit Clara's exploits made her perhaps the most famous eastern woman of the war: "I appear to be known by reputation by every person in every train I enter and everywhere," she wrote in her diary. Because she needed a personal income, she did take to the lecture circuit in 1866, giving variations of an address called "Work and Incidents of Army Life," which enabled her to relive her war experiences in front of an audience. To her surprise, she discovered that she was a gifted platform speaker, with a soft, melodious voice and a poetic cast to her descriptions that enthralled her audiences. Her newspaper notices were almost universally favorable, describing her talks as "animated," "instructive and enjoyable." One journalist stated flatly: "We have never seen an audience more interested or attentive." Lyceums, literary societies, and veterans' organizations affiliated with the Grand Army of the Republic all vied for her services. One GAR post named itself after her, which pleased Clara enormously, since she regarded herself as a war veteran.She was so good that she was able to demand, and get, the same fees that Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and other popular male lecturers received. She commanded $75 to $100 per performance, sometimes plus expenses. Such fees enabled her to earn a handsome net income, as much as $900 in a single month. Occasionally she donated all or part of her proceeds to charities for the poor or to soldiers' funds for widows and orphans, but most of the money she kept.For two years after the war, Clara crisscrossed the country, speaking in cities and remote towns from Boston and New Haven to Milwaukee and Washington, Iowa. Her grueling schedule found her riding in smoky, monotonous trains by day and often by night, giving a lecture to strangers in a packed auditorium and grabbing what sleep she could in a railroad hotel before setting off again. Sometimes her accommodations were terrible. "Fearfully dirty room," she wrote in Dixon, Illinois, "filthy, the whole house so, could not sleep for filth and stench." She survived a winter train wreck between Decatur and Jacksonville, Illinois. When the train jumped the track, Clara found herself on the ceiling of an upside-down coach, pinned down by a hot stove, with coals scattered all over her. Atwater, who accompanied Clara as her assistant, helped her out of the smoking wreckage into the icy wind. Bruised, burned, and visibly shaken, she nevertheless proceeded to the next town, where a railroad superintendent gave her $50 for her loss.Those who attended a Clara Barton lecture saw a small, slender, feminine woman, dressed perhaps in her light blue traveling dress, still looking younger than she was. She would stride to the podium to read her speech from a carefully prepared text, written in large, round script. At first her voice would be low and gentle, but then it would swell into singsong eloquence.She spoke candidly about the inhibitions that had kept her from the field in 1861 and early 1862. "I struggled long and hard with my sense of propriety," she said, "with the appalling fact that I was a woman, whispering in one ear, and groans of suffering men, dying like dogs, unfed and unsheltered, for the life of the very institutions which had protected and educated me, thundering in the other. I said that I struggled with my sense of propriety, and I say it with shame before God and before you, I am ashamed that I thought of such a thing."Then she transported her listeners back to Fairfax Station just after Second Bull Run, where she and her colleagues had labored among the wounded for three straight days and nights. She brought tears to many an eye when she told how she had found Hugh Johnson dying of an abdominal wound, had pretended to be his sister, and held him all night before putting him on the train. She took her readers on to Antietam, where a soldier had been shot