Angel On The Battlefield

As I was researching The Forgotten Debutante, my last book in the Cotillion Ball Series, I learned of the National Reburial Initiative, which took place after the Civil War


Clara Barton

finished. Most Americans are unaware of the federally-funded program, which took over five years to return to each battlefield, and uncover those hastily buried and unburied Union soldiers and reinter them in military cemeteries in the Northern states. It was the largest federal program to date, and it was given a big boost by using the records compiled by Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross.

Which led me to ask the question, exactly who was Clara and how did she have such focus?

Her war work began at the start of the war, after the Battle of Bull Run. She was one of the first to volunteer at the Washington Infirmary to care for the wounded. She established an agency to obtain and then distribute supplies to wounded soldiers. In 1862, after the death of her father, she she got permission to go behind the lines and saw some of the grimmest battlefields of the war. She aided soldiers on both sides. She became known as the “Angel on the Battlefield.” Her supply wagons traveled with the Union army and gave aid to both Union casualties and Confederate prisoners.

Her records of whom she had met and tended to on the various battlefields, as well as at the hospitals, was the foundation for the massive Reburial Initiative movement. In March, 1865, President Lincoln appointed her to the job of General Correspondent, where she responded to inquiries from the friends and family of missing soldiers by locating them among prison rolls, sketchy casualty lists and parole rolls. She established the Bureau of Records of Missing Men of the Armies of the United States. She went on to become a lecturer and formed the Red Cross in 1881.redcross-logo

Born in Massachusetts in 1821, Clara was never content to follow convention. She began her professional life as a teacher. She was invited to teach at a private school, but recognized the need for free and public education. She established one of the first public schools in the state. She resigned her post when officials appointed a male principal over her, and moved to Washington, DC, where she became the first woman to work at the Patent Office. Always a trailblazer, she proclaimed while she may be willing to teach for nothing, if she were to be paid at all, she would never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay. So, during her stint at the Patent Office, she received the same wages as the men.

While she continued her field work on the battlefields during the Civil War, one of her greatest achievements happened after the war ended. She helped to identify 13,000 unknown Union soldiers who died at the prison camp in Andersonville, GA. That work gave her the idea for a nationwide campaign to identify soldiers who had gone missing during the war. She published lists of names in newspapers and exchanged letters with soldiers and veterans’ families. The search lasted for years and wore her out. With the Reburial Initiative taking the lead on the project, she took a break and went to France.

The war between France and Prussia broke out while Clara was in France. Never one to sit on the sidelines, she joined the relief effort, and was introduced to a new organization–the Red Cross. The goal of this organization was to provide humane services to all victims of wartime under a flag of neutrality.

Ms. Barton returned to the United States and began her legacy–the establishment of the American Red Cross. It was a struggle to be recognized, since the government wanted to believe it would never again to involved in armed conflict. Relentless, at age 60, she finally persuaded the government to recognize the Red Cross so it could provide aid for natural disasters.


Postage Stamp honoring the Red Cross, issued in 1948.

Her home in Glen Echo, MD was headquarters of the Red Cross, and today it’s a national historic site that should not be missed. Located just outside Washington, DC, it was the first national historic site dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman. Not only was it headquarters of the Red Cross, but it was a dormitory for the staff and a warehouse for relief supplies. The National Park Service has restored eleven rooms, including the Red Cross offices, the parlors and Barton’s bedroom. Visitors to Clara Barton National Historic Site can get a sense of how Barton lived and worked. Guides lead tourists through the three levels, emphasizing Barton’s use of her unusual home. Modern visitors can come to appreciate the site in the same way visitors and workers did in Clara Barton’s lifetime.500px-Clba_building

She resigned from the Red Cross in 1904, and died in 1912 at the age of ninety-one.