Clara Barton: “Angel of the Battlefield”

Clara Barton

Clara Barton

New year, new month, new historical theme of the month! We’re starting 2016 with a requested blog series “Destined To Serve: Nurses In The American Civil War.” Back in August 2015, a single blog post on nurses during the Civil War was quite popular and some folks asked for an expanded series…so here’s the beginning!

(Read Nurses of the American Civil War (An Overview) for an introduction to this month’s subject.)

Clara Barton is one of the better-known nurses of the war. Today we’ll talk about a few important elements of her medical service during the conflict and the lasting impact of her efforts. Independent

Clara Barton was independent. Prior to the beginning of the Civil War, she’d been a successful school teacher and had sickroom experience from taking care of ill family members and friends. She’d moved from Massachusetts to Washington D.C. on her own and was one of the first women employed at the U.S. Patent Office.

When the war began, Clara wanted to do something, but she wasn’t exactly sure what until she realized the soldiers didn’t have proper supplies in camps and hospitals. Single-handedly, she started an unofficial relief agency. Writing to friends and family in New England, she coordinated home front efforts to send food, clothing, and medical supplies which she distributed in hospitals, camps, and battlefields.

Though she had similar goals, Clara refused to join the Sanitary Commission, the Christian Commission, or the Massachusetts relief agency. She preferred to work on her own, securing military passes through her state’s congressmen or military men of her acquaintance. She never joined an “organization” and was never employed as a medical nurse by the United States government.

It was not uncommon for Clara to be the first (and sometimes only woman) in a battlefield location.


Though Clara Barton revolted against the traditional norms for 19th Century ladies and expressed a firm desire not to marry and have a family, she valued proper behavior (well, most of the time). In 1861, torn between wanting to do something to serve her country and propriety boundaries, she sought her father’s advice. He encouraged her to go and serve, assuring her that if she acted as a lady deserving respect, the soldiers would honor and protect her.

Properly dressed in sober, modest clothing, Clara’s friendly, familial attitude won her much respect, and several high ranking officers insisted they would protect her if she ever had difficulties.


In many of her letters, Clara described herself as “a soldier.” That didn’t mean she disguised herself and carried a musket (see the section above), but she took pride in sharing the hardships of the “her boys.”

Though not officially attached to any particular regiment, Clara had her favorites – usually units from her home state. In between supply gathering and battles, she visited her adopted brothers, uncles, and sons in their camps, chatting with them and distributing supplies.

She absolutely hated war, but firmly believed the North had to keep fighting and win. As the years passed, she was very supportive of President Lincoln and the abolishment of slavery.

Wounded soldiers waiting for assistance

Wounded soldiers waiting for assistance

To The Battlefields

While the majority of ladies who volunteered as nurses worked in base hospitals or arrived on battlefields after the fighting was over, Clara Barton went to the battle lines and worked during the fighting.

Shocked at the lack of field hospital supplies and the starving condition of soldiers arriving in Washington’s hospitals after the early battles of the war, she decided to take her supplies where they were most needed: directly to the front.

One of her most dramatic escapades of the war was at Antietam (September 1862). Arriving with wagons of supplies, Clara found her way to a front-line field hospital; her bandages replaced green corn husks the surgeons had been using for dressings. Her lanterns provided light to save lives after darkness fell. Her food kept men from starving. At this hospital, she stopped to help an injured soldier in the yard. As she held him in her arms, a bullet went through her sleeve and killed the soldier – Clara was understandably horrified, but she refused to leave her dangerous post.

Clara Barton served on or near many battlefields, including – Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas (Bull Run), Antietam, Fredericksburg, Fort Wagner, and Petersburg.

Find The Soldiers

As the war drew to a close, Clara began a new mission: to help find missing soldiers and send information to their families. She worked with released prisoners and eventually journeyed to Andersonville, Georgia, (site of one of the most notorious prisons of the war) to help identify the graves of thousands of prisoners. Though her answers were not always what families hoped to hear, her work brought closure to many former “unknown” situations.

When Andersonville National Cemetery was established, Clara Barton was given the honor of raising the United States flag.

Andersonville National Cemetery (By Fredlyfish4, own work, via Wikimedia Commons)

Andersonville National Cemetery
(By Fredlyfish4, own work, via Wikimedia Commons)

“You Saved My Life”

Over and over, Clara Barton stepped into harms way to rescue a wounded man from neglect, to feed a starving soldier, to hold a suffering youth and urge him to live.

After the war, Clara began a public speaking career, reminding citizens of the war’s cost and the soldiers’ sacrifices. Often, scarred veterans would come to her and say the simple words “you saved my life.”

Both during and after the conflict, Clara Barton was frequently called the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

A Continuing Legacy

Unable to forget the need for supplies in war-zones and the care and compassion required by civilians affected by brutal conflict, Clara Barton was inspired by European innovation. She insisted that the United States should establish a permanent chapter of the Red Cross in America.

Leaders and citizens were skeptical, positive that there’d never be another Civil War. But Clara insisted a relief agency could assist in natural disasters and aid other countries in times of war. In 1881, she became the first president of the American Red Cross, an organization which continues to provide humanitarian aid throughout the world.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Interested in learning more about Clara Barton? A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War by Stephen B. Oates is a good biography for adult readers (not suitable for children).

Looking for a book for kids to read? Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross by Augusta Stevenson or Clara Barton: Courage Under Fire by Janet and Geoff Benge. Explore other Civil War resources HERE!

4 thoughts on “Clara Barton: “Angel of the Battlefield”

  1. Pingback: Author & Nurse: The Woman Who Wrote “Hospital Sketches” | Gazette665

  2. Pingback: A Southern Lady’s Self-less Service | Gazette665

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