Ask any nurse and she or he will tell you: In addition to providing medical care, they are also part therapist, teacher, clergy, custodian, investigator and interpreter (i.e., “Let me translate what the doctor just said.”).
When Clara Barton took on nursing during the U.S. Civil War, she was also part soldier, diplomat, and — since many doctors refused to work with women — a trailblazer.
But that last part was nothing new to her; she had been fighting for a spot in the workplace for decades.
Barton was in her mid-30s when she came to Washington in 1854, taking a job at the U.S. Patent Office. She started as a copyist — copying documents by hand — but was quickly promoted to clerk, becoming the first woman to receive a government appointment, according to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. She made $1,400 a year, the same as the male clerks.
But then the patent commissioner who had promoted her left, and his replacement was hostile to the idea of women in the workplace. He was also being pressured by Interior Secretary Robert McClelland to get rid of all female federal workers.
First, she was demoted back to copyist, which meant a steep pay cut. Then she was harassed, according to the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. Rumors abounded among the men in her office that she was having an affair with her boss, and that the never-married abolitionist had biracial children. She also suffered from bouts of malaria and depression. After three years, she quit.
Barton went to her childhood home of Oxford, Mass., to recover from the ordeal. It was a pattern she had followed much of her life. Years earlier, sexism had derailed her first career as a teacher, too. She had worked tirelessly to open a public school in Bordentown, N.J., but when a new building was constructed, a male principal was brought in at twice her pay, and she was made his assistant.
“I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay,” she later said.
Barton returned to the Patent Office in 1860, just before President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration and the outbreak of the Civil War.
Barton’s next career started with the Baltimore Riot on April 19, 1861. Fighting between the Massachusetts militia and Southern sympathizers resulted in what is considered the first bloodshed of the Civil War. Wounded soldiers were brought to the District and laid out in the unfinished Capitol building.
Barton raced to the Capitol to see how she could help and was shocked to find some of the wounded men were former students of hers. Something ignited in her that would animate the rest of her life.
Barton and several other women organized medical supplies, food, clothing, bedding, prayers, letter-writing — anything that could bring comfort to the wounded. There was little formal training to be a nurse back then, so Barton quickly picked up what she needed to know, and invented the rest.
Soon after, the civilian U.S. Sanitary Commission took control of providing nurses to the Union Army. But it was often bogged down in red tape; many field doctors would take only male nurses, and their supply wagons often lagged days behind the troops.
Barton got around all of that. She never joined the Sanitary Commission and traveled fast and light, and by sheer force of personality, she was able to convince officials to let her get close to the front lines.
In August 1862, she rode her wagon full of supplies to a field hospital by the Cedar Mountain battlefield in Virginia. She showed up in the middle of the night, and to the surgeon there, it seemed like a miracle. He later wrote: “I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a[n] . . . angel, she must be one.”
Barton later wrote of Cedar Mountain: “Five days and nights with three hours sleep, a narrow escape from capture, and some days of getting the wounded into hospitals at Washington. And if you chance to feel that the positions I occupied were rough and unseemly for a woman, I can only reply that they were rough and unseemly for men.”
Now dubbed the “Angel of the Battlefield,” she continued to serve troops for the duration of the war at Fairfax Station, Chantilly, Harpers Ferry, South Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Charleston, Petersburg and Cold Harbor.
At Antietam, Barton was so close to the battlefield that, while cradling a wounded man’s head so he could take a sip of water, a bullet passed through her sleeve — killing instantly the man she was trying to help.
Often she would work until she collapsed from exhaustion or illness.
In 1864, Gen. Benjamin Butler made her head nurse of the Army of the James, despite the fact that she had no formal medical training.
Barton had found her calling, and she would eventually create the American Red Cross. While still on the front lines, she wrote to her father: “I don’t know how long it has been since my ear has been free from the roll of a drum. It is the music I sleep by, and I love it. … I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them.”
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