Nurses and Clara Barton

Clara Barton is well known as the founder of the American Red Cross, but it was her remarkable humanitarian efforts during the Civil War that established her reputation as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” She was also an ardent feminist, the first female diplomat, and an important advocate of health and education reform and civil rights.

Clara Barton Photo courtesy of the National Archives (111-B-1857)

Barton worked as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., where she saw the first casualties of the Civil War. She observed the inadequate medical care and noted that the wounded frequently went without sufficient food or clothing. Working independently of other relief agencies, Barton started lobbying to change the horrific conditions of battlefield medicine.

In July 1862, Barton received permission from the U.S. surgeon general to take medical supplies directly to the front lines and field hospitals. She risked her life to help the soldiers on the front at important battles such as Cedar Creek, Second Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. She also provided medical aid during the Carolinas campaign and in Virginia during Grant's 1864 offensives, where she was granted an official position with the Army of the James under the command of General Benjamin Butler.

As the war began to wind down, Barton was given a nearly overwhelming task by President Lincoln. He asked her to oversee the search for missing and captured Union soldiers, compile lists of the sick and wounded, and identify the Union dead buried in mass graves at Andersonville prison and elsewhere. The endeavor took Barton four long years to complete, but her efforts went a long way toward ensuring that Union soldiers who died on the battlefield and in prison were given decent burials and, more importantly, were remembered for their sacrifice.

Clara Barton was not the only woman who made tremendous sacrifices for the men who served in uniform. Women were by and large denied the opportunity of attending medical school, but thousands volunteered for medical service during the war. Union records show that approximately 4,000 women served as nurses in Union hospitals. Three thousand of these were recruited by Dorothea Dix, who volunteered for the Union in 1861 at the age of fifty-nine. She had worked before the war improving conditions for prisoners and the mentally ill. She was placed in charge of all female nurses for the Union and served in that capacity throughout the war at no salary. The number of Southern women who acted as nurses in Confederate hospitals is unknown but believed to be as high as that for the Union.

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