Clara Barton: Women’s Work during the Civil War

Clara Barton, 1865 by Matthew Brady

Clara Barton, 1865 by Matthew Brady

In the spring of 1861, the Massachusetts Sixth Regiment arrived in Washington, D.C. The troops were recruited to fight in the Civil War after the bombing of Fort Sumter. Clara Barton, who worked in Washington, D.C., watched the troops arrive. She knew some of men because she grew up in Massachusetts and also taught school there. Worried about “her boys,” she arrived at the Capital building where the troops were staying.

Collecting Supplies

She discovered that many of the soldiers lacked basic supplies like blankets and adequate food. She bought some items with her own money and appealed to others to donate. To a group of ladies in Worchester, Massachusetts Clara wrote, “It is said upon proper authority, that ‘our army is supplied.’ How this can be I fail to see.” Soon donations poured in, and Clara stored them in her apartment.

She collected and distributed supplies for one year, but felt that she was not doing enough to help the soldiers. After hearing stories of the soldiers’ suffering on the battlefields, she longed to join them but wondered if such work would be proper for a lady. Clara’s father encouraged her to follow her conscience. When he died, she petitioned leaders in the government and the army to bring food and medical supplies to the field hospitals and battle sites.

Going to the Battlefront

The first of her many trips to the Civil War battlefields occurred after the battle of Cedar Mountain in northern Virginia. Clara brought a wagon filled with supplies. Though she was unprepared for the number of wounded, she pinned up her skirt and moved among the men, distributing food as she went. The surgeon on duty was so grateful for the help that he wrote to his wife, “at a time when we were entirely out of dressing of every kind, she supplied us with everything, and while the shells were bursting in every direction…she staid [sic] dealing out shirts…and preparing soup.”

Clara put herself in danger many times during the war. For example, she did not stay with the regular medical units at the rear of the column at Antietam. Instead, she ordered the drivers of her supply wagons to pull ahead so she could be on hand when the battle started. While the battle raged, she and her helpers nursed and brought food to the soldiers. She seemed unconcerned about the danger and said, “I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.” Clara narrowly escaped death at Antietam when an enemy bullet hit a wounded soldier who lay in her arms.

Women’s Work

By the end of the war, Clara had served troops on nine different battlefields. Her courage and resourcefulness won her the admiration of doctors and generals who thought women would only create chaos during battle. General Benjamin Butler stated that Clara had “executive ability and kindheartedness, with an honest love of the work of reformation and care of her living fellow creatures.”

Clara was human—she enjoyed the praise she received for her work and rarely cooperated with other women’s groups during the war because she didn’t want to share credit. Yet most of Clara’s praise was earned. She worked without pay, bought many of her own supplies, and lived (and sometimes nearly died) alongside the Civil War soldiers.


What Did Girls Accomplish during the U.S. Civil War?

When people think of the contributions of children during the Civil War, they often think of the young boys that snuck into battle, but the contributions of girls were equally important. Girls at the home front displayed their loyalty to the North and South in a variety of ways. Almost all girls found themselves performing new roles around the house when their fathers and brothers went to battle. In addition, many girls found inventive ways to support the soldiers.

After their fathers and brothers left for war, girls learned to help their mothers with more tasks. Southern families had to do housework without the aid of slaves. Emma LeConte wrote, “This afternoon I washed the dinner things and put the room to rights…this is my first experience in work of this kind.” Northern children also did housework. An Iowa mother remarked how cheerfully the children, led by her thirteen-year-old daughter, helped her run the family farm.

A common task for older girls was caring for and teaching their younger siblings. Emma LeConte became a teacher to her younger sister Sallie. Emma took pride in her work, stating, “I am fairly launched as a school marm.”

Girls did whatever it took to help their families survive, even if the tasks were unladylike. Anna Howard of Michigan remembered, “I was the principal support of our family.” She and her mother took in boarders, sold quilts, sewed, and taught school. “It was an incessant struggle to keep our land, to pay our taxes, and to live.”

Northern and Southern girls also contributed to the war effort by aiding soldiers.  When Union infantry passed by her house during the Battle of Gettysburg, Tillie Pierce sprung into action. “I soon saw that these men were very thirsty…obtaining a bucket, I hastened to the spring, and there, with others, carried water to the moving column until the spring was empty. We then went to the pump standing on the south side of the house, and supplied water from it.” Tillie gave water to the soldiers during the first two days of battle. When the battle ended, she became a regular visitor at the makeshift hospital nearby, bringing treats to the soldiers. Just as Tillie gave out water to Union soldiers, Sally Hawthorne of Fayetteville, North Carolina handed out sandwiches to Confederate soldiers fleeing from Sherman.

Girls on both sides of the conflict participated in raising money for soldiers. In the North, the biggest fundraising efforts that included children were fairs given by the Sanitary Commission. Girls worked four hour shifts at some fairs dressed as the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe and surrounded by dolls for sale. Southern efforts were not as massive as Northern fundraisers because of wartime shortages, but the girls who participated were equally enthusiastic. Emma LeConte helped with a bazaar that raised money for sick soldiers. She wrote, “I was at the State House helping to arrange the tables until four o’clock…Everything to eat can be had if one can pay the price—cakes, jellies, creams, candies.”

Often girls did not wait for a big community event to help raise money. Some held their own fairs in their backyards. The Chicago Tribune described one of these “fairs.” Tables were filled with fruit, lemonade and cake. The tables “were presided over by veritable fairy queens” charming “the quarters and dimes out of the purses of visitors.”

Though they worked for different causes, northern and southern girls both had the desire to help their families and the soldiers fighting for their side.

The History of Memorial Day

Maybe you and your family are planning a barbeque for Memorial Day Weekend, or you’re planning to take a short trip out of town. But do you know why Memorial Day is a national holiday?

A few years after the Civil War, Major General John A. Logan determined that a day should be set aside for decorating the graves of the soldiers who died in the conflict. Back then, Decoration Day [known commonly today as Memorial Day] was always celebrated on May 30. That day was supposedly chosen because flowers throughout the U.S. would be in bloom in late spring. General Logan declared that “we should guard [the graves of Civil war soldiers] with sacred vigilance…Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

During the late nineteenth century, many communities in both the North and South already placed flowers on the graves of soldiers from the Civil War, but Logan’s proclamation and specific date made the practice even more popular. By the end of World War I, Memorial Day observances honored all soldiers who died in America’s wars.


 In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by Congress and was placed on the last Monday in May, providing a three-day weekend for the public. In recent years the day has been observed with parades that include members of the armed forces. Yet some believe that the focus on travel and family get-togethers during Memorial Day weekend has diminished the original purpose of the day—to honor America’s fallen soldiers. In order to “put the memorial back into Memorial Day”, Congress proposed that a National Moment of Remembrance be observed on that day. All Americans are encouraged to stop whatever they are doing at 3pm for a minute of silence to honor those who gave their lives for their country. President Clinton signed the resolution into law in 2000.

As you enjoy your day off from school, take a moment to remember why Memorial Day was created and think about the sacrifices of our soldiers.