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.

 

Fort Sumter and the Start of the Civil War

Imagine that you have just become President of the United States. You gave your first speech to the nation and attended the inaugural ball. After the ball, you are handed a note that says that one of the remaining federal forts in the South is in danger. Abraham Lincoln had to deal with a crisis almost from the moment he became president.

The letter Lincoln read was from Major Robert Anderson, commander of the Federal troops at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Members of the newly formed Confederacy had surrounded the fort with ships and cannon. Anderson implored Lincoln to send more supplies to the fort.

Members of Lincoln’s cabinet all gave different opinions as to what the President should do. Some said the fort should be evacuated to avoid a civil war with the South, while others said he should send extra troops to protect the fort. Lincoln decided to do neither—he would send a boat with supplies to the fort but troops and warships were instructed to stand by and respond only if the Confederates fired the first shot. He sent a messenger to inform the governor of South Carolina “to expect an attempt will be made to supply Fort Sumpter [sic] with provisions only; and that, if such attempt be not resisted, no effort to throw in men, arms, ammunition will be made…[except] in case of an attack on the Fort.”

The South Carolina Confederates, however, saw the fort as an example of a foreign nation (the Union) trying to stick around in the newly independent Confederate States. They also believed that war would bring the upper Southern States, like Virginia, to their aid. On April 12, 1861, Confederates opened fire on the fort. The supply ship had not yet arrived and other nearby boats were prevented from aiding Anderson’s men by the high seas. As a result, Federal forces were outmanned and had limited gun power. After over a day of bombardment that destroyed parts of the fort, Federal forces surrendered it to the Confederates. Ironically, no one was killed in the first confrontation of the Civil War that later took so many lives.