The Angle Of The Battlefield: Clara Harlowe

October 02, 2023
The Angle Of The Battlefield: Clara Harlowe
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When we look back at the titans of American history, names like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant instantly spring to mind. But many everyday heroes risked everything in service of their nation and fellow man. One of them was Clarissa “Clara” Harlowe Barton, who courageously nursed soldiers on Civil War battlefields and founded the American Red Cross.

Though shy and quiet by nature, Clara Barton’s actions spoke louder than words ever could. She found her calling tending to wounded troops under heavy fire during the Civil War's darkest days. This petite woman thought nothing of venturing into the thickest action to apply bandages, offer water and food, write heartfelt letters home for the boys, and provide whatever meager comfort she could. Her tireless efforts working round-the-clock earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Born on Christmas Day, 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara grew up on a rural New England farm with her parents and five siblings. Even as a young girl she practiced nursing, diligently tending to her brother after a bad fall. She received some formal schooling but was mostly self-taught, consuming books voraciously. Teaching became her first career before the war called her to service.

When Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Clara was working as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. As she saw regiments of Union volunteers arrive in the capital to prepare for war, she yearned to contribute more directly. Never one to sit idle, she sprang into action, using her organizational skills to collect and distribute donations for the troops. But Clara knew her true place was on the front lines.

In 1862 she finally convinced the War Department to grant her permission to work as an independent nurse on battlefields. What she witnessed at places like Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg was the stuff of nightmares. But Clara wouldn’t flinch from her mission to give aid and solace in any way she could. Men cheered at the sight of her, calling out “Here comes the angel!”

Clara might hand out crackers then sit down on the blood-soaked ground, take a young man’s head in her lap and tenderly brush back his hair. She knew these small acts of humanity could mean everything to boys far from home facing the unthinkable. To thousands of soldiers, the diminutive nurse in the dark dress became the mother, wife or sister they desperately missed.

When the fighting finally ceased in 1865, Clara was exhausted but fulfilled. Rather than rest on her laurels, she traveled overseas to work with the International Red Cross assisting war victims everywhere from Constantinople to the Franco-Prussian battlefield. She saw America needed its own relief organization. On May 21, 1881 she founded the American Red Cross, serving as its first president for over 20 years.

Of course, Clara was still Clara, unable to ignore people in crisis. Well into her 60s she responded to disasters like the Johnstown Flood. Nobody could keep up with her zeal. In 1904, she finally resigned the Red Cross presidency - but only because forced by the board of directors concerned for the 83 year old’s health!

Clara Barton died a beloved national heroine in 1912 at age 90. With modesty and quiet conviction, she expanded possibilities for women while saving lives. Today, it’s easy to take institutions like the Red Cross for granted. But it took Clara’s vision and relentless will to make them a reality. Sometimes the history books obscure the contributions of rank-and-file humanitarians who transform the world through tiny acts of courage. Clara Barton belongs right alongside those celebrated giants.

Though she stood just five feet tall, Clara Barton cast a long shadow across the land she served. She represents the very best in all of us - the ability to care for strangers, to run boldly toward suffering rather than shrink from it. We should remember that even the greatest undertakings often start with ordinary folks who see injustice and resolutely decide to do something about it. That spirit radiated from Clara Barton her entire life.

While most women were expected to keep to their homes and families, Clara felt called to a larger purpose. Bullheaded and tenderhearted in equal measure, she repeatedly broke conventions but never compromises. Clara volunteered as an angel of mercy not for glory but because her conscience demanded it. That selfless devotion to service before self awes and inspires.

Soldiers wrote how Clara Barton tended to Rebels and Yankees alike, showing no partiality. She respected all as sons in need of mothering. Despite an ocean of blood and bile dividing the nation, Clara modeled compassion across borders - a lesson we need today. Behind those kind eyes lay a toughness few men could match. Clara asked no quarter and expected none.

Of course, she encountered skepticism that battlefield nursing fell outside a woman’s proper realm, especially early on. But Clara proved any doubters wrong through action. Male leaders who witnessed her courage soon became ardent supporters. In time, Clara won admiration across class and gender lines. Though typically a private person, she became a celebrity in her day. Clara Barton represents the timeless truth that character and conscience - not mere titles or conventions - define us.

While Clara Barton walked with presidents and generals, she never lost connection with the struggles of ordinary people. She listened and gave of herself until there was nothing left. Clara served as more than a healer of broken bodies and spirits - she was a force for reunion between North and South after the war. With an open and impartial heart, she embodied the reality that division could be overcome through basic human kindness.

Of course, the America of Clara Barton’s era had countless flaws, from slavery to industrial abuses. And the unity that Clara represented would continue facing bitter tests. But she proved an individual could challenge ingrained mores and make progress. Most importantly, Clara demonstrated the awesome power of mercy to redeem. May her example continue lighting the way.
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