Monday, July 07, 2008 7/7/08-Clara Barton

In today's excerpt --poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) encounters Clara Barton (1821-1912) in 1862 where they are both voluntarily attending the wounded during the Civil War. While Whitman's wartime experiences led to some of his finest poetry and a revolution in American literature, Barton's led to her truly monumental efforts in leading volunteers and obtaining and distributing supplies to wounded soldiers--and ultimately led her to organize the American Red Cross:

"Barton was still at the Lacy mansion [in Fredericksburg] when Whitman arrived, doing what she could for the hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers dumped unceremoniously on the carpeted floor. As Whitman had done before the war at the Broadway hospital in New York, Barton had begun her one-woman ministry by distributing little gifts of food, tobacco, whiskey, and simple human kindness to the Union soldiers stationed in Washington, where she was working as a copyist for the U.S. Patent Office. Since then she had expanded her duties to the field of battle, following the army's fluctuating fortunes. ... She was, in her way, as remarkable a personality as Whitman himself. Barely five feet tall, with a round face, high cheekbones, wide mouth, and beautiful, expressive dark-brown eyes, the Massachusetts born Barton had grown up 'more boy than girl,' ignored by her stern, unloving mother and taught to ride and shoot--she was a dead pistol shot--by her old, Indian-fighting father. ...

"Unmarried by choice--a friend observed that 'she was so much stronger a character than any of the men who made love to her that I do not think she was ever seriously tempted to marry any of them'--she nevertheless had many suitors, including one married Union colonel with whom she had a tempestuous love affair.

"In addition to her nursing career, Barton was also a pioneer in the area of women's rights, having withstood sexual harassment in the workplace to become the first woman to draw her own salary from the federal government (other women were filling in for disabled relatives and thus were paid under the men's names). Again like Whitman, she was proud of her physicality, eschewing all meats and stimulants, and she was capable of working long hours without sleep. Her favorite adjective to describe herself was 'athletic.' In many ways, she was Whitman's mirror image--stubborn, independent, sensitive, caring, affectionate, patriotic, robust and kind. Of course, Whitman was also a literary genius, the one characteristic that Barton could not match him, strength for strength.'

Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel, Oxford, Copyright 2000 by Roy Morris, Jr., pp. 53-54.


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