Clara Barton – Inspiring The Next Generation

For those who subscribe to the ECW newsletter (and if you don’t, you should!), you’ll have read that my husband and I welcomed a new member of our family into the world on July 7, at 9:22pm. We brought Annabelle Clara Bitikofer home about three weeks ago and it’s been a wild, emotional, sleep-deprived ride ever since. But I’d like to share with ECW readers about someone else, a woman who helped to inspire my daughter’s name. There’s likely been a slew of posts published on the blog over the years about Clara Barton and there’s no lack of information about her life and career as a nurse during the Civil War floating around the internet and in libraries across the world. There’s likely nothing I can share that is new or revolutionary about this inspiring woman who went on to help create the American Red Cross. But today, in honor of my daughter, I wanted to share a couple of stories from one of Barton’s biographies. In these examples lay the reasons why I decided to name my daughter after this incredible historical figure.

Clara Barton, c. 1865 (Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-56384)

During the Peninsula Campaign, Clara Barton found herself in the thick of it, tending the wounded from the front lines before they were sent on to Washington. In Stephen Oates’ biography, he wrote:

“Clara spent the entire day climbing up the wheel of every oxcart and talking to and feeding every wounded man with a spoon and an ever-replenished dish of food. When she ran short of food for the wounded, she and her co-workers gave them the meat from their own sandwiches. It never occurred to her, she said later, how unladylike it was to be wading through the mud and climbing up on the wheels of wagons. At one point she ducked under six mules – three teams standing side by side – in order to take a flask of brandy to a soldier who had fainted from loss of blood beyond the last wagon.”[1]

This is just one of the scenarios that stood out to me. Throughout her time as a nurse, she put herself in situations, whether behind the lines or in the field, that no respectable women of the mid-nineteenth century would dare put themselves. To our modern sensibilities, we may not be astonished to see women going above and beyond, getting their hands dirty, and pushing their limits to get the job done. But to those who watched Clara and her fellow nurses roll up their sleeves and throw themselves into the task of taking care of the wounded and dying, this was certainly a radical notion. Male doctors often scorned the presence of women in their hospitals or turned them away entirely – at least at the start of the war. Women were not expected to stomach the appalling sights and smells of a battlefield hospital, but countless women defied their contemporary gender roles for a greater purpose. For my daughter, I hope that she will not only demonstrate immeasurable fortitude to do the tasks set before her but also that she inherited her parents’ stubbornness to prove her nay-sayers wrong when they tell her, “This is no place for a little girl.”

Clara Barton went on to assist the Army of the Potomac at the battle of Antietam, tending to the wounded at the Poffenberger farmhouse. There, as light began to wane from the September sky, a scene unfolded that showcased another part of Clara’s character that I admire.

“At the Sam Poffenberger farmhouse, the chief surgeon was still operating in the waning light. Although his male assistants had returned now, it was Clara who toiled at his side, with her ears ringing, her mouth tasting of gunpowder, and her hands raw. She was proud that she had stood her ground during the cannonade while all the male assistants had run away. So much for the popular belief that a woman would only ‘be in the way’ on the battlefield, would faint at the first sight of blood, and would flee from gunfire with her skirts fluttering. That she had disproved that notion gave Clara great satisfaction… Then she returned to the farmhouse, where she found the chief surgeon in a ‘dark, dank’ room, sitting at a table where a single candle burned. His head rested on his hand.

Clara put her hand on his shoulder. ‘You are tired, Doctor?’

‘Tired!’ he said, raising his head. ‘Yes, I am tired – tired of such heartlessness, such neglect and folly. Here are at least 1000 wounded men – terribly wounded, 500 of whom cannot live till day light without attention, and that 2 inches of candle is all the light I have or can get – what can I do?’ The doctor lay his head back on his hand.

‘Get up, Doctor,’ Clara said. ‘I want to show you something.’ She took him by the arm and led him to the door, pointing in the direction of the barn, where candle lanterns glowed in the waving corn.

The doctor couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘What is that?’

‘Lanterns,’ Clara said. ‘I brought 4 boxes of them. The men will be here in a few moments to light the house. You will have plenty of light. Don’t despair in your good work, Doctor.’”[2]

Clara Barton, 1904 (Library of Congress – LC-USZ62-69288)

The story goes on to reveal that Clara’s lanterns lit up every room of the farmhouse, giving light to the weary surgeon who was too busy and tired to thank her. Before her journey to serving in the field, Clara had sacrificed much time and money in gathering supplies for the army. These lanterns, which gave some measure of hope following the bloodiest single day in American history, were only available because Clara provided them. Fundraisers and charity drives were common across the North and South during the war as women and other civilians scrounged together what they could afford to lose to send to their respective armies. While Clara is not the only woman who provided much-needed resources for the war effort, her story is just one example of how her exertions made a difference for soldiers and other medical professionals during the war.

What struck me about this story was her last words to the doctor: “Don’t despair in your good work.” Despite being tired from a long and difficult day of nursing – having to pick up the slack from the absent male nurses – she made a point of being gentle and compassionate with the stressed-out doctor. She could have snapped at him or made some snarky comeback about her being just as tired as he was. Instead, she chose patience and acted with encouragement rather than bitterness. I can only hope that my daughter will NOT take after me and be just as patient and understanding when in the midst of a heavy, emotional trial.

These are just a couple of Clara Barton anecdotes. In addition to her work as a nurse, she founded the Clara Barton Missing Soldier’s Office in Washington D.C. in order to help reconnect missing or lost soldiers with their loved ones. She also assisted Dorence Atwater in enumerating the names of the Union soldiers who died at the infamous Andersonville prison in Georgia. Her tireless efforts to help Northern soldiers during and after the war made her a legend. She is one of my favorite historical figures and I didn’t have to think twice when my husband and I were discussing baby girl names. I knew that I wanted to incorporate her amazing legacy into my daughter’s name.

Do you have a Clara Barton story that you love? Do you know someone who was named after a historical figure from the Civil War? Share it in the comments!



[1] Stephen Oates, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p. 71

[2] Ibid, p. 88-89

Annabelle Clara Bitikofer in her crib.

3 Responses to Clara Barton – Inspiring The Next Generation

  1. Congratulations on your daughter’s arrival. I’m glad she and you are well. And thank you for sharing these Clara Barton stories. She was an inspiring person and I hope she inspires her new namesake throughout her life.

  2. Congratulations on your new arrival ! My great-grandmother’s name was Clara and my Mom was Claire. My Clara Barton brief story relates to my great grandmother Clara’s older brother. Cpl. Anton Steffens, 20th Mass., was killed in the street fighting at Fredericksburg on Dec. 11, 1862. Clara Barton was there that day, treating the wounded across the river at Chatham mansion. She kept a handwritten diary of each and every soldier she treated. Back in the pre-digitized ’90s, I was in awe when allowed access to that diary at the Library of Congress. Sadly, no mention of my ancestor. That fact itself was evidence that his remains didn’t make it back home. (This issue is still unresolved, as some relatives believe Anton Steffens is buried in the family plot in Boston.)

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