Lecture MOC Person of the Year
February 21, 2015
Thanks to MOC…. you have been a champion audience…on a bit of a fraught day …so I know you will be pleased to learn that we have saved the best person for last—a remarkable, visionary, feisty and quirky person. A bit of a reward at the end of a long day.
You know when I first got a message from John Coski asking me to give a presentation I thought he was going to ask that I speak about someone else. As Waite implied in his introduction my house is populated by historical ghosts, and I thought John was going to ask me to speak about Robert E. Lee—or Abraham Lincoln. And I was disheartened—because I didn’t think I could make a case for either of those two as person of the year for 1865. I thought their laurels should come in other years. [But I think my colleagues Professor Kinzer and Mr. Greene did a great job of promoting Lee and Lincoln.] In any case, I was really tickled that John asked me to speak about someone else—and it happens to be the person who I actually think deserves the designation. Not only for what this person did in 1865—but for how those deeds changed the world—and still today affect every life in this room.
You will recall that on May 23 and 24, 1865 there was a grand army review down Pennsylvania Avenue. Union soldiers of every rank trooped by the president and made a mighty victory show. But someone was absent from that parade. This person was prominent enough that White House aides anxiously went out on the portico to see if they had somehow missed the moment. Those aides were annoyed, and one took time to note it in his diary. “The one person who should be here is Miss Clara Barton…,” wrote Horatio Nelson Taft. “She has been known and called the “Angel of the Battlefield.” She was in Fredericksburgh during the terrible “Burnside Battle” there having crossed the River on the Pontoon Bridge while the Rebels were shelling it. She was there again last summer when the City was filled with our wounded from the Battle fields of the “Wilderness…..” I am told that she seemed on such occasions totaly insensible to danger.”
Now, as it happened, Clara Barton had been invited to participate in the parade. But she had had a good reason for not being there. She had work to do.
As Horatio Nelson Taft noted, Clara Barton was already a household name in 1865. She’d done everything he mentioned and more. She had part of her skirt shot away as she crossed that pontoon bridge at Fredericksburg. She was also under heavy fire at Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Fort Wagner, and Spotsylvania. At Antietam a bullet whizzed under her arm as she cradled a soldier—ripping her blouse and killing the man. At Antietam she also assisted at amputations during an artillery bombardment after the doctor’s assistants flinched. When they ran out of bandages she used green corn leaves to bind the wounds. She also solicited supplies, badgered the War Department to get better treatment for soldiers, and directed four regimental hospitals. Through it all she treated the wounded of both sides equally. Now…Clara Barton was not the only woman who did splendid work for the armies—both North and South. Some 8,000 women volunteered in Union hospitals alone. What sets Barton apart is that she was often laboring right on the field, during the fighting. She once said that her work was “anywhere between the bullet and the hospital.” When she returned from one field she described wringing the blood from the bottom of her dress, to relieve the weight about her feet.
Needless to say all of this was remarkable enough to win laurels for Clara Barton. But that’s not why she deserves to be named person of the year for 1865.
January 1865 found Clara Barton supervising a hospital at City Point. It was the beginning of an astonishing year during which she recognized a series of badly needed reforms and began to put them in place. At the time her ideas were visionary. Today we can’t imagine our world without them.