So in July 1865 Barton began a remarkable odyssey into the heart of the devastated South. It was a painful journey. Roads and railway lines were torn up, citizens were hostile, and the military men in charge of the expedition were not particularly pleased that a lady was (in their minds) just along for the ride.
Barton had heard tales of Andersonville from returning prisoners. There were many prisons both North and South that were terrible places, but I think we are safe in saying that Andersonville stood out for its horrendous conditions of exposure and starvation. (We don’t entirely know the reasons for this—Robert E. Lee said that the Confederacy was broken by the time Andersonville opened, and his own soldiers had also been starving at the time. But others stated that there was plenty of food and water in that part of Georgia and plenty of material to build proper housing. In any case, whether because of mismanagement or the personality of its commandant, Andersonville did seem to have been a particularly harsh prison.)
Barton was one of the first people to see this dreadful place after its closure. The relics of imprisonment were everywhere—stockades where the men had been crowded, burrows in the earth where prisoners had tried to shelter themselves, the dead line they were shot for stepping over. She thought she had seen everything in the war—every terror it had to offer, every bit of brutality, every kind of deprivation. But nothing had prepared Barton for the horror of this place. “I have looked upon its terrible face,” she wrote, “but friends, not in the same breath in which I would speak of anything else…would I speak of this….My heart sickened and stood still, my brain whirled, and the light of my eyes went out….” Overwhelmed, she consoled herself in the evenings with “Mr. Tufft’s Blackberry Cordial.” And she also began to formulate a plan.
Fortunately, the lists Dorence Atwater had made corresponded to the numbered mass graves, some of which were still only a few months old. They began to lay out the space as a real cemetery; to mark the graves with names and regiments; to create a garden around the remnants of suffering. When the army team faltered, Barton lettered the headboards herself. In the end nearly 12,500 names were memorialized there. The captain in charge still shunned her, and other male workers pointedly ignored her, but in the end they paid Barton an enormous tribute. When the cemetery was completed, and about to be dedicated, Barton was chosen to raise the flag over the newly identified graves. “I advanced and ran it up amid the cheers of the men,” she wrote in her diary. “The work was done.”
The dedication of the cemetery at Andersonville was countrywide news. On October 7, 1865, Harper’s Weekly ran as its cover a lithograph of Miss Clara Barton raising the flag—and of course today it’s both a National Cemetery and a National Historic Site.
One other thing happened during the weeks at Andersonville that strongly affected Barton’s work during 1865. When word got out she was there, local African Americans began to visit her, often coming long distances. They had heard of Lincoln’s assassination, and some were being duped into believing that this meant the Emancipation Proclamation had been overturned and they were not free. Others were being kept in a kind of quasi-slavery, with the promise of wages, but no payment ever forthcoming. Word that an honest Yankee woman was in the neighborhood seems to have travelled quickly, and some days Barton had more than a hundred former slaves at her door. She told them that Lincoln was indeed dead, but read them the 13th amendment to the constitution, and army orders that prohibited keeping anyone in forced labor. She also reported the situation to Secretary of War Stanton.
This was not the first time Barton had encountered the difficulties of freed persons. In 1863, while she was stationed in South Carolina, she had been exposed to the black population on the Sea Islands and to the experiments in education and job training that had gone on there. She hadn’t known much about slavery before this, but had been powerfully affected by the experience, especially after she witnessed the bravery of US Colored Troops at the siege of Fort Wagner. She increasingly saw the destiny of the country as being bound up by the way it absorbed the huge societal revolution that emancipation brought about. In 1865 Barton pledged to work on behalf of African Americans, writing to Josephine Griffing, and later Frederick Douglass to offer her services for freedmen’s education. During the debate over voting rights she sided with Douglass and others who thought the ballot should be given directly to African Americans without complicating the issue with suffrage for women. She was a lifelong feminist—and a vocal advocate of women’s entitlement to vote—but Barton would write: “If the door be not wide enough to admit us all at once—and one must wait—then I am willing….I am willing to stand back and see the old… slave…[go] through before me—while I stand with head uncovered….”
I would add that although the experiences at Andersonville troubled Barton deeply, she never stopped treating people the same in all regions of the country. Her office of missing men searched for Southerners as well as Union men. And when she directed the Red Cross, every relief field but one that she worked on was in a Southern state.