“Clara Barton: Person of the Year 1865” by Elizabeth Brown Pryor (Part V – final)

Read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here   

Barton, however, was undaunted by the War Department’s reactionary ways and she went on to address another problem.  And that was the treatment of prisoners. Could not—should not—she asked—there be a code for prison conditions, agreed by all parties?  Could there not at least be a minimum standard for food, shelter, and general health of captive men?  Were the horrors of Andersonville and other atrocious prisons to be clucked over for a few years and then be repeated?  This was a radical idea to men who still believed the rough handling of prisoners was not just normal, but perhaps a justified expression of hostility to the enemy.  The treatment of prisoners hadn’t received a great deal of attention during the war. The North had been appalled at news that rebels shot US Colored Troops, rather than take them prisoners, and Lincoln had stopped prisoner exchanges as a result.  (Some people claimed this was responsible for the ill-treatment at places like Andersonville, as the South had fewer and fewer resources to care for the growing band of captives.) There was also an attempt to delineate a real code of conduct for armies—what many of you know as the Lieber Code—but that code really only dealt with the status of captured soldiers.  (That was a tricky problem, as Lincoln wanted to make the political point that Confederate soldiers were not enemies, but countrymen in rebellion, and their status as belligerents was somewhat confused.) What the Lieber Code did not do was set out regulations for the humanitarian treatment of captives.

Clara Barton proposed that a standard be set for prison conditions and that it be subject to inspection and verification by representatives of both sides.  She went so far as to make a list of minimum considerations that a prisoner should expect.  (And they were minimal—shelter, a blanket, one meal a day, water.  As I mentioned, Barton was no airy idealist.)  Still this was far more than what she had witnessed at Andersonville. Hitchcock, again, agreed with this.  But once more the sluggish military bureaucracy was resistant to change.  Recall that Lincoln and his military staff declined to sign even the Geneva Convention of 1864, which did not cover prisoners, but did guarantee neutrality for civilians, like Barton, who were caring for the wounded. What Barton wanted to see was a real and lasting policy—not a set of disjointed reactions to incidents as they arose.  She wanted to see a set of expectations, a code for civilized behavior toward the most vulnerable persons in wartime—which included prisoners.  Quite simply, she wanted a retreat from barbarity.  But Barton’s proposal for the fair treatment of prisoners languished at the War Department, through indifference, delay, and a failure of vision.

Clara Barton, however, was a visionary and she kept her sights on the future.  She did not drop the plan she devised in 1865 for treatment of captives in wartime.  Instead she continued to refine it and lobby for its acceptance.  Ultimately this far-sighted and far-reaching idea, scribbled on little scraps of paper in her tent at Andersonville—which you can still see among her documents—ultimately this proposal was incorporated into the international laws of war.  She presided over the meetings of the Geneva Convention that considered it, and her name is attached to it. (Those interested in exploring the Barton’s role might want to visit the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, Switzerland.  They think highly of Miss Barton there—there is an entire room devoted to her—perhaps a more fitting memorial than the rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike that we have named for her.)


The third pathbreaking effort Barton made in 1865 was to devise a system of medical service that could be organized before any hostilities started.  Her idea was that once the shooting began, it was too late to start collecting supplies or recruit appropriate personnel. She wanted something that would be ready to go whenever it was needed.  This, again, was in sharp contrast to the experience of both sides in the Civil War, which had to scramble to put together medical arrangements while the crisis was upon them.  The first thing Barton proposed was that warehouses be built where supplies could be collected and stored, so that they could quickly be pulled off the shelves and made available.  Her own house was living proof of this.  During the war Barton had solicited medical supplies as well as distributed them. She had lived with piles of blankets and bandages and bottles of brandy stacked around her.  (If you visit her 1865 offices on 7th Street you will see how this worked—outwardly you see a parlor and desks and business equipment—and so forth—but she built a false ceiling above them that when opened was a kind of Aladdin’s cave, holding every sort of medicine and hospital stores, all clearly labeled, and ready to be used.  It’s a wonderful evocation of Barton’s personality and her habit of completely integrating her life and her work.) Her idea was that the government could use this model on a vast scale, insuring its ability to instantly react to a military crisis.

However…warehouses filled with medical supplies were not enough for Barton.  She wanted to have personnel in place—on call—to be brought in to work at a moment’s notice.  And she wanted them trained.  Barton shared the War Department’s skepticism about well-meaning amateurs pouring onto battlefields or into hospital wards.  A lot of them, she said, were just in the way.  But she didn’t think everyone needed a medical degree to be useful.  Her idea was to have civilian men and women schooled in the procedures needed to deal with emergency cases; trained in the proper way to bandage wounds, or use a tourniquet; familiar with symptoms and medical language so they could respond quickly to a doctor’s requests; knowledgeable about medicines of the day.  She wanted them capable enough—and experienced enough—that they could leap into the breach, at least temporarily, before professional medical help arrived.   In short, Barton wanted the volunteers to be “qualified.”

Then she wanted something more.  She wanted each trained worker to have a small kit, made up of the most commonly needed supplies for an urgent situation.  In 1865 she put a knife, bandages, brandy, a salve she made from laudanum and lanoline, matches, and smelling salts in her own kit.  She wanted those kits to be handy and she wanted them to be portable.  She took one with her to Andersonville and she required them for her staff during the years she headed the Red Cross. Later she named them “First Aid” kits.

Army men, of course, initially rejected these notions.  Some of the suggestions—e.g.—the idea of garnering stores before a battle began—had also been proposed in the first Geneva Convention—though Barton had not heard of it in 1865 (and recall that the US had declined to agree to the convention.) The army said they did not have time or space to collect supplies; they wanted to discourage volunteers, not train them; they thought any treatment, even in an urgent situation ought to be handled by surgeons.  Today, of course, the military has embraced all of Barton’s ideas, but they only adopted them after they suffered dreadful—and unnecessary—casualties in the Spanish-American and First World Wars.

In 1865 Barton shared her thoughts with doctors she had worked with and they liked them.  One of those surgeons, Dr. James Dunn, looked at this remarkably advanced  program of fixing problems before they happened—a program that would revolutionize emergency assistance—and sent these words to his wife:  “Now what do you think of Miss Barton?” he asked.  “In my feeble estimation, all the generals—with all their laurels—sink into insignificance beside her, the true heroine of the age.”

And I would note that in her “spare time” in 1865, Barton corresponded with Frederick Douglass about voting rights and living conditions for freedmen, lobbied for the 13th amendment in her home state, was introduced to Susan B. Anthony and joined the suffrage movement, and wrote her first lecture, called “Work and Incidents of Army Life.”  (She was not the only woman lecturer, but they were still rare at this time.  She hated public speaking and only did it because she was broke. She had spent all of her money on the search for missing men.)  But once she took the podium she made it a point to demand—and receive—fees equal to the male lecturers.  She became a very popular speaker and ultimately was earning the same money as Mark Twain.  And that was something else she started in 1865.

It’s called leadership.  The ability to see around corners, to resolve trouble before it begins; to shed old ways, and find new solutions to persistent problems; to remain unsatisfied with winning a battle and instead work to prevent another one.  To do more than conceive of reform, but have the personal force to put it in place. This is a different brand of leadership from the physical courage soldiers need to risk their lives on a battlefield—but then Clara Barton had shown she could do that too.

She was, quite simply, one of the greatest Americans who has ever lived.  And that was not because of what she did at Antietam or Fort Wagner, remarkable as she was in those situations.  It is what Barton did in1865, when she conceived an entirely new way of doing things—that has survived to this day and affected lives around the globe.  That is what made her a world-class citizen.  That is why we honor her today.

You know, one of Barton’s little quirks was that she liked to write poetry. Most of it is very, very bad—it rarely rises above the level of doggerel.  But she wrote one little jewel about her war work called “The Women Who Went to the Field.”  And at the end of it she asks the question “What would she do if war came again.”  Well, Clara, says, “the scarlet cross (the red cross) floats where all was blank then.”  But what would she do if war came again?  I would bind on my brassard and march to the fray/ [she says]  And the man liveth not who could say to me ‘nay.’/ I would stand with you now, as I stood with you then.”  (“I would stand with you now, as I stood with you then.”)  For everyone who has assumed that each life was valuable in the service of the US; that no one would be forgotten or abandoned, or simply crossed off a list; for anyone who has worn a dog tag, or understood that every soldier would be accounted for; for any African American who has looked for respect or fought for civil rights; for anyone who has been taken prisoner—or known someone taken prisoner—and presumed that there were civilized standards of treatment; for any woman who has stood at a lectern as I do today or fought for equal pay for equal work; for anyone who has believed that the wounded or crippled or distressed should be treated equally, no matter what their political views—and for anyone who has ever opened a little box marked “First Aid” and wrapped a bandage around a child’s bleeding finger—well —Clara Barton stands with you now as she stood with you then.  And that was 1865—for Clarissa Harlowe Barton.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s