The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Fall 1863

Posted on:
Last year, a college approached me about coming to speak this past spring about Clara Barton’s experience at the Battle of Gettysburg.  I felt bad in having to inform the caller that Miss Barton was not at the battle.  She had gone to South Carolina, where her brother David received orders for duty after Senator Henry Wilson applied for a commission to make him a Captain in the quartermaster department, in hopes he could help his sister in the field.  Mr. Barton received the commission, but not an assignment to Miss Barton’s favorite army – the Army of the Potomac.  He received orders for the Army of the South, headquartered at Morris Island, SC.  
While Miss Barton missed the Gettysburg Campaign, she was present and working for the Siege of Charleston and attack on Fort Wagner made famous in the movie Glory.  After the attack she became very ill and neglected both her diary and letter writing for some time.  Just when I thought I’d begin posting her diary entries I found that none were available.  Before she became ill, however, she did write some letters, a few are quite interesting.  She wrote the following in her diary after a social event,

I moved along to the farther end of the piazza and found Mrs. D., who soon made known to me the subject of her desires.  As I suspected, the matter was hospitals. She has been visiting the hospital at this place and has become not only interested, but excited upon the subject; the clothing department she finds satisfactory, but the storeroom appears empty and a sameness prevailing through food as provided which seems to her appalling for a diet for sick men.  She states that they have no delicacies such as the country at the North are flooding hospitals with; that the food is all badly cooked, served cold, and always the same thing — dip toast, meat cooked dry, and tea without milk, perhaps once a week a potato for each man, or a baked apple.  She proposed to establish a kitchen department for the serving of proper food to these men, irrespective of the pleasure of the “Powers that Be.” She expects opposition from the surgeons in charge and Mrs. Russell, the matron appointed and stationed by Miss Dix, but thinks to commence by littles and work herself in in spite of opposition, or make report direct to Washington through Judge Holt, and other influential friends and obtain a carte blanche from Secretary Stanton to act independetly of all parties.  She wished to know if I thought it would be possible to procure supplies sufficient to carry on such a plan, and people to cook and serve if it were once established and directed properly.  She had just mailed a letter to Miss Dame calling upon her to stir people at the North and make a move if possible in the right direction.  She said General Gillmore took tea with her the evening previous and inquired with much feeling, “How are my poor boys?”  She desired me to attend church at the hospital to-morrow (Sunday) morning; not with her, but go, pass through, and judge for myself.  In the meantime the Major came in and the subject was discussed generally.  I listened attentively, gave it as my opinion that there would be no difficulty in obtaining supplies and means of paying for the preparation of them, but of the manner and feasibility of delivering and distributing them among the patients I said nothing. I had nothing to say.  I partly promised to attend church the next morning, and retired having said very little.  What I have thought is quite another thing.  I have no doubt but the patients lack many luxuries which the country at large endeavors to supply them with, and supposes they have, no doubt; but men suffer and die for the lack of the nursing and provisions of the loved ones at home.  No doubt but the stately, stupendous, and magnificent indolence of the “officers in charge” embitters the days of the poor sufferers who have become mere machines in the hands of the Government to be ruled and oppressed by puffed-up, conceited, and self-sufficient superiors in postion.  No doubt but a good, well-regulated kitchen, presided over with a little good common sense and womanly care, would change the whole aspect of things and lengthen the days of some, and brighten the last days of others of the poor sufferers within the thin wall of this hospital.  I wish it might be, but what can I do?  First it is not my province; I should be out of place there; next, Miss Dix is supreme, and her appointed nurse is matron; next, the surgeons will not brook any interference, and will, in my opinion, resent and resist the smallest effort to break over their won arrangements.  Whatothers may be able to do I am unable to conjecture, but I feel that my guns are effectually silenced.  My sympathy is not destroyed, by any means, but my confidence in my ability to accomplish anything of an alleviating character in thisdepartment is completely annihilated.  I went with all I had, to work where I thought I saw greatest need.  A man canhave no greater need than to be saved from death, and after six weeks of unremitting toil I was driven from my own tents by the selfish cupidity or stupidity of a pompous staff surgeon with a little accidental temporary authority, and I by the means thrown upon a couch of sickness, from which I barely escaped with my life.  After four weeks of suffering most intense, I rose in my weakness and repaired again to my post, and scarcely were my labors recommenced when, through the same influence or no influence brought to bear upon the General Commanding, I was made the subject of a general order, and commanded to leave the island, giving me three hours in which to pack, remove, and ship four tons of supplies with no assistance that they knew of but one old female negro cook. I complied, but was remanded toBeaufort to labor in the hospitals there. With this portion of the “order” I failed to comply, and went home to Hilton Head and wrote the Commanding General a full explanation of my position, intention, proposed labors, etc., etc., which brought a rather sharp response, calling my humanity to account for not being willing to comply with his specified request, viz. to labor in Beaufort hospitals; insisting upon the plan as gravely as if it had been a possibility to be accomplished. But for the extreme ludicrousness of the thing I should have felt hurt at the bare thought of such a charge against me and from such a quarter. The hospitals were supplied by the Sanitary Commission, Miss Dix holding supremacy over all female attendants by authority from Washington, Mrs. Landerclaiming, and endeavoring to enforce the same, and scandalizing through the Press — each hospital labeled, No Admittance, and its surgeons bristling like procupines at the bare sight of a proposed visitor. How in reason’s name was I “to labor there”? Should I prepare my food and thrust it against the outer walls, in the hope it might strengthen the patients inside? Should I tie up my bundle of clothing and creep up and deposit it on the door-step and slink away like a guilty mother, and watch afar off to see if the master of the mansion would accept or reject the “foundling”? If the Commanding General in his wisdom, when he assumed the direction of my affairs, and commanded me where to labor, had opened the doors for me to enter, and the idea would have seemed more practical. It did not occur to me at the moment how I was to effect an entrance to these hospitals, but I have since thought that I might have been expected to watch my opportunity some dark night, and STORM them, although it must be confessed that the popularity of this mode of attack was rather on the decline in this department at that time, having reached its height very soon after the middle of July.

Barton was profoundly disappointed with Gillmore’s lack of appreciation and understanding of her work, returning to Washington in January, 1864.  While transcribing this entry from Barton’s cousin’s biography of the extraordinary American woman, I realized there are many parallels to current events within our government.  Can you see them, too?
Posted in: Uncategorized
  • Clara Barton Museum on YouTube
  • -->