Bringing Civil War Nurse Clara Barton to Life

Dec 18, 2014

Civil War nurse and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton
Credit Matthew Brady / Leslie Goddard

In 1861 Clara Barton saw soldiers marching off to the Civil War – and returning with injuries that had barely been treated.

It turned out the US Army lacked even basic medical supplies. So Barton went to the front herself, risking her life to deliver necessities and dress wounds. Illinois actor and historian Leslie Goddard will portray Barton, who went on to found the American Red Cross, Friday at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. She told WMUK that Barton's influence on nursing and crisis relief can still be felt.

On Barton saving lives after the Battle of Antietam

She arrived at the battlefield and was at a house that – they were so low on supplies they had actually taken cornhusks from the nearby farm fields and were using cornhusks as bandages. And she talked to one of the surgeons there and he said, 'we have probably a thousand wounded men in this house right here, probably five hundred of them will die by morning if they don’t get some kind of help. And the only light I have is this two-inch stub of candle.' And she said to him, 'Doctor, look.' And she had wagons filled with boxes of candles, lanterns, rolled bandages, soup to be prepared, all kinds of things.

On Barton being a logistics person as much as a nurse

Actually she was always surprised that people referred to her as a nurse because she always said, you know, she was really more of a supply person. She was more about getting food and bandages and things like soap to the soldiers and writing letters for them and that kind of thing.

Leslie Goddard as Clara Barton.
Credit Leslie Goddard

On Barton breaking ground for women in nursing

At the time it was very unusual for a woman to work as a nurse and I think that’s one of the hardest things to get people to understand, that there’s a real concern about women working in hospitals and among wounded men. Because of course you know being a nurse requires oftentimes bathing men, and especially for  single woman to be bathing a man with no shirt on was really a little worrisome.

But the problem was that the nurses that were available were often recuperating soldiers during the initial years of the war and that’s not necessarily the person that’s going to be most dedicated, especially if it’s someone who has been very sick and is weak and still recovering. So Clara Barton was not by any means the only woman who worked as a nurse. But she and the others - there was some incredible work by nuns during the war - they all really opened up the idea that women can be nurses.

On the newly-formed International Red Cross asking Barton to found an American chapter, which meant convincing the reluctant US government to support the Geneva Convention

It took her until 1881 to found the American Red Cross and not until 1882 did the United States sign the Geneva Convention, so the American Red Cross officially became part of the International Red Cross. And she did it in a really clever way.

The United States after the Civil War was really worried about another war. They felt that signing the Geneva Convention would possibly get them involved in international disputes and possibly war; they wanted to be out of all that. She got the United States involved by arguing that – this is so funny to say this to people today, but she said, you know, 'this organization can help not just in times of war, it can help in times of natural disasters like floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.'

That was what really convinced Chester Arthur to sign the Geneva Convention and it became what the Red Cross is really best known for.