CWRT flagge



Volume 35, No. 11 – November 2022

The President’s Message:

Linda Franke generously donated her husband’s library of Civil War books.  Bob Franke was an avid reader and learned scholar of the Civil War.  The books will be offered for sale starting in November.

Dues will be due in December.

Gerridine LaRovere

November 9, 2022 Program:

Robert Krasner will be the speaker on November 9th.  His topic will be William Barker Cushing and the Albemarle.  Commanding the USS Ellis in 1862 and USS Monticello in 1863-65, he performed brilliantly in Florida and in the Carolinas.  He destroyed the formidable Confederate ram Albemarle in a daring torpedo attack in a small boat in October 1864.  In 1865, Cushing led an heroic but doomed assault on Fort Fisher.

October 12, 2022 Program:

ClaraShe was five feet tall and weighed one hundred pounds.  She was a very proper lady and at the same time she personified women’s liberation before the term had been invented.  Her name was Clarissa Harlowe Barton.  She preferred to be called Clara.  She grew up in North Oxford, MA.  When the Civil War began, she was 39.  Those who would give her trouble would not be the South, but Northern politicians and Army officers.  Clara was very independent, unmarried by choice, and one of only a handful of women employed by the Federal government.  She was one of four women working in the Patent Office.

At first, the wounded were brought to Washington.  There were no Union Medical Department hospitals there or anywhere else.  There were a few Army post hospitals, the largest of which was the 40-bed unit at Ft. Leavenworth, KS.  The Quartermaster Department, which was responsible for constructing hospitals, was reluctant to do so on the grounds that they were expensive.  “Men need guns, not beds,” the quartermasters argued.  To be fair, leaders on both sides thought the war would not last three months.  So, why build hospitals?

Clara wanted desperately to enlist in the Army and serve the “grand old flag.”  This was impossible because she was a woman.  She knew the argument well when she penned a bit of sarcastic verse: “Women, men said would just be in the way.  They didn’t know the difference between work and play.  What did women know about war anyway.”  Clara hated that argument, all restriction on women, and thought them entitled to the same rights as men.  She turned her back on the idea of marriage and motherhood as the female ideal.  She had become a single working woman, had taught school, and had established the first public school in Bordentown, NJ.  Then she convinced male bureaucrats that she was competent and mature enough to work in the Patent Office.

She knew she would make a splendid soldier.  Thanks to her father and older brother, she was a superb horsewoman and a dead shot with a revolver.  She could consistently hit the bulls-eye of a target fifty feet away.  She was physically strong and could drive a wagon train.  Her father always told her she was more boy than girl.  Since childhood she had idolized her warrior father.  He had trained her in military tactics.  She had plenty of war toys, but no dolls – not even one.  Clara realized some women were getting in uniform by masquerading as men, but Clara wouldn’t do that.  While treating her like a son Captain Barton required that she act like a “proper little lady.”

By June of 1861 there were 75,000 troops in Washington living in crowded and often filthy conditions.  Seeing them short of rations Clara and her friends bought and cooked food to distribute.  After the battle of Bull Run Clara wanted to be on the battlefield to care for the wounded.  Most of the officers and politicians believed that the battlefield was out of bounds for a woman.  So, she and patriotic ladies of Massachusetts filled boxes with food, wine, and medical supplies.  After filling her room, she rented a warehouse.

To bypass the brass, Clara used a powerful friend, Senator Henry Wilson, the head of the Military Affairs Committee.  He recognized the value of Clara’s services.  In March of 1862 Clara went to Boston to see Governor John Andrews.  She convinced him that each state should establish in Washington a distribution center to which supplies could be sent to be used by state troops.  Andrews made it happen so the center soon opened.

In March of 1862 Clara wanted to join Burnside’s division to nurse the injured.  Her father commanded her to go.  Gov. Andrews recommended that she go.  However, Burnsides turned down her request.  It would not be the only time she would be denied.  Four months later Clara wanted to donate supplies to the army of General John Pope in Fredericksburg.  She called on Colonel Daniel H. Rucker, head of the Quartermaster Depot.  Knowing of his reputation as a rude man, Clara was afraid he would send her away.  “Well, what do you want?” he asked.  Her composure crumbled and she started to cry.  “What’s the matter?” he asked, afraid he might have hurt her feelings.  “Don’t cry” he said more softly.  “Come sit down.  Now tell me all about it.  What is it you want?”  Clara stammered “I want to go to the front.  I have some things I want to take to the soldiers but I need wagons and a pass to get them there.”  When he asked where it all was Clara played her trump card.  “In my house and in three warehouses.”  Rucker promptly wrote the order for all the transportation she needed.

On September 17, 1862 at the battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in US history, Clara saw war close up.  She was on the battlefield in a barn filled with wounded soldiers.  Then, in a farmhouse where surgeons operated with frantic speed on the injured, Clara arrived with her supplies just as the doctors were using corn leaves to bandage raw wounds.  Clara replaced the corn leaves with clean linen.  By 4:30 or 5:00 PM the bloodiest single day of combat in American military history was over.  Over 23,000 were killed, wounded, or missing.  At Sam Poffenberger’s farm house the chief surgeon was still operating.  Clara toiled at his side.  She was proud that she had stood her ground during the cannonade while all the male assistants had run away.  So much for the popular belief that a woman would only be in the way on the battlefield.

Clara spent January 1863 in Washington gathering stores for the next campaign.  After her work in Fredericksburg and Antietam had become a celebrity.  Officers saluted her on the sidewalks.  Soldiers called on her to pay their respects.  On March 30th Clara and her brother David, an assistant army quartermaster, left to travel to Hilton Head, SC where David would be stationed and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had designated Clara to do nursing.  Although Clara led a rough life on and near the battlefields, she never lost her desire to remain feminine.  Arriving in Hilton Head she wrote a cousin to send her some “Mills Mint Specific” for her hair.  She explained “Being out in the field and looking at battles dries out my hair and makes it fall.”  Could Cousin Ned express a bottle to her?

Although Clara never married, she met the love of her life on Hilton Head Island.  He was LTC John J Elwell, Chief Quartermaster of the Department of the South.  He was a courtly gentleman in his early forties, tall and well built.  He had practiced law, medicine, and been a professor of both.  He was also married, with a loyal wife named Nancy, and children awaiting him back in Cleveland.

When she met him, Elwell was bedridden with a broken leg.  Clara took good care of him.  At some point he came down with yellow fever and it seemed that he might die.  Clara scarcely left his bedside.  Her expert nursing helped him to recover.  Elwell fell in love with Clara on this tropical island.  He adored everything about her, as he admitted – “the glow of the eye, the flush of the cheek, the strength of step.”  They read poetry together and had discussions about literature.  He admitted he loved her “all the law allows.”  Elwell and Clara wrote each other intimate notes.  He called her “Birdie” and “My Pet.”  He asked if he could visit her “nest.”  In the bungalow where they were staying his room was next to hers so it was easy to be discreet.  In spite of their feelings for each other Clara made no effort to win Elwell from his wife, nor did he offer to leave her for Clara.

At the midpoint in the war Clara expressed her thoughts about the need for military schools for women.  In a note to Elwell, she wrote “If the United States desires to maintain military supremacy for future wars, it ought to establish military academies for women – for the daughters who would one day become the mothers of its armies – they should be active, brave, strong, fearless and capable of understanding the plan of a campaign.  Mothers must become soldiers too for the sake of my country and its future.” For the rest of her life Clara continued to be committed to this aspiration. 

By the end of the third year of the war Clara was 41 years old.  She dreaded growing old and gray which was why she dyed the strands in her hair and fretted about the physical toll on her work in the field.  There were bags under her eyes, lines in her face, and she had lost weight.  She was so sensitive to her appearance that she threw away two photographs of herself that she considered unflattering, regardless of the expense of having them taken at the famous photographer Matthew Brady’s studio.  In later years she would lie about her age.

In late 1863 Clara became tired of disagreements with the military authorities in South Carolina.  She felt unappreciated.  So, she went to Massachusetts to visit her family.  Then she moved on to Washington to check on supplies collected for her work with the wounded.  She was stunned at how much Washington had changed.  Its population had swelled to 180,000 by the ever-expanding wartime bureaucracy.  One of the most startling sights was the number of “government girls” toiling in government offices.  Before the war Clara and a handful of other female workers in the Patent Office were the only women employed in government buildings in

Washington and they were regarded as a novelty.  With the outbreak of the war the Republicans officially opened government employment to women, first as clerks and money counters in the Treasury Department.  By 1864 they were found in the War Office and the Department of the Interior. 

Not everything Clara saw pleased her.  Pigs and cows roamed freely on the sidewalks and the streets.  Here and there dead horses lay rotting in the winter sun.  She was appalled at the huge population of prostitutes in the city.  According to the Washington Star there were some 5,000 of them, not to mention 2,500 more in nearby Alexandria.  With 25,000 soldiers stationed around Washington, enterprising madams found a business bonanza.  They joked about offering soldiers and politicians “horizontal refreshments.”  Officers were catered to in “Fancy Houses.”  Their horses could be seen tied up in a straight line in front of the buildings.  The sleazy side of Washington did not serve to lift her spirits.  But she did not quarrel with entertainments designed for Washington’s better sort.

During the winter of 1864 dancing was the rage.  The National Hotel and Willard’s Hotel held “monster hops” for whirling couples.  Only a few blocks from Clara’s rooming house a new theater opened.  On Saturday nights pleasure seekers flocked there.  In April of the following year, it would become the most famous theater in the country – not because of its presentations but because of the assassination of the president.  On March 8th Clara recorded an electrifying event that had all of Washington astir.  “General Ulysses S. Grant arrived in town to take command as Lt. General of the US Army.”  He would change the course of the war and in so doing return the status of the country to that of one nation.

In the winter and early spring of 1864 Clara’s prospects looked distressingly bleak.  The Army of the Potomac was in winter quarters and did not need her stores of supplies.  The U.S. Sanitary Commission, the Commissary, and Quartermaster departments kept the Army plentifully supplied.  Independent relief workers like Clara seemed to be obsolete.  She felt painfully depressed.  In May things changed when the Battle of the Wilderness took place.  The numbers of dead and wounded for the North and the South were horrendous.  The northern wounded were taken to Fredericksburg where only 30 to 40 surgeons were there to care for the 7,000 to 8,000 wounded.  There was a dire shortage of food, tents, medical supplies – everything.

The emergency was so great that Secretary of War Stanton and Surgeon General Barnes handed out passes to anyone who could help at Fredericksburg.  So, Clara soon embarked for Fredericksburg.  She was on her way to the field again.  She felt a surge of exhilaration.  She felt her life was worth something to mankind.  The suffering in Fredericksburg was the worst Clara had ever seen – 14,000 wounded were packed into a town whose prewar population numbered a little more than 5,000.  Clara made a rush trip to Washington and saw her friend Senator Henry Wilson.  She explained the situation such that by 10:00 AM the next day Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs and his staff were in Fredericksburg.

Without Clara’s testimony the suffering would have continued unabated.  Shortages were so severe a patient was lucky to get a cup of coffee and a single cracker a day.  Soldiers were in rows in warehouses on muddy blankets soaked with their own blood.  Some of the poor souls stayed in the wagons they had been brought in on with no food or water.  Many needlessly died.  Clara was furious.  Why were the Union wounded not quartered in private residences and fed from the food stocked in the resident’s cellar?  She investigated and found that Rebel homes and grocery stores were shut tight – the haughty occupants barricaded within.  The townsfolk refused to sell or surrender anything to the hated Yankees. 

Clara blamed the Union officers.  A dapper captain of 21, who was billeted in one of the great mansions in town told her “It was in fact a pretty hard thing for refined people like the citizens of Fredericksburg to be compelled to open their houses and admit these dirty, lousy, common soldiers and he was not going to compel it.”  To Clara this was not just unspeakable; it was treason.  She made a public statement on behalf of the suffering and 500 copies of her plea were sent to the press to be spread nationwide.

After the disaster at Cold Harbor, Clara arrived at City Point, Grant’s headquarters.  Clara never felt more needed or more at home.  She was functioning as the unofficial matron of the 10th Corps’ hospital – unofficial because she had no government appointment and received no pay. 

In February 1865 Clara went to Annapolis where former prisoners of war were brought after exchange.  Clara wanted to start a “missing soldier” service and asked the officers of the base for help.  One COL Root declared himself unimpressed and disapproved of her work.  Not willing to let it be, she went to Washington to meet with Lincoln.  She could find no one to escort her to the White House so she decided to go alone.  This was not a socially acceptable thing to do.  However, she could not find her gloves and without gloves she just could not go.  She just sent a letter.  Eventually, a letter arrived back signed A. Lincoln.  Back she went to Annapolis where no one could find a place for her to work.  Over a month later she finally got a tent.  After Camp Parole was closed Clara expanded her work to include all missing men from the Army.  President Johnson, who had been in office for six weeks, authorized the publishing her lists of missing soldiers.

In July 1865 Clara left for the notorious Andersonville prison with a Union officer who had survived the place.  She once again had to deal with male arrogance in the form of CPT James Moore.  While boarding the ship to start the trip this hard-boiled officer proclaimed for all to hear “What in Hell does she want to go for?”  Clara stayed in her cabin for most of the trip.  When they arrived, Moore ignored Clara’s offers to help.  At night, after the team had placed slabs for the dead, she verified the inscriptions.  This had some impact on Moore as he gave Clara the honor of raising the flag in the cemetery for the 12,461 buried there.  Clara wrote “Surely this was not the gate of Hell, but Hell itself.”

In 1866 Clara took to the lecture circuit, reliving her war experience in front of an audience.  She was a gifted speaker.  One journalist stated flatly “We have never seen and audience more interested or attentive.”  She was able to get the same fees as Ralph Waldo Emerson – 75 to 100 dollars per lecture.  When she was in Cleveland, John Elwell called on her with his wife.  He was delighted to see Clara and over the following years wrote her passionate and tender letters recalling their time together in 1863.

During another address Clara recalled Antietam and the bullet ridden farmhouse where she delivered desperately needed supplies.  She explained how the surgeon in charge had toiled among the dead and dying all that bloody day, and how she found him at night slumped at a table, in despair because the single candle burning beside him was all the light, he had for a thousand wounded men.  Clara gave him four boxes of candles, but the surgeon was too overwhelmed to tell her thanks.  As she spoke a gentleman rose from his chair, leaped on the stage, and told the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, if I never have acknowledged that favor, I will do it now.  I am that surgeon.”

In 1881 Clara founded the American Red Cross.  In 1904 she resigned as its head.  In 1912, as she lay dying at the age of 90, her thoughts quite possibly leaped back to that war in which her life’s work had begun – back to that troubling time in 1861 and early 1862 when she had wanted so desperately to serve her country but had been held back by society’s restrictions on women going to the battlefield.  Her last words were: “Let me go, let me go.”


Last changed: 10/28/22