'The angel of the battlefield'
"In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield." - Dr. James Dunn, surgeon at the Battle of Antietam
Clara Barton, who delivered bandages and lanterns to field hospitals and tended to the fallen during the Civil War, is honored with a monument and plaque, above, at Antietam National Battlefield. (By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer / September 7, 2012)
It was at the Battle of Antietam that Barton, who was to become known as the Angel of the Battlefield and who would go on to found the American Red Cross, would have her first experience on a battlefield on which bullets were flying.
Before that, Barton campaigned for about a year, collecting supplies while she waited, before she received permission from Col. Daniel Rucker, assistant chief quartermaster for the U.S. Army in charge of the Washington Depots, to assist at battle sites, said Susan Rosenvold, superintendent of the Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office, a satellite of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.
Rucker supplied Barton with wagons and assistants, and she loaded a wagon with medical supplies, most secured from local Ladies Aid associations, and headed to Sharpsburg from her Washington, D.C., home, said Rosenvold, who recently was awarded the Save Historic Antietam Foundation (SHAF) Sesquicentennial Award for Scholarship. She is conducting research to try to determine in what areas of the battlefield Barton might have worked during the Sept. 17, 1862, Battle of Antietam.
By the time she arrived at Antietam, the battle, which began at dawn, had been raging for about six hours.
"Arriving at the northern edge of the infamous 'Cornfield' at about noon, Clara Barton watched as harried surgeons dressed the soldiers' wounds with corn husks," according to the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov. "Army medical supplies were far behind the fast-moving troops at Antietam Battlefield. Miss Barton handed over to grateful surgeons a wagon load of bandages and other medical supplies that she had personally collected over the past year."
Rosenvold said although there is no proof, she believes the Pry House would have been Barton's first stop, where she would check in with the medical director, Dr. James Dunn. The Pry House was Maj. Gen. George McClellan's headquarters and also served as the medical headquarters.
Rosenvold said she was "pretty confident" Barton was at an East Woods cornfield on the day of the battle. Most likely, she left her wagons at the Samuel Poffenberger farm and went to search for wounded in the cornfield, which had the highest casualty rate.
"She wanted to go straight to where the fighting was the hottest," Rosenvold said.
A well-documented account describes Barton holding up the head of a fallen soldier to offer him a drink when she felt a slight movement in the fabric of her sleeve. The bullet that passed through her sleeve hit the soldier in the chest, ending his life. Rosenvold thinks that most likely happened in the East Woods cornfield.
"She had several close calls with bullets. She never flinched or seemed anxious on the battlefield," Rosenvold said.
"I positively conclude that Miss Barton's wagons were at the Samuel Poffenberger farm by sometime mid-morning on into the evening of the Battle," Rosenvold said.
"Undaunted, the unlikely figure in her bonnet, red bow and dark skirt moved on — and on, and on," according to an account on the NPS website. "Working nonstop until dark, Miss Barton comforted the men and assisted the surgeons with their work. When night fell, the surgeons were stymied again — this time by lack of light. But Miss Barton produced some lanterns from her wagon of supplies, and the thankful doctors went back to work."
It was at this battle that Barton was first called "Angel of the Battlefield," taken from this quote from Dr. James Dunn, a surgeon at the Battle of Antietam: "In my feeble estimation, General McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield."
Rosenvold said that based on Barton's written descriptions and eyewitness accounts from soldiers' diaries, she provided care for several days after the Battle of Antietam.
Historians agree that after the battle, Barton ended up at a hospital on the Samuel Poffenberger farm, working day and night.
"As far as I can tell so far, she was there about three days," Rosenvold said.
"She was very heavily engaged in providing comfort. She was not a real nurse and didn't consider herself a nurse."