Clara Barton Surmounts The Faithlessness Of Union Officers
It was not only doctors and nurses who were, at times, incompetent but army officers as well. At least so Clara Barton often thought. She was a strong-minded woman, and a bit inclined to think the worst of her superiors and associates. When the war broke out Miss Barton was working in the patent Office in Washington. Deeply moved by the distress of the soldiers after First Bull Run she wrote a letter to the Worcester (Massachusetts) Spy asking for food, clothing, and bandages for the soldiers. Provisions poured in-and she had found her mission. Never formally associated either with the Sanitary Commission or, except for a brief interlude, with the army, she conducted something of a one-woman relief organization. She carried on her beneficent activities with the Army of the Potomac, the Army of the James, around Charleston, and in and around Washington. After the war she was the moving spirit in the establishment of the American Red Cross, and for over tzventy years its director.
This excerpt comes from her war diary.
No one has forgotten the heart-sickness which spread over the entire country as the busy wires flashed the dire tidings of the terrible destitution and suffering of the wounded of the Wilderness whom I attended as they lay in Fredericksburg. But you may never have known how many hundredfold of these ills were augmented by the conduct of improper, heartless, unfaithful officers in the immediate command of the city and upon whose actions and indecisions depended entirely the care, food, shelter, comfort, and lives of that whole city of wounded men. One of the highest officers there has since been convicted a traitor. And another, a little dapper captain quartered with the owners of one of the finest mansions in the town, boasted that he had changed his opinion since entering the city the day before; that it was in fact a pretty hard thing for refined people like the people of Fredericksburg to be compelled to open their homes and admit these dirty, lousy, common soldiers," and that he was not going to compel it.
This I heard him say, and waited until I saw him make his words good, till I saw, crowded into one old sunken hotel, lying helpless upon its bare, wet, bloody floors, five hundred fainting men hold up their cold, bloodless, dingy hands, as I passed, and beg me in Heaven's name for a cracker to keep them from starving (and I had none); or to give them a cup that they might have something to drink water from, if they could get it (and I had no cup and could get none); till I saw two hundred six-mule army wagons in a line, ranged down the street to headquarters, and reaching so far out on the Wilderness road that I never found the end of it; every wagon crowded with wounded men, stopped, standing in the rain and mud, wrenched back and forth by the restless, hungry animals all night from four o'clock in the afternoon till eight next morning and how much longer I, know not. The dark spot in the mud under many a wagon, told only too plainly where some Poo fellow's life had dripped out in those dreadful hours.
I remembered one man who would set it right, if he knew it, who possessed the power and who would believe me if I told him I commanded immediate conveyance back to Belle Plain. With difficulty I obtained it, and four stout horses with a light army wagon took me ten miles at an unbroken gallop, through field and swamp and stumps and mud to Belle Plain and a steam tug at once to Washington. Landing at dusk I sent for Henry Wilson, chairman of the Military Committee of the Senate. A messenger brought him at eight, saddened and appalled like every other patriot in that fearful hour, at the weight of woe under which the Nation staggered, groaned, and wept.
He listened to the story of suffering and faithlessness, and hurried from my presence, with lips compressed and face like ashes. At ten he stood in the War Department. They could not credit his report. He must have been deceived by some frightened villain. No official report of unusual suffering had reached them. Nothing had been called for by the military authorities commanding Fredericksburg.
Mr. Wilson assured them that the officers in trust there were not to be relied upon. They were faithless, overcome by the blandishments of the wily inhabitants. Still the Department doubted. It was then that he proved that my confidence in his firmness was not misplaced, as, facing his doubters he replies: "One of two things will have to be done-either you will send some one to-night with the power to investigate and correct the abuses of our wounded men at Fredericksburg, or the Senate will send some one tomorrow."
This threat recalled their scattered senses.
At two o'clock in the morning the Quartermastcr-General and staff galloped to the 6th Street wharf under orders; at ten they were in Fredericksburg. At noon the wounded men were fed from the food of the city and the houses were opened to the "dirty, lousy soldiers" of the Union Army.
Both railroad and canal were opened. In three days I returned with carloads of supplies.
No more jolting in army wagons! And every man who left Fredericksburg by boat or by car owes it to the firm decision of one man that his grating bones were not dragged ten miles across the country or left to bleach -in the sands of that city.
-The Diary of Clara Barton
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