The sixth season of the Levy Lecture Series began January 11 as storyteller and actress Megan Wells introduced audiences to the life and times of Clara Barton, widely known as the founder of the American Red Cross. Less known or recognized are Ms. Barton’s other accomplishments as a teacher, nurse, missing persons searcher and humanitarian.
For these dramatizations, Wells writes original scripts derived from her own research on her subjects. Her Clara, wearing a beautiful hoop dress appropriate to the late 18th century, enters the room, greets her audience and begins to tell her life story, beginning with her birth on Christmas Day 1821 in north Oxford, Massachusetts, a “gift” to her parents and four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. The sister closest to her age was 11 years older.
Clara’s relationship with her mother was distant and somewhat strained. Clara’s mother, Sarah, thought she was “done” with childbirth and parenting work. She was exhausted emotionally and physically. Her father David adored and adored her, as did her siblings.
Clara was largely raised by her eldest sister. Her sisters taught her the “female skills,” such as using herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of food, tending fires, sewing, braiding hair, and so on. She learned to ride horses, climb trees, and play a ball game (later called baseball) from her brothers. Unabashedly a tomboy, she later described her experience as “being raised as both a daughter and a son.” She was terribly shy and hardly ever spoke in front of others, but she paid close attention, listened carefully and observed every detail. At school she excelled.
Storyteller and actress Megan Wells portrays Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. (Provided photo, retouched)
Clara especially adored her older brother David. When Clara was 10 years old, David and others built a new barn for a cousin. David climbed onto the structure’s framework to tie off one of the corners. David slipped and fell, suffering a serious head injury.
The doctors who treated him did what they could to bring his fever down and improve his condition, but after a few weeks they were at a loss. David was still bedridden, weak and running a fever, despite constant nursing and the use of leeches to ‘bleed’ the patient dry.
Clara asked to stay with David and take care of him. She had observed everything the doctors were doing to treat David and was confident that she could maintain the same standard of care. After much discussion, her parents agreed. Both parents assumed David would die in the coming weeks and didn’t want him to be alone.
Clara took care of David for months. Gradually, David recovered. When he was able to sit up and walk with help, his doctors sent him to a rehabilitation center for three months to regain his strength. He made a full and complete recovery. It had taken two years.
Clara received her teaching license at the age of 17. She was a good teacher and knew how to handle and deal with restless farm boys, despite her petite stature and being only 5 feet tall. With a contribution from her brother Stephen, she founded the first free public school in New Jersey, which made it possible for children from poor families to learn to read and write. Over the course of two years, Clara and a friend taught hundreds of children. Enthusiastic city officials approved the construction of a new school, which they believed should be run by one man. They bypassed the woman who founded, funded, and ran the school; Clara’s position was demoted and her salary reduced. She resigned offended.
Her next move took her to the nation’s capital in 1855; She was the first woman hired as a patent clerk for the federal government and the first to be paid the same salary as male patent clerks. Her colleagues resented her presence and were verbally cruel and abusive. Her superior helped her as best he could, but in 1858 she was dismissed from her position for political reasons with the connivance of President James Buchanan. She returned to her family’s home in Massachusetts and occupied herself with other things. It shouldn’t be the last time she was underestimated just because of her gender.
In 1861, with the possibility of war between the North and the South looming over the nation, President Abraham Lincoln was leading the country, and Clara returned to Washington hoping to be reinstated by the US Patent Office.
In April of that year, war came to Baltimore. After the Baltimore riots, the wounded and unharmed Union soldiers were packed onto a train and sent back to Washington. Clara’s strong sense of duty compelled her to go there to help, and she saw that many of the returning soldiers were boys she knew from her apprenticeships in Massachusetts. They were left without food, extra clothing or other essentials, and some were injured. It was clear that the country was unprepared to deal with the aftermath of the devastation caused by war.
This event shook Clara awake. She wrote to her friends and family asking for donations of bandages, clothing, towels, and other supplies for Union soldiers. The response was so overwhelming that over time her small house was no longer big enough to hold the surplus and she had to rent a warehouse to store all the donations.
As the war intensified, federal buildings in Washington were converted into hospitals and convalescent wards. Clara helped take care of as many soldiers as possible. This should be the beginning of the defining theme of her life, her concern, her passion. She saw a need and she jumped at the opportunity to fill it.
Clara recognized early on that the long distance between “the bullet and the hospital” contributed to the high death rate among soldiers. She campaigned strongly to be allowed to go to the battlefields to set up makeshift hospitals. She was finally allowed to. In her long skirts, she carried much-needed supplies to nearby places where overworked surgeons were hastily amputating limbs and cauterizing wounds in hopes of saving young lives.
Clara was called “the angel of the battlefield”. It was arduous, dangerous, dirty and unsanitary work, but it had to be done and it was done admirably. She strolled through the muddy and bloody fields, comforting and offering care. She changed bandages, cleaned bodies, and helped provide food and water, often at great personal risk.
As the end of the war neared, Clara became aware of the plight of the missing and unmarked dead. She was known as a soldier’s friend, and disturbed parents wrote to her asking for help in finding out what had happened to their loved ones. Clara wrote to Lincoln asking to set up a “Missing Soldiers Bureau” where families could send their inquiries and volunteers would try to help. Lincoln agreed to the request, and between 1865 and 1868 Clara and her team of volunteers sought out and notified the families of more than 22,000 soldiers.
Clara brought the idea of an American Red Cross back to the United States after learning about the International Committee of the Red Cross and the 1864 Geneva Convention while vacationing in Europe.
She founded the American Red Cross in 1881. Many Americans doubted the need for such an organization, naively believing that the Civil War was the last war. Clara knew the Red Cross would be invaluable in the face of natural disasters, a concept put to the test in 1889 with the Johnstown, Pennslyvania flood that killed more than 2,200 people.
As Wells portrayed Clara’s professional growth and growing social awareness, one could almost forget that it wasn’t actually Clara who was speaking to the viewer. The Levy audience loved it. At the end of Megan’s dramatization, Donna M. Czarnecki said, “Bravo!! It was an outstanding performance and I learned so much.” Paula Cofresi-Silverstein was equally entranced, writing in the comments: “Phenomenal. Brought tears to my eyes. Very touching. Thanks very much!”
The webinar can be viewed on the Levy Senior Center Foundation YouTube channel. Levy Lectures are always free, but registration is required.