Angel of the Battlefield

Virtue of Compassion

There are fantastic examples of people who demonstrated the virtue of compassion over their lifetime. Stories like these are a reminder of our humanity. They help us put our own lives in context with other people we share our world. One story is the life of Clara Barton. Her story is well told with her role in helping the wounded during the American Civil War and forming the American Red Cross. Every person can learn about the virtue of compassion from the life of Clara Barton. Here are a few highlights of her story.


Clara Barton, 1904

American Civil War

Clara Barton organized the relief for the wounded when the American Civil War broke out. She recognized early for the need for an efficient organization separate from the War Department’s bureaucracy to distribute food and medical supplies to the troops. Clara Barton requested donations from friends and placed advertisements for supplies with overwhelming success. She distributed the supplies and nursed the wounded, often very close to combat. During the Battle of Antietam, a bullet ripped through the sleeve of her dress narrowly missing her. Unfortunately, the bullet killed the man she was trying to save.


Citizen volunteers assisting the wounded in the field of Battle of Antietam, 1862

Angel of the Battlefield

Soldiers called Clara Barton the “Angel of the Battlefield” after she came to the aid of a surgeon following the Battle of Cedar Mountain in Northern Virginia in 1862. She arrived at a field hospital at midnight with supplies to help the severely wounded soldiers. She lived this moniker throughout the conflict with her timely assistance as she served troops at nine major battles during the war.
Union General Benjamin Butler appointed Clara Barton as the “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James in 1864. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Barton to search for missing prisoners of war. With assistance from several volunteers, Barton used her own money to set up Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army. After the Civil War, her virtue of compassion to help others continued on a larger scale.


Clara Barton’s military pass July 11, 1862, signed by U.S. Surgeon General to render aid to the wounded during the American Civil War

Formation of the American Red Cross

Barton delivered lectures around the country about her war experiences from 1865 to 1868. After her tour, she was both mentally and physically exhausted. Her doctor instructed her to take her far from her work to recover. She closed the Missing Soldiers Office in 1868 and traveled to Europe. While there, an acquaintance introduced Barton to the Red Cross during her trip to Switzerland in 1869.

The Red Cross was formed through international agreements to protect the sick and wounded during wartime. To implement this lofty goal, it formed national societies to give aid voluntarily on a neutral basis. Clara Barton supported its principles and accepted the invitation to be the representative for the American branch of the Red Cross. Her persistent efforts led to the U.S. adopting the Geneva Convention which ensured the protection of combatants and non-combatants in conflict. The treaty recognized the neutrality of the International Red Cross and the adoption of the American Red Cross. Her efforts led directly to meeting the medical needs in the war with America and Spain in Cuba.

Spanish American War

Cuba struggled for independence from Spain for several years before America came to the island. Spanish authorities forced civilians into concentration camps to suppress the Cuban rebellion. The lack of sanitation, medical supplies and food, and overcrowding caused widespread disease, starvation, and death in the camps. The news of the suffering “reconcentrados” created American public sympathy and an outcry for action. Following the destruction of the USS Maine and the declaration of war of Spain, U.S. forces attacked Spain on the island of Cuba in June 1898.

The War Department was poorly equipped to handle not only its own wounded but the prisoners of war the Americans held in custody as well. The American Red Cross was well organized, supplied and staffed with its ship in Cuba endorsed by President McKinley. However, some government and military commanders hindered providing aid. For example, U.S. Surgeon General Sternberg and others did not want women present during warfare. They refused to allow female nurses in the field.


U.S Army Surgeon attending to the wounded in the field hospital with the Red Cross, Cuba 1898

Saving Lives in Cuba

Barton and her staff sought to help the wounded wherever the need may be even if they were prevented from working in American-controlled areas. Barton directed aid to where it was welcomed. She attended to wounded of Cuban and Spanish forces. As American casualties mounted, the military sought out the Red Cross for assistance which provided the much-needed support. Through her efforts, the American Red Cross saved American, Spanish and Cuba lives. Once the war was over, the people of Santiago built a statue in honor of Clara Barton in the town square. The statue of Clara Barton still stands there today.

The American Red Cross evolved following the Spanish–American War. The organization expanded its role from support to the wounded in wartime to peacetime support such as disaster relief, preparedness, blood donations, training and more. The legacy of Clara Barton and the virtue of compassion continues today.

Benefits of Compassion

I am familiar with the product of Clara Barton’s efforts professionally while working overseas in combat zones as a Civil Affairs Officer with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Occasionally, I crossed paths with the American Red Cross and the International Red Cross. I’ve seen first hand the positive influences the organization made in people’s lives. At the same time, I’ve also seen how the organizations evolved into a bureaucracy rather than deliver aid and support. Regardless of their shortcomings, I’ve always had respect for these organizations and their commitment to helping others.

Many religious traditions and science tell us that developing and cultivating compassion is an important component of robust, lasting happiness. The benefits go beyond personal feelings; it benefits families, communities, and society as a whole. Embracing basic human qualities like goodness, compassion and caring for one another brings us closer to all of humanity- satisfying the human need for community.

The writer Lloyd “Skip” Shearer quipped, “Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant with the weak and wrong…because sometime in your life you will have been all of these.”

Clara Barton’s story is a reminder that we share this world with others who may not be as fortunate as us. It is a reflection of what we all could be. I am humbled by her work. Every person can learn from the life of Clara Barton the virtue of compassion. I know I can.

If you want to read more about the life story of Clara Barton, here are a few books to check out.

Clara Barton, Professional Angel by Elizabeth Brown Pryor

Woman of Valor by Stephen B. Oates

The Red Cross; A History of This Remarkable International Movement in the Interest of Humanity by Clara Barton

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