As I write this piece, the day is April 12, 2020. On this exact day in 1912, Clara Barton – known as “Angel of the Battlefield” – died, age 90. These 108 years later, she has lessons for us.
Clara Barton was a teacher, nurse during the Civil War, founder of the American Red Cross, creator of an organization dedicated to finding those missing in action. She grew up in Massachusetts – a state now racked by 22,860 coronavirus cases, 600 deaths. Most of life, she worked in Washington DC – today facing 1875 coronavirus cases, 50 deaths. She lived in Maryland, currently wrestling 7694 cases, 206 deaths. What would the legendary nurse make of this moment in American history?
First, Barton – who nursed veterans on the front lines in nine major Civil War battles, including Harpers Ferry, Antietam and Fredericksburg – would honor all the nurses and medical professionals today on the front lines, tending the sick at personal risk.
While total nurses registered and retired approach four million, roughly 250,000 are advanced practice nurses, including nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists and anesthetists. Nurses on this battlefield outnumber doctors ten to three. As in Barton’s days, much falls to them.
Second, Barton would remind us that fear has no place in our vocabulary. As Barton offered during the American Civil War, having survived a bullet through her sleeve: “I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it …” As a matter of record, she regularly arrived in the “clutch,” delivering critical supplies, selflessly administering them to the point of exhaustion, earning her battlefield name.
Humble, she fought fear in others, not just administering medicine, but administering hope. Her father had served under General Anthony Wayne in the Revolution. On his deathbed, they spoke of Christian faith, and directions faith might point her. Her motivation never flagged; she lived to serve others.
From what else did she draw stamina, courage, and strength? Experience. In her earliest days, one of her brothers fell from a roof and sustained major head injuries. Doctors gave up on him. She did not. By all accounts, her resolve, compassion, and never-say-never attitude saved him. He recovered, later becoming a senior officer in the Union Army.
Third then, she might appeal to our personal experience in overcoming long odds. Somewhere, sometime, somehow in each of our lives – perhaps hidden in a recess of our own minds – she might ask if we have not, against odds, prevailed. If once, then once again. She was not one to weigh odds, once she knew success was possible.
Again, with grit of a girl who rose from humble beginnings, she wrote: “You must never so much think whether you like it or not, whether it is bearable or not; you must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.” That is what nurses, doctors and hospital personnel are doing today. In them, she would recognize herself.
Fourth, fortifying those facing inordinate risk, and those wrestling uncertainty by reference to faith, hope and experience, she might add: Action changes everything. A person of action, she was on the front lines by intention, not by accident.
Nursing to thousands, she saved countless lives. She did not stop at war’s end. She went to Andersonville – a sprawling confederate prison camp. Those she could not save, she buried. She spent 1865 identifying and burying 13,000 men. Over the next four years, she and a small group she led buried another 20,000, giving each a grave marker – patiently writing to 41,000 relatives. No soul was without value; she honored their sacrifice with unbroken service.
So, what might Clara Barton’s closing counsel be? What might an American paragon of service, courage, patriotism and purpose suggest? What might a woman of faith, resolve and action, who died 108 years ago today, make of our unfamiliar moment?
She would probably note this is hardly America’s darkest day, far from it. She would probably encourage us to do our part, keep plugging, look forward and not over our shoulder, not askance at our neighbor. And she would probably remind us of what we know: Faith, hope, experience and action all matter. Then, she would point to those on the frontlines, and call them Angels of the Battlefield.