Angel of the battlefield

As soon as Barton received official permission to work in the field, she made arrangements to carry needed medical supplies and food with her. "People talk like children about 'transporting supplies' as if it were the easiest thing imaginable to transport supplies by wagon thirty miles across a country scouted by guerrilla bands [groups of Confederate raiders]," she wrote.

Barton's first opportunity to provide aid to wounded soldiers out in the field came in August 1862, after a big battle at Cedar Mountain, near Culpepper, Virginia. When Barton heard about the battle, she rushed to the scene and immediately began tending wounded Union soldiers. "At the time when we were entirely out of dressings of every kind, she supplied us with everything," said one Union surgeon at Cedar Mountain. "And while the shells were bursting in every direction . . . she [stayed] dealing out shirts . . . and preparing soup and seeing it prepared in all the [field] hospitals. . . . I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a homely angel, she must be one [since] her assistance was so timely."

One month later, Barton traveled to a region near Antietam Creek in northern Maryland, where a clash between Union and Confederate forces produced the single highest casualty toll of any single day of the Civil War. All day long Barton worked tirelessly to bandage and feed the wounded, even as the sights and sounds of the terrible battle swirled all around her. At one point, she recalled, she bent down to give a wounded soldier a drink of water. "Just at this moment a bullet sped its free and easy way between us, tearing a hole between us, tearing a hole in my sleeve and [finding] its way into his body," she remembered. "He fell back dead. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to rest. I have never mended that hole in my sleeve."

By the time the Battle of Antietam was over, Barton's tireless efforts on behalf of wounded soldiers had made her a beloved figure throughout the Union Army. "Here [at Anti-etam] her work was truly heroic," wrote Cathy East Dubowski in Clara Barton: Healing the Wounds, "and here she won the admiration of the common soldiers and of many surgeons. She had proved her courage and ability beyond a doubt—to the army and to herself. She had marched with the soldiers, gone without food and rest, slept under the stars, and stood her ground under fire, even when others ran."

Barton continued to work as a field nurse for most of the rest of the war, traveling from battlefield to battlefield. In recognition of her efforts on behalf of wounded Union soldiers, people started calling her the "angel of the battlefield." But although Barton appreciated the recognition she received, the war was an emotionally draining experience for her. She sometimes quarreled with other people and organizations who were trying to provide medical supplies to Union troops. In addition, the endless exposure to torn and bleeding bodies sometimes made it hard for her to go on. After one battle, she admitted, "I looked at myself, shoeless, gloveless, ragged, and bloodstained, [and] a new sense of desolation and pity and sympathy and weariness, all blended, swept over me with irresistible force. . . . I sank down . . . and wept." At one point of the war, these pressures combined to push her into a brief emotional breakdown. After several months of rest, however, she was able to return to her nursing work.

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