Clara Barton and the Importance of Taking Poetic License
“You adulterate the truth as you write. There isn’t any pretense that you try to arrive at the literal truth. And the only consolation when you confess to this flaw is that you are seeking to arrive at poetic truth, which can be reached only through fabrication, imagination, stylization.”
—W.G. Sebald, The Emergence of Memory: Conversations
On the morning of June 5, 1889, Clara Barton boarded a train leaving Washington, D.C. for Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She trundled through the aisle crowded with passengers, looking down in an unfocused stare and fumbling at the buttons of her frockcoat. Her face was ashen; she seemed about to faint. A group of medical students from George Washington University rushed up to greet her, starstruck, and offered her their sleeping car; Barton uncharacteristically accepted. She did not want to spend the day sitting upright, watching the landscape change from the swampy flatlands of the Potomac to the hill country of Appalachia, her nerves vibrating like struck strings.
She already knew what the world would soon learn: thousands dead, thousands more homeless, a city, as The New York Times described, “practically wiped out of existence.” She already knew what she would see when her train arrived: Tangled bodies smeared with dirt. An arm wrapped under a waist. A hand stretching toward her, grotesquely white and large. A leg angled, inanimate, part of the natural detritus around her. She had already seen the dead and the near dead, had held their bodies in her arms as their blood trickled unevenly along the ground like a stream threading its way between mountains. At sixty-seven years old, she had already seen too much. And now her calloused eyes would see still more. She just needed to rest.
But as sleep overtook her, what did she see? Corpses at Antietam? Amputated limbs at Bull Run? The debris of wrecked houses and uprooted trees left by the floods in Ohio and Mississippi? And, perhaps more important, had she somehow conjured these images through the sheer force of her imagination and her need to make people believe her accountings? For unbeknownst to her at this very moment in June, 1889, Clara Barton would spend the latter part of her life refuting accusations that she had embellished her persona as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” that her descriptions of life and death at the front lines had seemed too vivid and evocative to be true, verging too closely on the poetic. That she had created, dare one say, a fiction.
Throughout her ninety-year life as a war nurse, disaster relief worker, patent clerk, and teacher, Barton had also found time for writing: The Red Cross—In Peace and War, in 1898; Story of the Red Cross—Glimpses of Field Work, in 1904; The Story of My Childhood in 1907; and thousands of diary entries now stored on microfilm in the Library of Congress. The legacy she left behind was that of a fearless chronicler of war and death and destruction, of human tragedy everywhere, who wrote with a full range of her emotions and a relentless outpouring of language. Barton wrote from the heart. She wrote with fury, love, and scorn. She wrote with honesty.
“All the world appears selfish and treacherous,” she confided to her diary on April 14, 1864, between Civil War battles. “I can get no hold on a good noble sentiment anywhere. I have scanned over and over the whole moral horizon and it is all dark. The night clouds seem to have shut down—so stagnant, so dead, so selfish, so calculating.”
She wrote with unapologetic bluntness about her mental illness, her years in a “sanitarium” in the aftermath of the Civil War, and she disclosed, over and over again, her deepest fear: that nothing she cared about could ever really last, that after the war ended she might never again reach those in need of the little succor she could provide.
“I woke this morning with the deepest feeling of depression and despair that I could scarce remember to have known,” Barton wrote just days before Christmas, 1865, nine months after the war end. “I could hardly find it in me to rise and dress, and did not for some time, it seemed to me that the whole horizon was overcast and the clouds shut down all around.”
To give more expression to her melancholy, Barton kept writing. And telling stories. And on the advice of her doctor, she began delivering lectures. She travelled throughout the northeast and Midwest United States, captivating listening audiences with her Civil War stories in speech form, often weaving together sentimental portraits of dying soldiers whispering last thoughts of mother or sweetheart with harrowing combat journalism.
“It was as if this gifted woman found our heartstrings and was skillfully playing a sad minor hymn upon them,” a reporter for the Jersey City Evening Journal wrote in an account of a lecture Barton gave on April 3, 1868.
By writing every day, Barton learned how to paint a scene with words, how to recreate a lived experience with the high drama of thunder and war. Those who read Barton today will find themselves right alongside her, bandaging bullet wounds by the light of a dying fire, pouring sips of whiskey from a hip flask into dry mouths, and composing letters to widows of last words and dying devotions.
But could Clara Barton really have fabricated these stories in a desperate search for what she called “something to do that was something?”
Elizabeth Brown Pryor, in her seminal biography, Clara Barton: Professional Angel, suggested that Barton may have “consistently exaggerated her hardships and accomplishments,” but with little explanation for doing so.
The most notorious instance occurred during the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870, when Barton claimed to have seen heavy fighting as a combat nurse in the French countryside. Antoinette Margot, Barton’s co-worker, travelling companion, and translator, wrote in 1916—four years after Barton’s death—that the front was “out of our reach and so we saw no battlefield at all.” Following the battles of Hagenau and Wörth, Margot said Barton provided the public with a “widely different” version of their relief work together.
“Much of the impetus for embellishing her accounts was supplied by Clara’s own dramatic sense, her strong imagination and verbal ability,” Pryor theorizes in Professional Angel. “She had, too, a strong desire to please, to tell an audience what they wanted to hear, and both friends and strangers were hungry for the life-and-death scenes she could so vividly portray.”
As a writer, Barton’s central organizing thesis was this: Man cannot escape from his destiny, which is always and everywhere tragic, but can, with words, forge some semblance of poetic truth out of the suffering.
The artist, one could argue, is an interpreter, a seeker after meaning, so should the invention or rearrangement of details really matter? So what if Barton’s details are wrong if the underlying meaning of events is accurate? No one questions the sacrifices Barton made to relieve human misery everywhere, so why begrudge her the right to tell her story the way she remembered it? Or in a way that conveys a greater truth?
Barton’s B&O line finally arrived late in the afternoon of June 5, 1889, five days after the South Fork Reservoir Dam broke and unleashed a moving mountain of water on the city of Johnstown.
The first thing Barton noticed when she stepped down from the train was a disemboweled carcass of a dead dog. She stopped to look at it, then quickly moved on, climbing over broken engines, broken timbers, broken heaps of iron rollers, wrecks of houses, bent railway tracks twisted with piles of iron wire. The rain fell and the wet wind sliced through her woolen coat, but she pressed forward, undeterred. She grew lightheaded and dizzy and began walking woozily, but she continued on for what felt like miles, eager to make her presence known to the Army general in charge of the recovery effort, D.H. Hastings.
At this moment in 1889, the Red Cross was largely unknown to the world; the organization was still only a loose collection of regional chapters scattered throughout the United States. The group had responded to floods in Ohio, a famine in Texas, a tornado in Illinois, and a yellow fever outbreak in Florida, but had never faced anything like this, what was then the largest national disaster in the history of the United States. As reported by the Johnstown Tribune, 2,209 residents of the Conemaugh Valley lost their lives in the raging torrents and fires unleashed by the rupture of the South Fork dam. Sixteen hundred homes were destroyed; four square miles of downtown Johnstown were completely leveled.
But Barton knew that the Red Cross, her Red Cross, was meant for just such emergencies, and she intended to prove it.
With the permission of General Hastings, she set up improvised field headquarters inside an abandoned railroad car and, using a packing box for a desk, began writing. For five straight months, she sped her quill across her paper, urging American citizens to donate whatever they could to the flood-relief effort.
“Without a safe, and with a dry-goods box for a desk, we conducted financial affairs in money and material to the extent of nearly half a million dollars,” Barton wrote in The Red Cross—In Peace and War. “The record on our books showed that over twenty-five thousand persons had been directly served by us. They had received our help independently and without begging. No child has learned to beg at the doors of the Red Cross.”
As Pryor noted in Professional Angel, Barton’s motives for embellishing were often financial. She knew she needed “strong words to create strong support.”
By the fall of 1889, Barton had managed to raise $39,000 in cash and another $200,000 in supplies—the equivalent of $6.2 million today. In doing so she helped the Red Cross establish a national identity and spawned the modern fundraising appeal.
Barton’s exaggerations at first raised mild and indirect criticism, then invited attacks to her personal integrity, namely from Mabel Boardman, who would help oust her as president of the Red Cross in 1904. Boardman claimed that Barton had not only allegedly embellished accounts of her relief work; she also alienated powerful political figures, refused to delegate authority, and kept poor financial records, which opened her to accusations that she was dishonest.
“Her connection with the Red Cross is like a skeleton in the closet upon which the doors have been closed,” Boardman memorably said in 1916, four years after Barton had died.
Most tragedies in human history we know about largely through the testimony of victims. Thanks to Barton’s act of witness, we can see the effects of war and Mother Nature’s capricious and destructive rule from a vantage point on the front lines, a place where, previously, no woman had dared venture.
“Only an opportunity was wanting,” Barton declared in a draft of a speech she unfortunately never delivered, “for woman to prove to man that she could be in earnest—that she had character, and firmness of purpose—that she was good for something in an emergency.”
Had she not willfully disregarded the facts of history, Barton might never have been able to tell her story. (And this author might not be researching and writing about her, hundreds of years later.)
“Most of society was still ready to brand an ambitious or altruistic female worker as an adventuress or worse,” Pryor wrote in Professional Angel. They were, of course, even more critical of a single woman, travelling through army lines without an official mandate. The name camp follower was only a flimsy disguise for the supposition that such a woman was a prostitute, or other kind of huckster, who preyed on men. When outside circumstances prevented Barton from being an effective relief worker . . . she was faced with the likelihood that her motives or actions . . . would be misunderstood.”
One theory is that Barton embellished as a way to justify her actions and to explain her presence in scenes of war and desolation. And to tell her story.
“The paths of charity are over roadways of ashes, and one who would tread them must be prepared to meet opposition, misconstruction, jealousy, and calumny,” Barton wrote in 1898. “Let his work be that of angels, still it will not satisfy all.”
The day after Barton’s B&O line finally arrived in Johnstown, a strange man approached the Red Cross tent. He was tall, firmly knitted, and dark visaged, with tangled and matted hair, who had the bearing of a man if not a gentleman.
“Do you have a family?” Barton asked him. “Do you want food or clothing? Do you have little children?”
Furrowing his brow, he replied, in a tone approaching contempt: “No, I don’t want anything you can give; you have nothing for me.”
“But what would you have me do, if I could do it?” Barton said.
Then, after a period silence, he half-hissed between clenched teeth, and said, “Let me look on the face of one dead child.”
He rushed from the tent, disappeared from me forever. He had had five motherless children, for whom he toiled early and late in the great Cambria Iron Mills. The flood swept his little home before he could reach it, and every child was lost. He had wandered about the river banks, watched the receding waters, dug in the sands for the little bodies hidden beneath, until reason had given way -- till even God seemed cruel and mankind weak idiots.