Mystery undone (and some mythbending too): Clara Barton’s Fredericksburg hospitals

From Hennessy:

There are few more common assertions on Fredericksburg’s historical landscape than this:  “Clara Barton was at the Presbyterian Church.”  A plaque outside the church says as much, and it has become conventional wisdom.

Problem is, beyond the legend, there’s no hard evidence to confirm she was there. Which leads to the inevitable: what Fredericksburg buildings really do have an association with Clara Barton?

The woolen mill just north of town, visited by Clara Barton in 1862, before her service during the Second Manassas campaign.. It was here that she saw her first-ever amputation.

Donald Pfanz of the park’s staff has done exhaustive work on Clara Barton’s various visits to Fredericksburg, and he has found that in fact, not all is always as it seems with Clara.  Barton was in Fredericksburg five times during the war (twice in May 1864), and as it turns out, much of what we know about her is derived from her own memories, assiduoulsy and repeatedly written down. One certainly wishes there were more corroboration for her various accounts–something I expect Don will explore in a book on Clara in Fredericksburg someday. But in fact, despite her constant presence here, we have turned up only a single soldier who mentions seeing her at the time (she of course appears in many memoirs–just like Martha Stephens and Richard Kirkland). Still, we know enough about her movements to identify with certainty four buildings in town that she visited (a fifth, the Woolen Mill, above, stood just north of town–we have looked closely at some photos of the Woolen Mill here).  Two of them still stand. Can you name the buildings in town with a solid association with Clara?  It’s one of the toughest Fredericksburg trivia questions.  Answers after the jump….

The Baptist Church.  During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Barton was accompanied by a missionary named Cornelius Welles. Welles puts Barton at the church, and indeed records in vivid form the trying conditions they and other medical staff labored under in the church.

Planter’s Hotel.  Barton visited here in May 1864, when men of the Ninth Corps wounded at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania were brought here.

Planter's is the large square building in the middle distance, at the corner of Charles and George Streets.

“I was struck with their fine soldierly figures and features remarkable even in terrible extremity,” wrote Barton, “and stopping by one I asked ‘where are you from—‘  ‘Michigan,’ and so on ‘Michigan,’ ‘Michigan,’ up one flight of stairs and another.  Still ‘Michigan.’  At length in my surprise I said without reflection, ‘Did Michigan take up this hand and play it alone’?  Yes, faintly answered a poor fellow at my feet wounded all over, who evidently understood better what he was saying than I did, ‘Yes, and got Euchered.’  I thought he was correct.”

Julia Wheelock would also write movingly of her work at Planter’s.  You can find her outstanding letters here.  (Planter’s, by the way, is also the site of the slave auction block; we have done a series of posts over at Fredericksburg Remembered that look at what we really know about that legend-steeped Fredericksburg landmark).

The only extant reference to Clara written by a soldier at the time comes from Private Josiah Brainerd Hall of the 57th Massachusetts, who was carried to the Methodist Episcopal Church South by Clara’s cousin, Captain George Barton.

The church is visible just left of center in this 1880s image taken from the steeple of the Episcopal Church.

“As soon as I was made as comfortable as possible on the floor of the Southern M. E. Church,” remembered Hall, “Captain Barton found Miss Barton, told her where I was and that I was thought to be mortally wounded.  My exhausted condition at that time was such that I have only an indistinct recollection of the first aid Miss Barton gave me, but later when my father, who was with the Sanitary Commission arrived, I had many evidences of her watchful care of me.”

The Methodist Church South no longer stands. It stood on the corner of Charles and George Street, where the BB&T bank stands today.

And finally, the most obscure Barton building of all. It was not a military hospital, but the place where Clara’s cousin Ned was brought after he fell ill tending to the wounded of the Fifth Corps after the Wilderness: the home of Fredericksburg resident Maria Wolfe. Clara makes a brief reference to the place in her diary. The building stood where the offices to the Baptist Church stand today.  It was torn down sometime in the 1960s.

Photo from the files of HFFI

What of the Presbyterian Church? While the hard evidence has not yet emerged, it’s certainly possible–maybe even likely–that she did visit the place. There is also a post-war reference to her presence in the circuit courthouse on Princess Anne Street, but this does not yet all into the category of “solid.”  More work needs to be done, and surely more information will emerge. We’ll share it when it does.

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