A salvo at Clara Barton


From John Hennessy:

Our apologies for the pace of posts lately, but we have all been involved in some form in the Manassas 150th, and so things have been a bit hectic. For another post that speaks to Clara Barton’s service in Fredericksurg, click here.

Plain sight is often the worst place for something to be, for in our ardor to dig deep in our search for interesting and new things, we often miss that which is before us.  We are grateful to th park’s former Chief Historian, Bob Krick, for pointing out a passage that we have had for years, but missed.

J. Franklin Dyer’s The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon (edited by Michael B. Chesson) is flat-out one of the best chronicles of its kind. Dyer worked extensively at Chatham after the Battle of Fredericksburg, and his is by far the most detailed account we have of the use of the place as a hospital.

His diary does not mention Clara Barton, but in the introduction, Mr. Chesson quoted a letter Dyer wrote after Gettysburg. In it, Dyer offers harsh commentary on volunteer nurses male and female, and reserves especial criticism for Clara Barton. In so doing, he gives us some more information about Barton’s work at Chatham, and also reveals a great deal about the unprogressive attitude of many Union surgeons toward the civilian volunteers that came forward to help them. 

These outsiders may have good intentions, but they don’t know how to do anything. The Sanitary Commission supply a good deal but the work that all these men and women do about the hospitals does not pay for the time necessarily spent in taking care of them and waiting upon them. They want ambulances to take them to and from their stopping places, men to wait upon them with all manner of things, and will insist that they are doing an immense deal of good. I have got a division hospital—it is neat, clean, well managed and all have enough to eat and drink and I would not have a woman about it for anything. I have heard that one has been threatening to come here, but I will not have her about. Very severe on the ladies I suppose, but I have had enough of them about field hospitals.

The kitchen at Chatham. Barton's work in this building annoyed Surgeon Dyer so much that he replaced her with a man.

Dyer concludes with a slash at Clara Barton:

I see that Miss Barton, who was at the Lacy house last December is down at Morris Island. I hope she will stay there, or not come here. She plagued me so that I had to get her out of the cook house and put one of my own men in charge.

How much of this sentiment is a reflection on Clara Barton or simply a commentary on the chauvinistic attitudes of mid-19th Century men is difficult to say.  Barton was clearly a difficult personality, and her service at Fredericksburg–though documented voluminously–is a chronicle of contradiction and some mystery (it’s often difficult to corroborate some of her claims, and she is rarely mentioned by others). But Dyer clearly was not one to embrace the onward march of women’s rights. 

Still, one nugget emerges: Barton’s association with the kitchen (“cook house”) at Chatham, which still stands next to the Big House. Another little and interesting detail…..

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2 thoughts on “A salvo at Clara Barton

  1. John,
    Great post. Dr. Dyer echoes the comments made by many professionals who have to contend with outside folks who are very passionate. His observation that these folks “will insist that they are doing an immense deal of good” is priceless. There are certainly a great many such folks who prove invaluable. I think of Mrs. Bickerdyke (sp?) in Sherman’s army. But this quote sure resonates.

  2. Poor Dr. Dyer is certainly entitled to his opinion, but there are plenty of accounts where men of his rank and higher completely contradict what he wrote. His tone is clearly prejudicial. Considering how understaffed the Medical Department was all throughout the War I think he had a lot of nerve complaining about receiving help. After all, Barton was requested by a Union surgeon on the day of the battle to come over to the city proper under fire to assist him.

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