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Barton, Clara.

LETTER: ALS to her nephew Samuel Barton.

Letter(s)

Clara Barton to her nephew
"I feed and wash hungry and dirty private soldiers"
Barton, Clara. Autograph Letter Signed, to her nephew, Samuel Barton; Hilton Head, South Carolina, September 7, 1863.
Three leaves; ten pages, rectos and versos; creased; minor splitting along folds. In a very clean, clear and legible hand, written on lined paper and embossed with a stationer's logo on the first pages. In a specially made half morocco slipcase.
In this superb and revealing letter, Barton writes to her nephew Samuel R. Barton - of North Oxford, Massachusetts, the son of her brother Stephen - giving him advice on not resigning his commission at a military hospital in Washington. Underlining her words for emphasis, Barton shares her own experiences in the Civil War in hopes that she can help her nephew find resolution to his dilemma. She describes her struggles and how she overcame adversity. Barton also describes her treatment as a woman working in a military situation and being present at the front of the war.
Barton's nephew must have met with some frustration in dealing with a fellow colleague, as Barton begins with sympathy, "I know that all officers are not pleasant to deal with, and the more you discover in one that looks like a disposition to thwart you the more careful you must be not to give him the opportunity to find any fault, or pick any flaws" (1-2).  
Barton continues to emphasize the virtue of patience, and advises her nephew that "good things come to those who wait." She gives the example of her own experiences:
People sometimes call me "successful" if I have been it is all due to having smothered my mouth, pocketed injuries, "stooped" as I "passed under the beam" and waited patiently for time the great rectifier to set me right, and after half a life time of experience I have come to the conclusion that I ask no better judge of my motives and actions, no better champion for my rights than Time! (2-3)
Barton realizes that learning how to be patient is not easy, and that it is part of a young adults' growing and maturation process. She assures Samuel that:
Now every successful man or woman have this lesson in life to learn, and the sooner it is learned and put into every day practice the sooner life brightens to them, and the sooner they have in a measure become arbiters of their own fate, until this is accomplished one rides the race of life as on an unbitted horse, never knowing where the next moment may land him never his own master an instant. (3-4)
Barton spends several paragraphs discussing her nephew's situation in detail. She appeals to his sense of duty as a husband - "as a conscientious young man you can not afford it - you are right when you say that you have a family wife and "ought" to support her. - this is so" (p.4-5) - and goes on to say that he is fortunate to have such a caring and understanding wife, citing her "cheerfulness under difficulties, and her calmness under opposition or mistreatment." (5)
Barton considers various financial situations for her nephew to consider:
Now admitting you were discharged from the service, - is there a place in civil business life that you could make better pay than you are doing at present? True, you can use all your salary if you choose in your own living, or you can save nearly all of it, - hospital living is not hotel living - neither is it common soldiers living, it is better than Generals get in the field, far better than I get, - but all this you know about. (5-6)
Barton includes a lengthy paragraph sharing her knowledge of and speculating on the course of the war, mentioning her knowledge of operations at Fort Wagner, Morris Island, international relations, the draft, and the use of black soldiers by the Confederacy:
If it is true that Jeff Davis has called for 500,000 colored troops, with promise of freedom & land, they will respond to it, this is and has been their trump card, which they have been exultantly holding back only waiting for us to "swing" this we have done at Port Hudson and Wagner and now they are playing their trump, well knowing that we cannot hold out to follow suit, - we have no 500,000 negroes to put into the field and consequently must meet this flood with the best white blood of the north, which it is evident can never be obtained under the present laws for drafting troops. - still they must be met and conquered, and is it not likely that one of the first acts of Congress will be to tighten that law so that it shall hold the game it captures, - and especially if some trouble should arize between us and France tho, Mexico, which is more than probable, and possibly Great Britain ever willing may feel called upon to extend her liberating hand to aid the noble south in their christian purpose of freeing her slaves!!! And then we have a war, - there will be no $300 exemption, no only son, and such men will be drafted as would be accepted as volunteers - and many a young man will carry a musket as a private soldier who a few months earlier might easily have taken a commission. (7-8)
Barton ties all of this into her reasoning why her nephew should not resign:
I cannot yet quite see it wise in the present state of things for you to take a discharge, you might be worse situated I think, so would'nt it be best to hold on a little, wait and see if something better does not follow, you are as likely to be promoted as any one else - your chances are by no means the worst, and you would so see and feel it if you could follow one day with me thro these rough bloody hospitals and see the poor fellows disabled for life, with wives and whole families of poor helpless children in some little rented home away in the north, - their cases looked worse to me than yours, and yet for any thing that I can see, any young man now out of the service will become liable to just such positions, - your stand point there in Washington among those petted swaggering clerks, cursing better opportunities than they ever knew before in their lives is not altogether a correct one to judge from at this time, you could judge better from Morris Island. (8-9)
Although Barton's avuncular advice and her experience in the war would likely be beneficial for a young relative to hear, she modestly closes by urging her nephew not to judge her harshly for sharing her opinions, saying "I have written you honestly and according to my best judgment and if you cannot fall in with a word of it, you must not fall out with me for having said just what my judgment dictated I could do no other way - and you must so consider it" (9-10). She goes on to say that she does not have an immediate solution to his problem, but will help him in any way she can when the opportunity arises. She explains she is eager to get back to work, and wishes his family well: "love to Amelia & all my young friends I remain as ever your affectionate Clara" (10).
This letter was written at an important time in Clara Barton's personal life and in the development of her nursing ideas. She had been serving at the front from 1862 in Manassas to the brutal battle of Fredericksburg in December, where she nearly lost her life while tending the wounded. She worked through the last week of December living in a tent beside her wagon, and returned to Washington, D.C. when her supplies were depleted and most of the wounded men had either died or were sent on to Washington for treatment.
The summer of 1863 - shortly before this letter was written - brought life changes to Barton. Arriving at Hilton Head, South Carolina she was reunited with her brother David who had just been appointed quartermaster. She also met Colonel John J. Elwell of Cleveland, Ohio, chief quartermaster for the Department of the South. She became romantically involved with Elwell, a married man.
On July 16, 1863 the Union forces attacked Fort Wagner on Morris Island. During the siege she ran a supply line, and, accompanied with a horse and one well supplied ambulance the troops assigned to the siege, nursed soldiers suffering from malaria and witnessed the action at Morris Island.
After the battle at Fort Wagner, Barton remained in the region, helping the newly emancipated slaves at Port Royal. She was influenced at this critical time by the woman suffrage advocate Frances Dana Gage, in charge of the "contraband" plantation at Port Royal, and came to realize her feminist beliefs. She also began to realize, through her care and efforts on behalf of the former slaves, that war had other victims besides the combatants, a realization which would inform much of her later work with the American Red Cross.
A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, by Stephen B. Oates, (1994).
American National Biography, Vol. 2, pp. 289-291.
Clara Barton, Professional Angel, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, (1987).
Dictionary of American Biography, Vol 1., part 2, pp. 18-2.
Notable American Women, Vol. 1, pp. 103-108.
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