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‘Clara Barton’s Civil War’ and ‘Louisa on the Front Lines Review: Conquering New Territory

Nursing was not an organized profession in America until the Civil War created an urgent need for people to care for wounded soldiers. Many women answered the call, including Clara Barton and Louisa May Alcott.

by Melanie Kirkpatrick, The Wall Street Journal March 1, 2019

Clara Barton’s Civil War – By Donald C. Pfanz
Westholme, 228 pages, $28

Louisa on the Front Lines – By Samantha Seiple
Seal Press, 243 pages, $27

In 1834, Sarah Josepha Hale, the great American editor and champion of female education, published an article in her magazine calling for the nursing profession—then the domain of men—to be opened to women. While all women ought to be educated in “the important art of attending the sick,” it said, nursing was especially suitable employment for widows, spinsters and other women who were forced by circumstances to earn a living.

It wasn’t until the Civil War that nursing became an organized profession in America. Before then, patients were cared for mostly at home, with hospitals reserved for the indigent and mentally ill. But with the outbreak of war came an urgent need for hospitals to shelter wounded soldiers and nurses to care for them. Since the men were fighting, women were recruited. Many women answered the call, including Clara Barton and Louisa May Alcott.

During the Civil War, nursing was little like it is today. Medical care was primitive, and the mortality rate was high. The duties of military nurses consisted largely of providing basic comforts. They washed and fed their patients, wrote letters for them, and prayed with them as they lay dying. They were assisted in their duties by soldier-patients who were mobile enough to work and assigned to perform such tasks as holding patients down during amputations.

Two new books focus on Barton’s and Alcott’s wartime experiences. Donald Pfanz, a former historian for the National Park Service, reassesses Barton’s achievements in “Clara Barton’s Civil War.” In “Louisa on the Front Lines,” Samantha Seiple, the author of several history books for young adults, examines the famous writer’s brief stint as a nurse at the end of 1862 and in early 1863. Together the books offer an absorbing look at the determination, courage and abundant kindness of the women who volunteered and the heroism of the men they cared for.

Barton was born in 1821 on a farm near Worcester, Mass. During her childhood, she forged a close attachment to her father, who regaled his daughter with stories of his exploits during the Northwest Indian War in Ohio. Young Clara dreamed of becoming a soldier herself, Mr. Pfanz writes, “and of one day serving her country as her father had done.” In early 1862, when she asked her dying father for advice about the propriety of a woman nursing soldiers on the battlefield, he gave his approval. He assured her that if she behaved like a lady, the soldiers would treat her like one.

Barton was the most prominent woman to emerge from the Civil War, and much has been written about her heroic work at the battles of Fredericksburg and Antietam. Union soldiers nicknamed her “the angel of the battlefield.” Barton said she belonged “between the bullet and the hospital.”

After the war, she became an almost mythical figure—an image Barton encouraged in the lectures she gave around the country. (Two are published in an appendix to “Clara Barton’s Civil War.”) Mr. Pfanz contends that biographers have relied too heavily on those lectures, in which she misremembered or exaggerated events. He painstakingly compares the accounts she gave to the public with a host of primary sources, including the diaries and letters of soldiers and her own diaries, in which she recorded events right after they took place.

While Mr. Pfanz’s detailed approach gets a little tedious at times, it doesn’t obscure the book’s main attraction—a compelling portrait of Barton herself. Today we would call her a disrupter. She insisted on operating autonomously, refusing to work with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which provided nurses to the Union Army, or other charitable organizations. She preferred being in charge. She raised money for the food and bandages that she brought to the front lines, and she hired the horses and wagons to take her there.

To bypass bureaucrats and officials who thought women had no place at the front, Barton developed back channels to Massachusetts Sen. Henry Wilson, chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, and to Daniel Rucker, quartermaster of the Army’s Washington depot. Wilson and Rucker were both “beguiled” by Barton, Mr. Pfanz writes—just two of the well-connected men she charmed in her drive to serve wounded soldiers. They gave her supplies from government warehouses and helped her secure passes to the front.

Mr. Pfanz succeeds in his goal of producing a more realistic record of Barton’s Civil War accomplishments. He concludes that, despite the discrepancies between legend and reality, Barton’s story is no less remarkable. Clara Barton, he writes, “deserved the encomiums she received.”

Like Barton, Louisa May Alcott wanted to be a soldier. Instead she became a nurse after meeting the strict qualifications imposed by Dorothea Dix, a well-known social reformer who had been appointed superintendent of Union nurses. Alcott was over the age of 30, she was plain looking, and she had habits of “neatness, order, sobriety, and industry.” She took up her duties at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington in December 1862 just as soldiers from the Battle of Fredericksburg were beginning to arrive there.

“Louisa on the Front Lines” is a swift-moving, engrossing narrative. It is especially good at describing the nursing practices of the day, when, as Ms. Seiple notes, medicine was more “a healing art than a medical science.” The author deftly weaves in excerpts from Alcott’s journal and letters home, as well as other contemporary sources.

Ms. Seiple concludes that Alcott’s experiences as a nurse had a profound effect on her writing. The intense emotions she felt “would transform her work, giving her insight to create characters and stories that would transcend the page and fill her readers’ hearts.” Alcott’s wartime memories found their way into “Little Women” (1868) in the characters of a dying soldier and the clergyman-father of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.

Alcott lasted just six weeks as a nurse before contracting typhoid fever. As she recovered at home in Concord, Mass., she wrote about the dire conditions of military hospitals in a series of articles that were collected in a popular book published in 1863. “Clara Barton’s Civil War” and “Louisa on the Front Lines” are both fine accounts of women who yearned both to serve their country and to find personal meaning outside of the domestic sphere. They are worthy successors to Alcott’s “Hospital Sketches,” which remains the best depiction of the medical practices of the period as well as a powerful exploration of war’s human cost.

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