Guest Columns


Harriet Tubman and Clara Barton — true heroes of the American Civil War

Famous heroes are critical to understanding our history because they draw our attention to the important events that enveloped them, and because they stand as representatives of so many other similarly courageous and important individuals whose names we will never know.

But too often, even our “famous heroes” are either forgotten or not fully appreciated, and we run the risk of losing our personal identification to their stories. Following are two great examples. Growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., most children learn the names of two women from the American Civil War era: Harriet Tubman and Clara Barton. But for the most part, we only learned that Harriet Tubman was a slave who escaped to the (supposed) safe haven of the north, and Clara Barton was a nurse who started the American Red Cross.

We know that Clara Barton lived somewhere near Glen Echo, Md., and the north bank of the Potomac River near Georgetown, because that’s where the house and parkway bear her name. And we’re likewise aware that Harriet Tubman escaped her enslavement on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. By the lights of a child bouncing around in the back of a station wagon, the Eastern Shore of Maryland was simply a desolate stretch of chicken farms that had to be navigated to get to Ocean City, Md., and Bethany Beach and Rehoboth Beach, Del.

Harriet Tubman was born into slavery circa 1821. She was the fifth of nine children, and her original slave name was Araminta “Minty” Ross. At the time of her death in 1913, she was an internationally acclaimed woman of courage, accomplishment and compassion, and known as “Harriet Tubman, Conductor of the Underground Railroad.”

In the fall of 1849, having been part of an unsuccessful escape attempt with several other slaves, she successfully escaped on her own, navigating by the North Star through the slave states of Maryland and Delaware, until reaching relative safety in Pennsylvania. Ignoring the recently increased likelihood of re-enslavement under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Tubman chose to return to Maryland at least thirteen times to encourage and assist other slaves to escape. During the Civil War, she served as a nurse, a spy, and a scout for the Union, venturing deep into the slave states to encourage insurrection and escape by slaves.

After the war, Tubman lived more or less permanently in the state of New York, where she married for the second time (her first husband having remarried when she chose to escape from slavery!). She remained active in civil rights efforts through her early affiliation with various groups such as the AME Zion Church, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Women, and others. In 1895, Tubman cobbled together the financing to purchase 25 acres of property and opened the Home for the Aged. She died there in 1913, having bequeathed the Home to the AME Zion Church to ensure its continued operation.

Harriet Tubman
Clara Barton

Clara Barton (1821-1912), the founder and first president of the American Red Cross, acquired her broad skill set of urgent medical care, long-term care for invalids, locating and reuniting lost family members and soldiers, etc. through “on-the-job training” during some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Prior to the war, she was a schoolteacher with no medical background.

But when Massachusetts soldiers were attacked by a mob of Southern sympathizers in Baltimore, Md., in the Spring of 1861, Barton volunteered as a nurse in Washington. And from that point on, she was continually engaged in medical and relief efforts throughout four years of Civil War. She was frequently providing such care while directly in the line of gunfire, such as at the battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg, Md.), where a soldier to whom she was attending was killed by a bullet which first ripped through her own clothing.

Barton was famous for her independence, both during and after the war. During the war, her independence allowed her the freedom to move quickly to the areas of greatest need, such as Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, and elsewhere throughout war torn Virginia (in addition to Sharpsburg, Md., which constituted the single bloodiest day in U.S. history, D-Day included). She also travelled extensively in the days immediately following the war to other battlefields and burial sites to identify the remains of unknown dead Union soldiers. Through her commitment to this gruesome work, Barton was able to communicate news to waiting families in the North and also to reunite surviving casualties with their families.

Having founded the initial American Red Cross in 1881, Barton served as its first president. She stepped down from that position in 1904, following criticism over her lax financial and management skills. Nonetheless, she is deservedly forever credited as “the Angel of the Battlefield” of the American Civil War, and as the visionary whose example grew into a model for urgent and emergency care and other humanitarian relief efforts not only in wartime but during peacetime catastrophes as well.

Recognizing that these brief sketches don’t even begin to do justice to the lives of two unique Civil War era American heroes, I recommend the following books for further reading.

Harriet Tubman: Bound for the Promised Land Harriet Tubman —Portrait of an American Hero, by Kate Clifford Larson (2004); and Bound for Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, by Fergus M. Bordewich (2005).

Clara Barton: A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, by Stephen B. Oates (1994).

Patrick Teegarden is an attorney and public policy consultant, based in Denver. His columns on the Civil War are part of an ongoing series for The Colorado Statesman.