Steihm: Under Oklahoma sky, Clara Barton’s spirit lives on |

Steihm: Under Oklahoma sky, Clara Barton’s spirit lives on

Jamie Stiehm

History is stuff they never told you. Take Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross after her humanitarian work in the Civil War — the crisis that cast her character.

Everybody loves the American Red Cross this week in devastated Oklahoma City. Hail to them for showing up to give blood and emergency aid to thousands whose lives and houses were strewn all over the sky by an epic tornado.

The organization’s disaster preparedness — for fires, floods, hurricanes and casualties — is second to none. Its creamy marble building in Washington near the Lincoln Memorial reminds us it ought to be our national pride and joy all the time. Heck, country music star Trace Adkins just made it the winning charity on “The Apprentice,” so maybe we’re moving in that direction.

Trace should write a song about Clara. There’s more to her backstory.

Start with a lovely spinster of 39 working at the Patent Office in Washington in 1861, when the Civil War broke out in April. The first blood was spilled in Baltimore, where a Massachusetts regiment was attacked by a mob. Some injured soldiers were from the same country town as Barton. She came to the Capitol with medical supplies and tended the wounded in the Senate chamber. (She had no nursing training — not yet a profession.)

Nobody told her and nobody paid her to do that. Barton’s voluntary rush to the scene of suffering became a template, one that still operates today, as we saw under the Sooner sky.

At the Battle of Antietam, Barton witnessed the nightmare scene, the most deadly day in American military history. Rivers of blood stained the September cornfields. She brought lamps for surgeons to work by night.

As she washed wounds and spoke to soldiers, her low voice brought comfort, thoughts of a mother or sweetheart. Again, she found her own way.

If you’ve heard of the heroic African-African soldiers who fought for the Union, Barton saw them in action in South Carolina. She took care of some on a beach hospital and had a teary talk with a hurt black soldier, a former slave who enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts. As she recounted it, “He knew he was dying, but he thanked God his children would be free,” Barton’s biographer, Stephen Oates, wrote.

A white woman and a black man on history’s front lines — believing in the dream and promise of America. They don’t tell you much about that.

And then there’s Andersonville, a prisoner-of-war camp. Sick and starved Union soldiers barely made it out of there alive. But by war’s end, it was full of corpses and remains. In 1865, tough-minded Secretary of War Edwin Stanton needed the best man for a bad job — a mission to identify and bury the dead. Barton was the woman for it. In a scorching summer, she travelled to Georgia with an Army team and put bodies to rest in its red clay. She raised the colors of the United States over the cemetery in a ceremony that could make you cry. It was illustrated in Harper’s Weekly.

Years later, the American Red Cross founder, 5 feet tall, stood in the wake of a raging flood in Johnstown, Pa., in 1889. Two thousand died. Barton led the relief effort, using her wartime skills. On the job, she could make apple pie for 100. She lived into old age in a handsome house in Glen Echo, Md., the first Red Cross headquarters, now open to the public. There was a trolley car to Washington, where she had lived on Seventh Street.

As a spinster, Barton seized her own freedom to go to war. Tell them about that, Trace.

— To find out more about Jamie Stiehm, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.