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Clara Barton: A Memorial Day Story

Updated: Feb 27

Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day honors all soldiers who died during service to the nation. Memorial Day was declared a national holiday through an act of Congress in 1971, and its roots date back to the Civil War era, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

A photo of the American Red Cross founder, Clara Barton
Clarissa Harlowe Barton 1821 - 1912

I have stood alone in the awful stillness of its glimmering light, gazing upon the strange sad scene around me, striving to say, "Thy will oh God be done."

Civil War nurse Clara Barton, traveled to Falmouth, Virginia in December 1862, anticipating another bloody battle and a crush of wounded men needing medical assistance. Shortly before the December 13th battle of Fredericksburg, Barton gazed out over the tents and campfires of the Union troops in the army of the Potomac. She imagined she "could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger's wings, as one by one, he sought and selected his victims for the morning sacrifice."

"Oh! sleep and visit in dreams once more, the loved ones nestling at home," she silently willed the soldiers.

Barton's fears proved accurate for the Union, which in defeat suffered more than 12,000 casualties. Among the deceased was Lieutenant Edgar Marshall Newcomb of the 19th Massachusetts Infantry. Barton recorded Newcomb's death on December 20th in a pocket diary she kept while tending the wounded at a Union hospital in Falmouth. Newcomb had been shot in both legs while carrying the national flag during a charge on December 13th.

In an excerpt from her diary, where Barton kept a record of her patients, she documented Newcomb's visitors, leg amputation, and finally the death of the 23-year-old soldier. A memorial publication later confirmed Barton's presence at Newcomb's deathbed, standing in for his mother as his mind wandered at the end. By Civil War standards, Newcomb's passing counted as a "Good Death" in Victorian terms, with the friends and family, and able to express parting words.

Clara Barton became known as the "Angel of the Battlefield" for her tireless dedication. She went behind enemy lines with the International Committee of the Red Cross (established in 1863) and later founded the American Red Cross in 1881. Barton headed the organization into her 80's. #MemorialDay #ClaraBarton

To read about other memorable characters, pick up a copy of Off the Chart A Nurse's Journey of Heart and Humor at

Published by Jennifer Tipton / This post may contain affiliate links.


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