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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Red cross 09-19

150th anniversary of Clara Barton's very bad day
the day after Antietam

I'm not sure how many of the 23,000 casualties of Antietam died on September 17th, 1862 or in the days following.  But Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, was there tending to the wounded.

She was in her early 40s, what would have been called a "spinster" in those days.  Images of her show a determined woman with an intense intelligent face.  

She had her first experience with nursing a boy to health at eleven, when her brother fell off a barn roof, and the local doctor declared he would eventually die of it.  Clara nursed him back to health.  She seemed to have a taste for impossible things.

In her early 30s, in 1854, she had been the first woman to hold a clerkship in federal offices -- at the Patent Office -- with duty and pay equal to a man, in which post she was reported to do equal or distinguished work.  But later administrations had demoted her, and then stripped all women from offices higher than truly menial work.

But in the early 1860s in the growing war she used her familiarity with the federal government and with medical work to set up, essentially, emergency civil medical aid for the front, and traveled with supplies by rail to the worst war zones of the grim Civil War.

This brought her to the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, Antietam.  About 23,000 died, north and south, of over 600,000 of the official casualties of the war (many more died of starvation, collateral damage, lack of medicines, and so on -- in all about 2-3% of the population over perhaps 4-5 years from all causes, conservatively -- some estimate 4% or more from indirect causes, including pandemic disease due to combined illness, low food supply, sanitation, and so on -- it was often characterized in apocalyptic terms.

 Based on 1860 census figures, 8% of all white males aged 13 to 43 died in the war, including 6% in the North and 18% in the South. About 56,000 soldiers died in prisons during the Civil War. An estimated 60,000 men lost limbs in the war.

But in this one day, 23,000 died.  What we rarely ponder is the day after, when amid the piles of corpses, Lee mournfully retreated across the Potomac (to be followed "tomorrow" by an successfully repelled raid by the Union Army), and the Union, in shock, regrouped on the bloody field -- all within sight of their enemies and within earshot of the screams of those losing limbs, either side, in the attempt to save their lives, often in vain.  And of course listening to the weeping of their own, soldiers dying, wounded, or wounded in spirit, or weary to the bone from battle, still laboring to save their friends and brothers.

In the midst of this, Clara Barton, one woman, brought medical supplies and her own trained hands from the capital to help the wounded men, into a world which no longer cared that she wore a gown and apron.  This is how action changes minds.  Later, the Red Cross would grant limited immunity to medical personnel, but it would always be dangerous.  There is a story that once on the field a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress and killed the man she was tending to.

When we hear these numbers we let our minds float in an area where history lives on a blackboard, on a piece of paper with a multiple choice test.  It is vitally important that we remember that history lives on very bad days for people who lived lives that were flawed and difficult, who persevered -- military, civilians, women, men.  Some who asked for their troubles and some who had troubles thrust upon them.  

Every day we make our own choices that can make it more or less likely that somewhere in the world there will or will not be another battle.  A battle for some better or worse reason -- to save a people from ethnic cleansing, or to satisfy some nation's or corporation's interest in territory or mineral rights.

One of the great ideas of the Enlightenment -- which led to the great democracies, republics, and constitutional monarchies -- is about how these choices all add up, not simply at the ballot box, but in the actions of every individual's influence in entire systems.  We are all incredibly powerful, if we exercise that power -- and individually even if we do not, we simply act without knowing in aggregate.  

It's our duty to take the reins of our own lives and exercise that power consciously -- as Americans, as the Jeffersonian Citizen, the steward of the Republic who must understand policy, diplomacy, and all sciences required to supervise our delegated elected representatives -- and if required take a stint in public service, just as one would in military service.  Otherwise, wars, economic disasters, bad policies, educational trainwrecks, patronage -- all these things will happen to us, not despite us.

When we make these choices, even in inaction -- voting or not voting, consuming, or even confirming a neighbor's opinion with our silence -- we need to remember that we are part of these currents of history, part of the flow of the waters that will change how all of the joy and pain will shape the epic music for generations forward.

I imagine for myself that Clara Barton didn't set out to be a woman who changed history.  She set out to be the girl who would not believe the doctor who told her that her brother would die.  After that, nothing else anyone told her was impossible was to be taken for granted.  She set out to do what came before her, as it came up, as it seemed right -- without regard to what the people around her told her was proper.  In many cases, it seemed, she aimed to misbehave, if that seemed like the proper thing to help people.

In this, I hold her to be a model.  I image, 150 years ago today, she was having the worst day of her life, and if you think going to a public meeting and listening to someone drone is going to be bad?  Remember that a lot of other folks end up in worse scenarios, maybe it won't seem so awful.  

Or, just imagine teleporting the droning, self-involved speaker to the day after Antietam, if it gives you some guilty pleasure.  It's close enough to hell.

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