At a time when women were generally excluded from war and nursing was considered a menial, unacceptable occupation for ladies of good reputation, Clara Barton distinguished herself as both an independent supply agent to the Union forces and a nurse during the Civil War. When war broke out, Barton was working in the Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Earlier she had been a public schoolteacher in Massachusetts and New Jersey, and was distressed when many of her former pupils were among the first casualties of the war.
The army medical system at the time was chaotic and lacked supplies. Barton collected donations of clothing, food, and supplies. Although she had no official appointment, she was able, through powerful friends, to obtain passes and wagons to personally take those supplies from battlefield to battlefield. Often under fire and often the only woman present, she became a familiar and beloved figure, distributing supplies and nourishments, assisting the surgeons, nursing and comforting the sick and dying, and directing activities in makeshift field hospitals.
After the war, Barton carried on an enormous correspondence with families of men missing in action and through her own office, at great personal expense, directed the search for them.
Clara Barton was a recurring character—a “loner”—who intrigued Oates in his previous research on the Civil War. Despite his attempt to present an intimate portrait of her, this extremely complex woman remains an enigma. Nevertheless, the book is a wonderful read, its portrayal of the times is fascinating, and it is enriched by numerous quotations, photographs, and references.