April 19, 1861
When President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for volunteers on April 15, 1861, the first group of soldiers to arrive was the 6th Massachusetts Regiment. Attacked by Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore, they arrived at the Capitol bloodied and bruised and were housed in the Senate Chamber. Among those aiding the soldiers was a young government clerk named Clara Barton. Thus began a career that culminated in the creation of the American Red Cross in 1881. This is a familiar tale, no doubt, but less known is the essential role played in this story by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.
Henry Wilson came to the U.S. Senate in 1855 along with the Republican Party he helped to found. During his 18-year Senate career, followed by two years as vice president, Wilson championed abolition and civil rights. He authored the D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act in 1862. Throughout the Civil War, Senator Wilson chaired the Committee on Military Affairs. He also served as Clara Barton’s principal benefactor.
Clara Barton, also from Massachusetts, began her professional career as a teacher before gaining employment as a Patent Office clerk—one of the first women to hold such a post. She lost that position in 1856 when growing opposition to women in government jobs prompted the James Buchanan administration to remove women from clerkships. When Lincoln took office in 1861, Barton again sought federal employment—but the war intervened.
When those Massachusetts soldiers crowded into the Senate Chamber on April 19, Wilson and Barton were among the first on the scene. While Barton nursed the wounded, Wilson sought medical supplies and provided food and clothing. They quickly became an effective team. In this experience Clara Barton found more than a job—she discovered a vocation and a true friend in Henry Wilson.
By late 1861, having witnessed the unpreparedness of the Army Medical Department, Barton won approval from Chairman Wilson to create her own private distribution center for medical supplies. In 1862, again with Wilson’s support, Barton took her work directly to the battlefields—including Manassas, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. She had no formal training, but Barton skillfully assisted battlefield surgeons and tended to the sick and dying. Through it all, Wilson’s support never lagged. At Fredericksburg Barton met wounded soldiers in desperate living conditions. There was “one man who would set it right,” she wrote in her diary. Wilson soon arrived on the scene, sent for supplies, and launched an investigation. “Every man who left Fredericksburg,” Barton wrote, “owes it to the firm decision of one man,” Henry Wilson.
As the war drew to a close in 1865, Barton tackled the issue of missing soldiers. Again, she turned to Wilson, who consulted the president. On March 11, through presidential authority, Barton established the Missing Soldiers Office. Over the next four years, she searched for the missing, located and identified graves, and published long lists of casualties, bringing sad but vital information to families of lost soldiers.
The ordeal of the Civil War forged many bonds in Washington. One of the most remarkable was the partnership of Barton and Wilson. Clara Barton’s crusading work transformed the profession of nursing and brought her many well-deserved accolades, but too often forgotten is the credit due to her steadfast friend and benefactor, Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts.