Between Civil War battles in early 1864, Clara Barton was stuck in Washington with time on her hands. She was mentally exhausted by physical inactivity during a winter pause on the front, and frustrated that her latest effort to open a new warehouse for supplies hadn't panned out.
"I am depressed and feel dissatisfied with myself," she wrote in fine, tiny script in diaries now stored on microfilm in the Library of Congress. With so little to do, she paradoxically couldn't rest, and so "rose not refreshed, but cold and languid." For neither the first nor last time, she considered suicide.
"All the world appears selfish and treacherous," she wrote on April 14. "I can get no hold on a good noble sentiment any where. I have scanned over and over the whole moral horizon and it is all dark. The night clouds seem to have shut down -- so stagnant, so dead, so selfish, so calculating. ... Shall the world move on in all this weight of dead, morbid meanness?" A few days later, she fantasized again about killing herself.
But then, as Elizabeth Brown Pryor wrote in her 1987 biography, "Clara Barton: Professional Angel," the self-made philanthropist's "dejection was lifted finally by her only true remedy -- a need for her services. The Union army's spring campaign had started early."
When every single man assisting at a surgery in Antietam ran for cover under fire in 1862, Barton had not only stayed but gloried in having bested the boys; the sort of duty that incapacitated others brought Barton back to life. And so, in spring 1864, with the death of thousands in the woods of Spotsylvania County, Va., she restocked supplies and was off again to care for the wounded. Not long after, a co-worker saw her, according to Pryor, "as a cheerful spirit, breezing through the wards in a blue dress and white apron, rousing the men by singing "Rally Round the Flag, Boys.' "
>Barton's lasting legacy
Throughout Barton's long, difficult and staggeringly successful life, she self-medicated through service, her diaries reveal, using the most intense, bloody work imaginable to keep the "thin black snakes" of sadness from closing in. And, fortunately for Civil War soldiers, women voters, anyone who has been helped by the American Red Cross, and every GI who ever wore a dog tag, Barton did not take her own life -- and instead died of pneumonia in her Glen Echo, Md., home 100 years ago at age 90.
Her obituary, which made the front page of The New York Times on April 13, 1912, said: "Clara Barton was President for twenty-three years of the Red Cross Society, which was established in this country through her efforts. She retired in May 1904, on account of factional quarrels within the organization. But long before the society was founded she had become famous for her work on battlefields in the civil war and in the Franco-Prussian war."
Indeed, it's hard to imagine how Barton could have accomplished more. And easy to wonder if a happier woman would have fought as she did -- with presidents and nobodies, over great injustices and petty slights.
So did Clara Barton accomplish all that she did despite her depression or because of it?
No one alive knows more about Barton than Pryor, and in a phone interview, the biographer insisted that Barton eventually prevailed over her depression. "This crippling mental condition was real, and she conquered it, and she did solve it" both through work and seeking out strategies, in quite a modern way, for better managing her symptoms. "She did learn."
Yet Barton's diaries suggest that she accomplished all she did not by outrunning or decapitating those thin black snakes, but by following them, to Armenia after atrocities and to the Andersonville prison in Georgia after Appomattox.
Calmest in a crisis, most fully functional as others panicked, she did her best work in the dark.
How Clarissa Harlowe Barton of North Oxford, Mass., came to be pursued by those snakes is not a mystery lost to history. As Pryor put it on the phone, "Talk about a dysfunctional family."
>Early days with family
The youngest of five, Barton had a sister who was so seriously mentally ill that she was kept locked in her room. One of her two brothers was indicted for bank robbery, and the other committed suicide in middle age.
Her father, Capt. Stephen Barton, had served under Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne in the French and Indian War, and "his soldier habits and tastes never left him," she wrote. He and Barton's mother, Sarah, fought loudly and often.
There were good times in Clara Barton's childhood, too -- horseback riding with her older brother David, for instance -- but the highlight of her formative years was by all accounts the two years she spent nursing David back to health after a fall.
>Roots of depression
While she was still a teenager, her family persuaded her to take a position as a teacher in a local school. A child herself, she understood her charges and expected the best of them in a way that tended to be self-fulfilling.
As a young woman, she and a group of girlfriends had made a pact never to marry, and she never seems to have been seriously tempted to break that vow. Still, while teaching in Hightstown, N.J., a broken love affair that she writes about only cryptically in her journals seems to have pushed her into full-blown depression. As Pryor writes: "It is tempting to view these musings as Barton's earliest struggle with what was to become a lifelong battle against chronic depression. Her words suggest, however, that this low period in the spring of 1852 was simply part of a continuum."
Again and again, her diaries bear that out. In a notation on Wednesday, March 24, 1852, Barton writes that she is "more and more certain every day that there is no such thing as friendship -- at least not for me, and I will not dupe or fool myself. ... It is all false -- in fact the whole world is false. This brings out my old inquiry. What is the use of living in it. I can see no possible benefit deriving from my life."
She went on to another teaching job, and moved to Washigton, D.C., where she worked for a while at the U.S. Patent Office. Then the war broke out, and she all but forgot about her day job.
On April 19, 1861, the first day blood was shed -- as Union soldiers from her home state of Massachusetts passed through Baltimore -- she was beside herself even before reaching them: "thrilled and bewildered," she told her sister.
As it happened, nearly 40 of the men in the Sixth Massachusetts Regiment were her former students -- her boys, as she came to call all soldiers, in a real way. And after seeing that no real provisions had been made for them in Washington, the next day she bought all the food and supplies she could find, engaged workers to help her carry them, and, in Pryor's magnificent account, swept down Pennsylvania Avenue and into the Senate chamber, which had been turned into a makeshift hospital. .
In the years that followed, Barton took it upon herself to raise money to fill entire warehouses with supplies that she personally delivered to the battlefield. When she was fully engaged, her journal entries paradoxically became less dramatic, introspective and fraught; for one thing, there wasn't time for that.
At work and at war, she reveled in being where the action was. Arriving at Hilton Head on April 12, 1863, she was downright giddy to be reaching shore just as the shooting on Charleston, S.C., was starting: "I had never missed of finding the trouble I went to find," she bragged to herself.
She had her most serious love affair there, with a married Union captain whom she saw shot during the battle for Battery Wagner. (Again "finding the trouble I went to find," she dragged him to the beach, nursed him back to health and got out of town just ahead of his wife.)
>After the Civil War
After seeing for herself the bravery of the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment Voluntary Infantry -- the first Union regiment recruited from freed slaves to fight in the Civil War -- she became an energetic advocate for the rights of African-Americans, and though she hated public speaking, passionately railed against racial and gender bias during her long national speaking tour after the war.
In 1869 she went to Switzerland, where she was supposed to be recovering from another breakdown, when she became acquainted with the International Red Cross and spent many years fighting to get it founded, recognized and funded in the United States.
She personally led relief efforts after the Johnstown flood, a hurricane that nearly wiped out the Sea Islands and a storm that leveled Galveston, Texas, in 1900. She had lunch on the USS Maine two days before it blew up in Havana harbor in 1898, and during the Spanish-American War, she worked 16-hour days at age 77.
Pryor says in her book that Barton never again had another breakdown, but according to her diaries, she did again contemplate suicide, in 1904, though as before, she never seems to have made an attempt. She saw the Red Cross as her child, and as it was being taken away from her, she was again tempted to end her life. "I seem to feel but one impulse -- one desire, to get away from it all," she wrote Feb. 3.
To the end, she feuded with friends and wrestled with herself. As you read her diaries, it's hard not to feel that it was fighting that kept her going so long.