Thursday, January 03, 2019

Clara Barton's Civil War: Between Bullet and Hospital, Donald C. Pfanz,   248 pp, 30 illustrations, appendices, bibliographic notes, bibliography, Westholme Publishing, 2018,  $28.00 hardcover.

Civil War Librarian: Most other works on Clara Barton's American Civil War service accept and rely upon, at face value, her own tales about herself. Pfanz's reading of Stephen Oates' A Woman on Valor found that Oates' portrayal of Barton as a "heroine of mythical proportions." Checking the Oates' footnotes set off alarm bells for Pfanz and he decided to "dig out the original sources, peel away the self-manufactured legend and determine for myself what she really did during the war.;

While a National Park Service staff historian, he had read "thousands of letter and memoirs written by Union soldiers, and not one of them so much as mentioned Barton. Pfanz asked "How does a historian get at the truth when his subject is so firmly steeped in legend?"  The author reevaluated the source material of Barton's own recollections and the text of her many speeches after the war.

In Clara Barton's Civil War: Between Bullet and Hospital Pfanz offers a more realistic and historically grounded account of Barton's work during the war. Readers will likely be both somewhat surprised and more appreciative Clara Barton's actual accomplishments. Checking primary sources against Barton's own post-war testimony, Pfanz concludes that Barton overstated her the dramatic elements of her accomplishment. But in the course of the book, he provides an accurate account of her service that in the end needed no burnishing.

Clara Barton's Civil War: Between Bullet and Hospital narrative is accessible to both adults and advanced placement middle school and high school students. Pfanz's work also offers a fine introduction to the historian's process of finding the actual event among the recollections of the participants.

From the Publisher:
“I always tried to succor the wounded until medical aid and supplies could come up—I could run the risk; it made no difference to anyone if I were shot or taken prisoner.” So recorded Clara Barton, the most famous woman to emerge from the American Civil War. In an age when few women worked in hospitals, much less at the front, Barton served in at least four Union armies, providing food and assistance to wounded soldiers on battlefields stretching from Maryland to South Carolina.
Thousands of soldiers benefited from her actions, and she is unquestionably an American heroine. But how much do we really know about her actual wartime service? Most information about Barton’s activities comes from Barton herself. After the war, she toured the country recounting her wartime experiences to overflowing audiences. In vivid language, she described crossing the Rappahannock River under fire to succor wounded Union soldiers at Fredericksburg, transporting critical supplies to field hospitals at Antietam, and enduring searing heat and brackish water on the sun-scorched beaches of South Carolina.

She willingly braved hardship and danger in order to help the young men under her care, receiving in return their love and respect. Most of Barton’s biographers have accepted her statements at face value, but in doing so, they stand on shaky ground, for Barton was a relentless self-promoter and often embellished her stories in an effort to enhance her accomplishments.
In Clara Barton’s Civil War: Between Bullet and Hospital, distinguished historian Donald Pfanz revisits Barton’s claims, comparing the information in her speeches with contemporary documents, including Barton’s own wartime diary and letters. In doing so, he provides the first balanced and accurate account of her wartime service—a service that in the end needed no exaggeration.

Donald C. Pfanz is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. In his thirty-two-year career with the National Park Service, he worked at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park, Petersburg National Battlefield, and Fort Sumter National Monument. He is a founding member of the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (now the Civil War Trust) and has written six books about the Civil War, including Richard S. Ewell: A Soldier’s Life and War So Terrible: A Popular History of the Battle of Fredericksburg.

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