One of the major characters at the Battle of Antietam is Clara Barton. It was here that she really made a mark that causing her to become well-known for her assistance to the soldiers in the Civil War – earning her the name as “the Angel of the Battlefield.” And on the 100th anniversary of the Battle in 1962, the Red Cross placed a monument on the Poffenberger Farm that spoke of her service there. The advance being made in medical care is one of the major interpretive themes we share with guests who come to Antietam.
Clara Barton was an excellent communicator and prolific writer. Here today is a letter that Clara wrote to a cousin just prior to the Battle of Fredericksburg – exactly 150 years ago on December 12th. I have this letter in my notebook I carry on tours. I usually do not have time to include it on the typical tour, unless I have been made aware that the guests desire a special emphasis on her life.
This is really a great letter that takes you right there with her in those creepy and dark hours just before a major battle.
Head Quarters 2nd Div.
9th Army Corps-Army of the Potomac
Camp near Falmouth, Va.
December 12th, 1862 – 2 o’clock A.M.
My dear Cousin Vira:
Five minutes time with you; and God only knows what those five minutes might be worth to the many doomed thousands sleeping around me.
It is the night before a battle. The enemy, Fredericksburg, and its mighty entrenchments lie before us, the river between – at tomorrow’s dawn our troops will assay to cross, and the guns of the enemy will sweep those frail bridges at every breath.
The moon is shining through the soft haze with a brightness almost prophetic. For the last half hour I have stood alone in the awful stillness of its glimmering light gazing upon the strange sad scene around me striving to say, “Thy will Oh God be done.”
The camp fires blaze with unwanted brightness, the sentry’s tread is still but quick – the acres of little shelter tents are dark and still as death, no wonder for us as I gazed sorrowfully upon them. I thought I could almost hear the slow flap of the grim messenger’s wings, as one by one he sought and selected his victims for the morning. Sleep weary one, sleep and rest for tomorrow’s toil. Oh! Sleep and visit in dreams once more the loved ones nestling at home. They may yet live to dream of you, cold lifeless and bloody, but this dream soldier is thy last, paint it brightly, dream it well. Oh northern mothers, wives, and sisters, all unconscious of the hour … would to Heaven that I could bear for you the concentrated woe which is so soon to follow, would that Christ would teach my soul a prayer that would plead to the Father for grace sufficient for you, God pity and strengthen you every one.
Mine are not the only waking hours, the light yet burns brightly in our kind-hearted General’s** tent where he pens what may be a last farewell to his wife and children and thinks sadly of his fated men.
Already the roll of the moving artillery is sounded in my ears. The battle draws near and I must catch one hour’s sleep for tomorrow’s labor.
Good night dear cousin and heaven grant you strength for your more peaceful and less terrible, but not less weary days than mine.
Yours in love,
** The kind-hearted general must have been Samuel Sturgis – judging from her location reference as with the 2nd Division of the 9th Corps. He had a wife and four children. Sturgis is also famous for one of the single best quotes of the War: “I don’t care for John Pope one pinch of owl dung.” He would survive the Civil War and fight in the Indian Wars – serving with Custer. And yes, the motorcycle-made-famous town of Sturgis, South Dakota is named after him. He is also sort of a local to our quad-state area around Antietam, having been born in Shippensburg, PA.