Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Letter to Johnny from Clara Barton

portrait of Clara Barton and John Elwell
Clara Barton and Col. John J. Elwell

Ruth Deming
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, United States


July 15, 1865 (four months to the day after President Lincoln was shot)

Dear Johnny,

I am tired. Dog tired. At your behest, I am sending this hastily scribbled note. I am sending this to your aunt’s address so your wife will not get suspicious. Nothing could be worse than to break apart your marriage and destroy the lives of your wife and children. Yet, I have learned during those few days you and I lay curled together in that featherbed, away from the stench of battle, what a sacred retreat from care that the institution of marriage offers. We shall remain devoted forever, Johnny.

May I speak with my accustomed candor, dear? Your Clarissa, as you call me (my rightful name instead of the more severe Clara) is once again at a difficult crossroads. You know how reviled I have been by my enemies: the so-called Christian Dorothea Dix, with her stern, unsmiling face and black hair that looks like a tarred roof, though she finally accepted my work on the battlefields, and the immediate rejection by unthinking Union generals who did not believe a woman should be on the fields of battle. What a relief when the surgeons gave me the credit I so well deserved.

I don’t believe you and I have ever spoken of what prepared me for my life’s work, which I attack with missionary zeal. On our farm in North Oxford, Massachusetts, my adored little brother, David, was only eleven years old when he fell from the rafters (whatever was that daredevil thinking?) and, bleeding, with broken bones and spirit, it was I who nursed him back to health.

But nothing could have prepared me for Andersonville Prison, deep in the bosom of slave country. I removed bullets with a pocket knife, held wounded soldiers down with the force of my body as the surgeons plucked out bullets or God forfend amputated a leg or an arm, hearing their cries for mercy. The tents, my darling, were of must needs built quickly, to take in the injured from Antietam and Bull Run. I took a bullet in my own cheek, which I barely minded, as I was tending to a soldier who took another bullet, which killed the poor soul.

When will this war end? The war to keep these American states as one indivisible union?

Andersonville Prison was my reward and my scourge after the war ended. We are so hardened to the certitudes of the battlefield. I can close my eyes and still hear the cries and moans for Mother on the blood-dank fields, the constant noise of cannon-shot and bullets whirling by as fast as a bottleneck fly. My ears have never stopped ringing. Andersonville, cursed by the devil, was commanded by a Major Wirz, who should be shot in front of all the surviving prisoners. What a monster, a Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun!

When I entered through the tall wooden ramparts of the prison, a multitude of images assaulted me. Were these figures men? They were skeletons, stripped of the meat and flesh from the body and draped with filthy uniforms unrecognizable as blue Union clothing. Underfoot was a fallen prisoner who cried, “Help me Mother.” Looking down, I saw pus exuding from wounds on his arms and a pestilence of fleas and maggots crawling over his body.

My eyes traveled upward as if they knew where to look. High above the ground was a gallows. Such a sight I had never beheld before. I pushed my way forward. Six men stood on the wooden stockade. As I moved closer, I heard a terrible clanging noise and saw the quick dropping of the wooden platform and the men hanging by the neck, their bodies twisting as their lifeblood slowly drained from them.

But I must stop now, Johnny. Or surely I will go mad. Yes, this Angel of the Battlefield will be rendered senseless, a creature paralyzed in a spider’s web. This has happened before, and I must not let it happen again but have faith in the Almighty who allows my manic energy and skills of organization to prevail.

I often think the Almighty speaks through my hands. How else have I not perished among the soldiers? My darling, you would be amazed at what your five-foot Clarissa Barton has accomplished in but three months, not alone but with the brave help of others.

Oh, that I could be in your arms as I tell of the horrors I saw on these once fecund farm fields. Daddy’s farm back in Massachusetts was a happy placid place with slow-moving brown-eyed cows and graceful horses I rode with the wind caressing my cheeks. How I hate to think of all the dead horses on the battlefield, their quizzical eyes, staring up at us. “Why have you done this to us?” they seemed to inquire.

Soldiers begged me to locate their families. “Tell them I am alive or nearly alive,” they would say. “Let them know of all the dead as they wait at home for word of what has become of us.”

Although I did not count them, we received 60,000 letters asking to locate family members. Sixty-thousand, the number is incalculable to me.

Using these same hands that write you now, Dorence Atwater and I walked into an office within the prison and searched for missing soldiers in the Andersonville Death Register. My hands shook as I pored through these files. Then Mr. Atwater and I and other volunteers wrote dozens of letters to family members who would wring their hands when they received the devastating news.

“Words cannot express my sad duty to inform you of the death of your beloved . . .”

I wrote these letters until my fingers bled. It was the most important work I had ever done, in service to our beloved Abraham Lincoln who we miss more than life itself and who wrote me a letter (which I cherish) saying I was welcome on any battlefield I so chose.

Wearing my usual hoop skirts and white lace, I was a whirlwind of energy, like the ruby-throated hummingbird. We made cornmeal mush and hardtack biscuits for as many prisoners as we could. The ones who were starving needed to take small bites so as not to agitate their stomachs and send the food coursing out again. I became fond of so many of the men: blue-eyed Josiah Elmwood whose fiancé Eliza was waiting at home, and an older man whose name I forget, something like Joshua Kumquat, who rued the day his war fervor tore him from his printing business and his family.

What good is sleep when there is work to be done? My lanterns lit up the darkness as I continued to write letters in my white tent and organize in my head what were to become streets within the vast acreage. We finally created a cemetery with wooden crosses, painted a virginal white. I myself wielded a shovel and buried many a man. I came up with the idea of placing a tag with his name or his “John Doe” on his toe.

In three months the prison was transformed. It was unfair to give me the credit. You see, true horrors had taken place at Andersonville and every other battlefield. All we can do is wipe away these atrocities and start all over again. The pitting of brother against brother, family against family, nation against nation, is the work of the devil. And this is not the end of it. As long as hatred, injustice, and poverty reign across the world, wars will attempt—and fail—to solve these inequities.

Remember Joseph in the Bible? His brothers threw him in a pit and sold him to slave traders in Egypt. But this good man became the second most important person in Egypt, next to the Pharaoh. And he forgave his brothers.

What I would like to do, Johnny, is go back to my parents’ farm in Massachusetts. I’d like to sit at the dining room table, have some pork chops rolling in fat, and discourse with my family (even though my parents are no longer here). I would talk about how I wanted to lead a simple life, the life of a farm girl, with many young children to tend to. The soul that resides within me had other ideas. I nurtured it like a garden of roses.

Picture me, if you can Johnny, at the transformed prison. That grand American flag with its red, white and blue stars and stripes is being hauled up a flagpole. Laboriously, for I am tired.

Your Clarissa



RUTH Z. DEMING, MGPGP, is a psychotherapist and mental health advocate who is founder/director of New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder and their loved ones. Her poetry and prose have appeared in many journals, including Literary Yard, Ray’s Road Review and Hektoen International. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.


Spring 2016  |  Sections  |  Fiction

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