Megan Wells brings genius of Clara Barton to life at Levy Lecture

Updated: Jan 24

The sixth season of the Levy Lecture Series started Jan. 11 as storyteller and actor Megan Wells introduced the audience to the life and times of Clara Barton, widely known as the founder of the American Red Cross. Less widely known or acknowledged are Ms. Barton’s other accomplishments as a teacher, nurse, finder of missing persons and humanitarian.

This was Wells’ ninth presentation to Levy Lecture audiences, all of them highly acclaimed. For these dramatizations, she writes original scripts derived from her own research about her subjects. Wearing a beautiful hooped dress suitable for the late 1800s, her Clara enters the room, greets her audience, and begins to tell her life story, starting from her birth on Christmas Day 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts, a “gift” to her parents and four siblings, two brothers and two sisters. The sister closest to her age was 11 years older.


Clara’s relationship with her mother was distant and somewhat strained. Clara’s mother Sarah had thought she was “done” with the work of birthing and raising children. Emotionally and physically, she was spent. Her father David adored and doted on her, as did her siblings.


Clara was largely raised by her eldest sister. Her sisters taught her the “womanly skills” like how to use herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of food, fire-tending, sewing, hair braiding and such. From her brothers she learned how to ride a horse, climb trees and play a game involving a ball hit by a stick (later to be called baseball). She was unabashedly a tomboy, later describing her experience as “being raised to be both a daughter and a son.” She was painfully shy and hardly ever spoke in front of others, but she paid attention, listened keenly and observed every detail. She excelled at school.


Clara especially adored her older brother, David. When Clara was 10, David and others were building a new barn for a cousin. David climbed the structure’s scaffolding to tie off one of the corners. David slipped and fell, suffering a severe head injury.


The doctors who attended him did what they could to bring down his fever and improve his condition, but after a few weeks, they were at a loss. David was still bedridden, weak and feverish, despite constant care and the use of leeches to “bleed” the patient.


Clara asked to be allowed to stay with David and care for him. She had observed everything the doctors did to treat David, and was confident she could maintain the same standard of care. After much discussion, her parents agreed. Both parents assumed that David would die in the coming weeks and didn’t want him to be alone.


Clara cared for David for months. Little by little, David recovered. Once he was able to sit up and walk with assistance, his doctors sent him to a rehabilitation center for three months to regain his strength. He made a full and complete recovery. It had taken two years.


Clara received her teaching accreditation at age 17. She was a good teacher, knowing how to interact and relate to restless farm boys in spite of her petite frame and being only 5 feet tall. With a contribution from her brother, Stephen, she established the first free public school in New Jersey, making it possible so children from poor families could learn to read and write. Within two years, Clara and a friend were teaching hundreds of children. Delighted town officials authorized a new school to be constructed, which they decided would be headed by a man. They bypassed the woman who had started, funded and ran the school; Clara’s position was downgraded and her salary cut. Insulted, she quit.


Her next move took her to the nation’s capital in 1855; she was the first woman to be hired as a patent clerk working for the federal government, and the first to be paid the same salary as the male patent clerks. Her colleagues resented her presence and were verbally cruel and insulting. Her supervisor helped her as much as he could, but in 1858 she was released from her position for political reasons with acquiescence by President James Buchanan. She returned to her family home in Massachusetts and busied herself with other things. It would not be the last time she was underestimated solely because of her gender.


In 1861, the likelihood of a war between the North and the South loomed over the nation, President Abraham Lincoln led the country, and Clara returned to Washington with hopes of being rehired by the U.S. Patent Office.


In April of that same year, the war came to Baltimore. After the Baltimore Riot, in which Union troops closed with Southern sympathizers, the Union soldiers, both those wounded and unscathed, were packed onto a train and sent back to Washington. Clara’s strong sense of duty compelled her to go there to help, and she saw that many of the returning soldiers were boys she knew from her teaching days in Massachusetts. They were without food, extra clothing or other essentials, and some were injured. It was clear the country was unprepared to deal with the aftereffects of war’s destruction.


This event galvanized Clara. She wrote to her friends and family asking for donations of bandages, clothing, towels and other supplies for Union soldiers. The response was so overwhelming that in time her small home was no longer large enough to hold the excess and she need to rent a warehouse to store all the donations.


As the war ramped up, federal buildings around Washington were converted to hospitals and recovery wards. Clara helped care for as many of the soldiers as she could. This was to be the start of the defining issue of her life, her cause, her passion. She saw a need and she rose to the occasion to fulfill it.


Early on Clara realized that the long distance between “the bullet and the hospital” contributed to the high death rate among soldiers. She lobbied hard to be allowed to go to the battlefields to set up makeshift hospitals. Eventually she was allowed to do so. In her long skirts, she brought much-needed supplies close to where overworked surgeons were hastily amputating limbs and cauterizing wounds in hopes of saving young lives.


Clara came to be called “the Angel of the Battlefield.” It was exhausting, dangerous, filthy and unsanitary work, but it needed to be done and she did it admirably. She ambled through the muddy and bloody fields, comforting and offering care. She changed dressings, cleaned bodies and helped provide nourishment and water, often at great personal risk.


As the end of the war drew near, Clara became aware of the plight of the missing and unmarked dead. She was well known as being a soldier’s friend, and distraught parents wrote to her for assistance finding out what happened to their loved ones. Clara wrote to Lincoln and asked to be allowed to set up an “Office for Missing Soldiers” where families could send their requests and volunteers would try to help. Lincoln approved the request, and between 1865 and 1868 Clara and her team of volunteers would locate and notify the families of more than 22,000 soldiers.


Clara brought the idea of an American Red Cross back to the United States after learning about the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention of 1864 while vacationing in Europe.


She founded the American Red Cross in 1881. Many Americans doubted the need for such an organization, naively convinced that the Civil War was the last war. Clara knew that the Red Cross would be invaluable in the face of natural disasters, a concept put to the test in 1889 with the Johnstown, Pennslyvania, flood which killed more than 2,200 people.


As Wells portrayed Clara’s professional growth and expanding social conscience, one could almost forget that it wasn’t actually Clara talking to the viewer. The Levy audience was enthralled. At the conclusion of Megan’s dramatization, Donna M. Czarnecki offered, “Bravo!! This was a superb performance and I learned so much.” Paula Cofresi-Silverstein was equally spellbound, typing in the comments, “Phenomenal. Brought tears to my eyes. Very touching. Thank you!”


The webinar is available for viewing on the Levy Senior Center Foundation’s YouTube channel. Levy Lectures are always free, but registration is required.


By Wendi Kromash as published in the Evanston RoundTable. Ms. Kromash is a member of the Levy Center Foundation Board; she manages and moderates the Levy Lecture Series.