"I SHALL DO ALL IN THE MATTER OF STEPHENS WELL BEING THAT LIES IN MY POWER TO DO": RARE CIVIL WAR AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED BY CLARA BARTON TO HER NEPHEW ABOUT HER BROTHER, WHO WAS CAPTURED BY UNION FORCES
BARTON, Clara. Autograph letter signed. Akin's Landing, Virginia, October 17, 1864. One leaf of lined paper, measuring 8 by 5 inches, writing in ink on both sides; together with stamped autograph envelope. $4500.
Rare autograph letter signed by Clara Barton, written from her Civil War hospital to her Nephew, promising to do all she can for her brother Stephen, who had been captured by Union forces.
Born in Massachusetts, Barton was persuaded by her parents to become a schoolteacher, receiving her teacher's certificate in 1839. After working as a teacher for a dozen years, she attended the Clinton Liberal Institute in New York to continue her education. In 1852, she successfully opened a free school in Bordentown, the first free school in New Jersey. Demoted after the town built a new school and hired a male principal, Barton quit. In 1855, she moved to Washington, D.C., and began work as a clerk in the Patents Office, the first woman to receive a substantial clerkship and equal pay with a man. After three years, the Buchanan administration fired her because of her "Black Republican" political views. After living with friends in Massachusetts for three years, she returned to Washington and took a position as temporary copyist in the Patents Office. After the Baltimore Riot of 1861 against Massachusetts troops, Barton nursed forty of the the victims back to health and learned valuable lessons about aiding soldiers. She began collecting medical supplies and distributing them to soldiers. In August 1862, she received permission from Quartermaster Daniel Rucker to work on the front lines. Throughout the war, she distributed medicine and food to wounded soldiers in close proximity to the battles of Cedar Mountain, Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. In 1864, General Benjamin Butler placed her in charge of hospitals at the front of the Army of the James. For her Civil War service, Barton became known as the "Angel of the Battlefield" and the "Florence Nightingale of America." After the war, she ran the Office of Missing Soldiers in Washington, helping to locate the remains of more than 22,000 missing soldiers. She also lectured about her experiences and became associated with the women's suffrage movement and the civil rights movement for African Americans. In 1869, she became acquainted with the Red Cross in Switzerland and aided military hospitals during the Franco-Prussian War. In 1881, she founded the American Red Cross and became its first president. She continued to work in the field in response to natural disasters and wars as late as 1900.
In this letter, Barton writes to her nephew Irving S. Vassall about the receipt of letters, including one from her nephew Samuel Rich Barton, the son of Barton's oldest brother, Stephen Barton. In 1855, Stephen had purchased a lumber mill in North Carolina and established the town of Bartonville. After secession, he remained in North Carolina to protect his property. Although Confederate authorities ordered him to leave the state and attempted to seize his property, he remained as a nonbelligerent Unionist in a Confederate state. In the summer of 1863, he declined to leave with a Union expedition, and he was at last captured in September 1864 by Union forces and sent to a prison in Norfolk.
The letter reads in full:
Flying Hospital 10th A.C.
"Dept. of the James," near Akin's
Landing, Va. Oct. 17, 1864
My dear Irving
I wish to acknowledge through you for the time being the reception of the letters by Mr. Doe, one from you one from Mr. Brown and one from Sam.
Tell Sam that I recd the enclosed form of consent and will present it to his father if I see him and it is needless for me to assure any of you that I shall do all in the matter of Stephens well being that lies in my power to do. I can of course presume nothing you all know the style of Genl Butler's dealings with suspected parties and you see who I have to deal with and what lies before me if I accomplish anything. If by all this time of faithful labor among Genl Butler's troops I have gained any prestige, or laid him under any feelings of obligation to me, I may be able to turn it in perhaps for what it is worth, and I may loose all in the attempt, and of course be blamed for my poor luck—ought to have done more—I will do what I can. No time. Have just moved and am fitting a hospital.
[Envelope: Irving S. Vassall/Mass. Mil. State Agency./ Washington, D.C.
Clara Barton's prestige, or General Butler's feelings of obligation, proved to be powerful; once Barton approached Butler on the topic, he immediately ordered that her brother be released from prison and into Clara's care. But the experience was too much for Stephen, and he was already gravely ill by the time he came to his sister. She attended to him until his death on March 10, 1865. It was a hard time for Barton's family: one month later, on April 9, her nephew Irving S. Vassall, the recipient of this letter, died of consumption.
Expected fold lines. Letters of Clara Barton written during the war are exceptionally scarce and very few are known besides this one.