Friday, May 6, 2011

Famous Speech Friday: Clara Barton's Andersonville testimony

In May of 1861, the American Civil War was just beginning. States were still seceding and the Confederacy had just established a capital in Richmond. Would-be nurse Clara Barton's Civil War service began just a month earlier, in April 1861, a behind-the-scenes role organizing supplies for the War Department. But the war brought something out in her--something that led her to a speaking role unlike that of most women of her day. It began with action, rather than words. From the New York Times: 
When the war began, Barton was a painfully shy clerk in the Patent Office in Washington. Ignoring orders directing women nurses to stay safely in Washington, Barton...showed up on the field at nearly every major engagement in the eastern theater, beginning with the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862. With no medical training, Barton was resourceful and fearless, combing the battlefield alongside army surgeons looking for survivors, performing triage under fire and helping evacuate the wounded. Barton wisely stayed out of Washington, coming in only to take on supplies before returning to the field. And Barton remained in the field long after the war was over, identifying missing soldiers and marking the graves of the dead at Andersonville.
The American Red Cross biography of its founder takes her speaking as a matter of course:
Barton had a talent for words. Ready to spell three-syllable words when she started school at the age of four, she wrote voluminously throughout her life, often daily. She was also a highly skilled speaker. Veterans attending her lectures were often moved to tears as she vividly described battlefield scenes from her Civil War days. 
Shy or skilled as a speaker, Barton's speaking career took off after the war ended. In 1866, she gave this stunning testimony of her visit to the infamous Andersonville war prison before the U.S. Congress. Barton worked with former prisoners of war there to identify close to 13,000 men who died in Andersonville and their burial places. Her testimony described how freed blacks were treated there. Of a pregnant black woman who had been deemed to fall short of her task, Barton testified:
...She had been bucked and gagged.
Question. Describe the process.
Answer. The person is seated upon the ground, the knees drawn up, the hands put under the knees, and a stick run through over the arms and under the knees, the hands being tied in front; that makes them utterly immovable ; then there is a gag put in the mouth and tied at the back of the head--this woman had been treated in that way--then the overseer had come behind her, kicked her on the back, and thrown her over. She had been stripped in the mean time, for they never whip the negro with the clothes on ; she was thrown on her face, and lashed on her back, so that, when her husband found her, he said she was a gore of blood, and she must have been ; she had been untied, and was lying there as she had been left. 
Her main task was to describe the prison and conditions there, as an eyewitness. Of the prison enclosure, she said:
An Andersonville survivor
It is a stockade formed of pine trees twenty feet long, and from a foot to a foot and a half through, set five or six feet in the ground, close together, and pointed at the top.
Question. What was the area of the enclosure? 
Answer. From twenty-five to twenty-seven acres, more or less. It had been much less at one time. It was originally only eleven acres. They had got some thirty thousand men within that eleven acres. But they found it impossible, as prisoners were constantly sent there, to keep them in that space, and the stockade was increased to the size that they called twenty-seven acres. I had it measured while I was there, and I made it some twenty-five or twenty-six acres
Question. Do you know how many prisoners they had there at any one time during the war?
Answer. From thirty to thirty-four thousand.
In the years following this testimony, Barton gave more than 200 lectures about her Civil War service. The National Park Service notes that she "shared platforms with other prominent figures including Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Lloyd Garrison, and Mark Twain. She often earned $75 to $100 per lecture." Here's what you can learn from her testimony and speaking:
  • Willingness to speak provides a moving--and important--record: I started this post looking for speeches by Florence Nightingale, the European nurse whose career presaged Barton's--but Nightingale preferred a behind-the-scenes role and disapproved of women speaking in public. In contrast, Barton's eventual willingness to testify publicly and to give lectures helped give important witness to the war's atrocities that has long outlived her.
  • Shared experience moves audiences: Barton's ability to plainly describe what she saw on the battlefields helped post-war audiences learn what really happened and reinforced for veterans what they had seen for themselves in real terms. Her words had an extra excitement, since she spoke as one of only a few women who'd witnessed these atrocities.
  • Witnessing can trump discomfort: Barton didn't flinch from harsh descriptions of what she had seen, when called on to testify--and those descriptions are hard to read even today. That role was even more important in an age without the 24/7 news media coverage we have access to today.
  • Your observations can make for compelling speaking: The awful scenes Barton describes are still riveting because of their simplicity and honesty. No one can speak for you, and if you're the main witness to a terrible experience, no matter how gorey, that unique perspective will hold your listeners' attention as no other talk will.
You can read more about Barton in Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. What do you think of Barton's testimony? Share your thoughts in the comments. (Affiliate link)

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