Mention the impact of women in Civil War-era medicine, and most people will bring up the name Clara Barton, but others also bravely toiled to heal injured and ailing soldiers in the field. Our resident Civil War scholar Ivan relates the story of a remarkable New Jerseyan who dedicated the last years of her life to save Union soldiers.
The American Civil War evokes many iconic images, from the wise Abraham Lincoln to the heroic soldiers to the freed slaves left to negotiate a different place in American society. However, few people, even many Civil War scholars, spend much time contemplating the profound accomplishments and sacrifices of those who gave their time and effort to tending to the sick and wounded soldiers of the conflict. Indeed many more soldiers died of disease than due to battlefield wounds. For Union soldiers the ratio was about 2 to 1 and for the Confederates the ratio of those who died of disease vs. wounds was even higher. Why did this happen? Certainly the medical profession’s knowledge of germs was in its infancy. The Union Civil War Surgeon General William Hammond considered the conflict to have occurred “at the end of the medical Middle Ages.” If that was not bad enough, many soldiers entered the army fresh off the farm where they had little to no exposure to the deadly diseases of the day such as measles, smallpox and malaria.
Into this deadly atmosphere entered Somerville native Arabella Griffith Barlow. At the relatively-advanced age of 37, she had married Francis Channing Barlow just a day before he left for war in April of 1861. What added to the unusual nature of the nuptials was the fact that Arabella was ten years older than her new husband. She was considered quite an item in pre-war New York City, having come from a prominent Somerville family and was educated by a relative, Miss Eliza Wallace of Burlington City. Arabella was described by fellow New Jerseyan George Templeton Strong, a founder of the United States Sanitary Commission, as “certainly the most brilliant, cultivated, easy, graceful, effective talker of womankind.”
Despite her place in New Jersey society of the day, Arabella was looked upon as a very capable and determined woman. In fact, she once said, “Women rule everything and can get anything.” Such an attitude well served her husband, then a colonel, when he was wounded at the battle of Antietam in September of 1862. Having joined the Sanitary Commission earlier that year, Arabella immediately went to Francis’ side to nurse him back to health. Promoted to brigadier general two days after the battle, he figured prominently in the battles of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg where he was again wounded. Once again, Arabella cared for her husband in Baltimore and then in Somerville until he was able to resume active service in the field.
Where many might have returned home after their loved ones had recovered, Arabella continued to serve in the Sanitary Commission, bringing praise from medical professionals. An army doctor’s report included this account of her dedication: “Her exhausting work at Fredericksburg, where the largest powers of administration were displayed, left but a small measure of vitality with which to encounter the severe exposure of the poisoned swamps of the Pamunkey, and the malarious districts of City Point. Here, in the open field, she toiled…under the scorching sun, with no shelter from the pouring rains, and with no thought but for those who were suffering and dying all around her.”
Indeed, she worked so hard that she succumbed to exhaustion and fainted at her post. Only then did she realize that she had contracted the typhoid fever that eventually claimed her life on July 27, 1864. Francis was understandably distraught over the news of his wife’s death but managed to endure. He was promoted to Major General in the final days of the war and was present for the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.
Arabella now lies at rest in Old Somerville Cemetery, honored by a plaque that only hints at the strength of this remarkable woman.