- Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was
a 40-year-old former schoolteacher when the Civil War broke out in 1861.
As she witnessed dreadful and bloody carnage, she saw a need for a system
to distribute medical supplies and food to troops on the front lines. For
her untiring efforts, she deservedly earned the title of "The Angel
of the Battlefield." Later, according to some accounts, she may have
met her own guardian angel.
- After the war she worked tirelessly to establish an office
that would help locate and identify prisoners, missing soldiers, and the
dead who lay lost in unmarked graves throughout the North and the South.
- Her doctors sent her abroad to Europe to rest and rejuvenate
her state of exhaustion and ill health, and she arrived shortly before
the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. She immediately began
work with relief units of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
- Forced into temporary retirement by ill health, she used
her supposed convalescence to begin lobbying the U.S. Senate to ratify
the Geneva Convention and to establish an American Red Cross. In 1882 the
Senate managed to put aside its fear of foreign entanglements, and the
Geneva Convention was ratified, the American Red Cross was formed, and
Clara Barton was named its first president.
- It was in April 1884 that 63-year-old Clara Barton, who
had always professed to be a deist, rather than a conventionally religious
person, may have met her guardian angel aboard the riverboat Mattie Bell
on the Mississippi River.
- A terrible spring flood had swept away corn and cotton
fields, as well as homes and human lives, and Clara and a group of Red
Cross workers were on a mission of mercy to bring food and medical supplies
to the starving and the injured.
- Before they set out, the captain of the Mattie Bell had
warned her that it would be no pleasure cruise. They were going to encounter
floating trees, dead animals, and other debris--probably including human
- But the most dangerous threat to their mission, he emphasized,
would be submerged rocks and crevasses, waterfalls. The flood had allowed
the river to escape its former banks and to break through in new directions,
and that meant that those crevasses might now be in places where they had
never been before. A crevasse was a riverboat captain's worst nightmare.
- Just as the Mattie Bell was about to push away from the
dock, a Red Cross worker rushed up to Clara Barton with the report that
a stranger had just stepped on board and was requesting permission to sail
with them. The worker told her that the stranger seemed rather vague about
his reasons for wanting to accompany them and that there was something
unusual about him.
- Clara, always practical and direct, expressed her opinion
that she saw no reason for a stranger, "unusual" or otherwise,
to accompany them. "Tell him that permission is denied," she
told the Red Cross worker.
- But the Mattie Bell was pulling away from the dock, and
the stranger was already on board. The captain had given the order to sail,
and the assembled crowd of well-wishers was giving them a rousing sendoff,
complete with a chorus of cheers and a band playing "The Battle Hymn
of the Republic." The stranger was forgotten.
- The captain had been right about the unpleasant sights
that they would encounter. No member of the crew or the Red Cross workers
could remain unmoved by the river currents carrying bobbing, swollen- corpses
of men, women, and children, as well as the carcasses of horses, cattle,
cats, dogs, and other livestock and poultry. The Mississippi River had
become a charnel house that moved inexorably toward New Orleans with its
debris of death.
- From time to time the captain would call out to Clara
Barton, "Hear that roar? Just on the other side of that broken levee
is a crevasse. Pray to God that we don't come on one of those hellholes
- It was nearly sundown when Clara recalled that they had
a stranger in their midst. A worker pointed out the man standing alone
at the stern, leaning on a railing, looking at the sunset.
- He seemed to be an ordinary fellow, Clara remarked to
her assistant. And he did not appear to be bothering anyone. Nevertheless,
she ordered, he would be put ashore at the next dock.
- She had just made her decision about the stranger when
the captain approached her with another matter that required her immediate
- "Miss Barton, I'm asking your permission to continue
for a little while longer. There's a headland just a few miles farther
on that would be an excellent spot to drop anchor for the night."
- Clara was puzzled by the man's request. The sun had nearly
set. It was the Captain himself who sought to impress her with the many
dangers inherent in this voyage. Wouldn't they be taking great risk by
continuing after dark?
- The captain seemed to stiffen at her query. She was,
nominally in command, so he must obey her orders. However, he reminded
her that he had been chosen for the voyage because of his great familiarity
with the river. He was certain that he could make the headland before it
became completely dark.
- Clara reluctantly agreed to allow the captain to continue
on toward the headland where he wished to anchor for the night.
- But then almost as if the demonic force of the flood
had conspired to entrap the Mattie Bell, a thick fog seemed to appear from
nowhere. Within moments the last rays of sunset had been swallowed up by
the rolling clouds of fog, and the riverboat slowed to a crawl--far from
the headland sought by the captain.
- Clara Barton gripped the cold railing of the ship and
began to pray for God's help in seeing them through to safety.
- A deep masculine voice startled her from her prayer.
It was the stranger's voice, and although she could not clearly see his
face in the darkness, she could hear plainly the urgency in his voice:
"Within moments the steamboat will be in a crevasse, and it is a deadly
one. The captain and engineer will not listen to me. You must command them
to pull backward at once. If they do not, the ship will be lost--and all
on board will perish!"
- Clara Barton did not hesitate for even one second to
argue the validity of the stranger's grim warning. There was something
about his manner that precluded debate. She was immediately on her way
to alert the captain of the danger.
- Later she thanked God that the startled captain had not
felt his authority threatened by a female. He had implemented her orders
- The crew and the Red Cross workers felt the Mattie Bell
shudder to a stop. The rushing current of the crevasse could now be heard
plainly by everyone.
- To a person they all realized that their lives now depended
on the little steamboat's reversed engines' being powerful enough to fight
against the current that sought to pull them to their deaths.
- To his credit, the captain displayed remarkable skill
at the wheel as he managed to direct the Mattie Bell, groaning and creaking,
engines shrieking, backward to an area where he felt secure in dropping
anchor for the night.
- At dawn's first light the men and women who had set out
on a mission of mercy beheld with absolute horror the fate that a merciful
God had spared them.
- Immediately before them stretched a crevasse almost five
hundred feet wide over which a torrent of rushing water dropped fifteen
feet into the river below.
- How had the stranger known of the existence of the broad
and deadly crevasse?
- Surely it had only recently been caused by the violent
action of the floodwaters. The captain had not known of its ominous presence.
- Without the stranger's warning they all would almost
certainly have been killed by plunging into the crevasse.
- Clara Barton wished to commend the stranger for his action,
which had saved the entire crew and the group of Red Cross workers.
- "He's gone, Miss Barton," one of her staff
told her. "He's nowhere on board the ship."
- Clara frowned her bewilderment. That was impossible.
He must be on board. Where else could he be? They were in the middle of
a river made hazardous by floodwaters.
- The staff worker reminded Clara that the Mattie Bell
was not a very large vessel. It did not take long to search out all of
the places where a man might be sitting, standing, or resting.
- The Red Cross worker who had first confronted the stranger
when he had requested passage on the Mattie Bell reminded her that he had
immediately noticed something different about him.
- "1 think he was an angel," the man said frankly,
without embarrassment. "1 think he came aboard solely for the purpose
of seeing to it that our mission of mercy would not be terminated by a
cruel, watery death."
- Clara Barton nodded in silent agreement. The Red Cross
worker's explanation was good enough for her--and it seemed to satisfy
the others on board the Mattie Bell as well.
- Until her death in 1912 at the age of ninety-one, Clara
remained unable to offer any "natural explanation" of who the
stranger aboard the riverboat had been. If those with a skeptical or rational
set of mind wished to devise other theories of how the man had known of
the existence of the crevasse and how he had subsequently managed his complete
disappearance from the Mattie Bell, she would not argue the case with them.
- But she herself never wavered in her conviction that
the unseen world had made itself manifest in order to protect the Red Cross
workers on their humanitarian mission to the needy flood victims.