Behind the scenes of the Cuban campaign

Clara Barton, Professional Angel by Elizabeth Brown Pryor, University of Pennsylvania Press,

Excerpt from Chapter 16.

The image of Barton, serenely and triumphantly inspecting orphanages throughout Cuba, is at distinct odds with her private woes and fears at this time.  More than ever she was feeling threatened by the strong personalities that joined her in the effort to bring assistance to Cuba, and now she saw menace in the very staff of the Red Cross.  Throughout the negotiations of early 1899 she had refused any cooperation with the powerful New York Red Cross. 

There were, as she feared, some grasping and ambitious figures in the state organization, and some who were prone to criticism and gossip.  But the vast majority were entirely sincere in the desire to do their best for both Cuba and the Red Cross. "My sole aim and object.." a wealthy New Yorker wrote, "was to assist in putting the Red Cross on a firm and lasting basis as I have said before.  I wish to see it so well organized that when men who will be our successors take charge of it ten, thirty, or fifty years hence, they will find it in good working shape."  When Stephen Barton tried to convince Clara of this and suggested that they embrace the New Yorkers who had worked so hard by incorporating a few of them into the executive committee of the national body, she began to regard him with suspicion.  "It is not a pleasant thing to be compelled to run a tilt and work in competition with your subordinates," she explained in an angry letter.  "It is much as I always supposed it would be.  When the people got a hold on the Red Cross they would be uncontrollable."  Barton was now far too emotionally involved with the situation to see that the interest and active participation of wealthy, influential citizens was exactly what she had campaigned so hard for during the last twenty years.  She saw only a plot to usurp her position and her glory, and she recognized there was a rich and well-knit organization that was a reproach to her own skimpy national society.

Her paranoia was greatly exacerbated by the trip to Cuba in the spring of 1899, for it was almost immediately apparent that her staff did not at all appreciate her presence.  Hubbell, still hurting from his loss of Mea, believed he had the situation well in hand, and the other doctors felt competent to perform their duties with her close supervision.  Charles Cottrell, viewing the situation from the fresh viewpoint of a young man, found a good deal to question in Barton's forty-year-old methods and authoritarian manner; his attempts to modify even slightly the operation of the Red Cross met with sharp reproofs. 

Feeling boxed in on every side, Barton began to imagine that her staff were plotting against her and saw mischief in such innocent events as a daylong picnic to which she was not invited. Most dangerous of all were the activities of David Cobb, an attorney hired by Stephen Barton to help Clara with the interminable government documents that work in foreign aid entailed.  A bright and ambitious young man with a commanding manner and stentorian voice, Cobb was perhaps the one member of the staff who really deserved Barton's suspicions.  Desiring to make a name for himself in the Red Cross and viewing Clara as an old lady on the way out, he spent a good deal of energy trying to convince her to run the Red Cross through a committee and to move the offices to New York.  When this failed he simply began to take over.  A friend who happened to drop by the Red Cross offices when Barton was out was surprised to find Cobb meeting people at the door and giving the impression "that he is, to use the slang expression 'the whole thing.'" 

Fearful that Cobb might actively rebel against her, Barton, after seven weeks on the island, determined to end the Cuban relief and recall all of the staff.  Against the protests of Hubbell, she prepared to hand over their projects to the army and the newly formed Cuban Red Cross, urging her doctors and nurses to complete their work as quickly as possible.  She sent Cobb packing and soon after made plans for her own departure for home.

Under the pressures of the situation Barton lost all perspective on the work and the people with whom she was dealing.  Even after her decision to abandon work in Cuba she was restless and terrified, expecting any day to find herself the victim of a full-scale mutiny.  "Cobb has usurped the power of the organization and is proceeding to conduct it to suit himself," she wrote in a panic to Joseph Gardner.

The great NY committee takes all our money and will of course swallow us.  Cobb and his party are a next of vipers, all taking a hand in the Red Cross.--he with his law knowledge has the advantage--shall we step out and let it go?  Let them do with it as they will--I can either resign openly to the people, or quietly to the Directors, and let it all go as it will--I don't care now....We are, I think ruined; there are so many grasping at us, that it is impossible to stand...I don't suppose anything can save us or me--The vipers are so poisonous, and sting so deep.  Shall I let them take it?--and turn me out?  I don't care much--I am heartbroken, and no wonder.

She let her anguish work itself to the point that she became physically ill in a way she had not known since the early 1870s.  Her eyesight grew dim and bronchial attacks began, ones that would trouble her the remainder of the year.  With alarm she noted in her diary her inability to concentrate on her work and the return of unsettling symptoms, and later, "I am not in any reasonable state of mind and may never be again.  It may be the end coming."  When, after tying up the Cuban work and making some rapid consultations in New York, she finally was able to return to Glen Echo, it was with the hopes that the familiar surroundings would soothe her raw nerves and sore heart.

In contrast to her private anguish, the Cuban campaign was publicly closed amidst cheers and honors for Clara Barton.

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