Originally published in the 2017 Special Edition of the Surgeon’s Call
Although Jules Golay is one of Clara Barton’s lesser-known associates, his contributions to her work were critical to her crusade to establish the American Red Cross. Golay and Barton first met during the American Civil War, in which Golay, who was from Switzerland, fought for the Union.[i] Golay was one among scores of wounded men to whom Barton provided aid during the Siege of Petersburg, VA, in 1864.[ii] He had a serious shoulder injury and was not optimistic about his chances of survival.[iii] However, thanks to the care and comfort he received from Barton, as well as treatment from surgeons, he survived.[iv] Although Golay lived, his injury impaired the movement of his right arm and hand.[v] He wrote to Barton during his convalescence about his attempts to improve his English, which he refers to as “the language of my new country.”[vi] In this letter, he addressed Barton as his “dear sister,” and he made it clear that he holds her in high esteem and regards her with deep affection.[vii]
It seems the feeling was mutual. Barton later wrote to Jules’ sister Eliza Golay in March 1865, who she in turn addresses as her “dear unknown sister,” of her brother’s service in the Civil War. Barton describes him in laudatory terms, remarking that although he owed the United States “nothing, not even allegiance,” he provided the Union with his service, and he “fought bravely and well, and suffered well.”[viii] Golay’s decision to enlist in the Union Army stands out as particularly valiant when one considers his European origins. He could have easily ignored the war that was raging across the Atlantic, but instead voluntarily endangered his life for a distant nation.
Ultimately, Barton’s acquaintance with the Golay family was more than a passing one. After the war, she returned to her quarters on Seventh Street in Washington, DC, which she transformed into the headquarters of the Missing Soldiers Office. Golay, whose wartime injury rendered him disabled, stayed with her, and she tried to help him find work.[ix] Jules subsequently gained employment from Barton herself, who hired him to assist with her efforts to ascertain the fates of Union soldiers.[x] During his tenure at the Missing Soldiers Office, Golay worked alongside Dorence Atwater, another veteran and friend of Barton’s.[xi] She developed a particular fondness for these young men, both of whom had suffered a great deal during the war.
Barton’s strenuous lifestyle throughout the 1860s took a toll on her health She had worked tirelessly to collect supplies to bring to Civil War battlefields and to provide care to the sick and wounded, including Golay. Then, immediately after the war, she launched into her demanding role at the helm of the Missing Soldiers Office.
In an effort to rest and improve her health, she left the United States and travelled to Europe in September 1869. In his biography of Barton, William Eleazar Barton recounts the reason behind this journey, writing: “she had been fighting nervous prostration in America, and had found that she must turn her back on everything that suggested work.”[xii] While she was in Europe, Barton spent time in the Golay household. Jules had penned a letter to his family back in Switzerland in which he asked them to host his American friend.[xiii] However, during her time at the Golay family home, she received a noteworthy group of visitors who came on behalf of the International Convention of Geneva, also known as the International Red Cross.[xiv] This visit introduced Barton to the humanitarian mission of this organization, and the rest is history. What was meant to be a vacation instead propelled her towards one of her greatest accomplishments: the establishment of the American Red Cross.
Jules Golay’s biography serves as an example of the way that Clara Barton’s compassion benefited those who made her acquaintance, as well as the ways in which she in turn benefited from knowing them. As a soldier, he was one of the young men that she nursed back to health. His bravery in risking his life for a country that was not his own by birth moved her. Golay was not simply another patient, but became a friend, as well as an employee and fellow resident in the building that housed the Missing Soldiers Office. Furthermore, his Swiss family’s hospitality provided Barton with the venue for one of the most significant encounters of her professional life.
[i] Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Clara Barton: Professional Angel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 129.
[ii] Stephen B. Oates, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 267.
[iii] Oates, A Woman of Valor, 267.
[vi] Jules Golay, Clara Barton Papers: General Correspondence, 1838 to 1912; Golay, Jules and Harriet B., 1864 to 1881. 1864. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mss119730271/. Accessed January 31, 2017.
[viii] Clara Barton, Clara Barton Papers: General Correspondence, 1838 to 1912; Golay, Eliza, 1865 to 1869. 1865. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mss119730270/. Accessed January 31, 2017.
[ix] Oates, A Woman of Valor, 345.
[x] Oates, A Woman of Valor, 368.
[xi] Pryor, Clara Barton, 147. See also Surgeon’s Call, Special Edition, Volume 1, 2016, NMCWM.
[xii] William E. Barton, The Life of Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross, Volume II (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922), 3.
[xiii] Pryor, Clara Barton, 155.
[xiv] Pryor, Clara Barton, 156.
About the Author
Emily Peikin is an undergraduate student at American University. She will graduate in May 2017 with a BA in History and a BA in Art History and is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Emily has previously worked at the NMCWM and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. She has also completed internships at the Baltimore Museum of Art in Baltimore, MD, and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. She intends to pursue a graduate degree in art history and aspires to be a museum professional.