Sally Barton Vassall
Originally published in Special Edition 2016 in the Surgeon’s Call
When the train carrying the 6th Massachusetts Militia pulled into the Washington Baltimore & Ohio railroad station in 1861, it seemed as though all of Washington, DC, was there waiting. News that the 6th Massachusetts had been attacked on the streets of Baltimore by a Confederate-sympathizing mob had arrived in Washington before the soldiers themselves. Among those waiting at the station for the bruised and bloodied troops was Clara Barton, with her sister Sarah Barton Vassall by her side.[i]
Ten years Clara’s elder, Sarah “Sally” Vassall, née Barton, was the Barton sibling nearest in age to Clara.[ii] When Clara was 12 years old, Sally married Vester Vassall. The couple had two children together: Bernard Barton Vassall and Irving Stetson Vassall.
Today, all that remains of Sally and Clara’s life-long relationship are a few letters that one or the other saved, scattered through archives up and down the East coast. When one squints to read these missives, filled with the sisters’ hurried, sometimes illegible scrawl, a few things are evident.
First and foremost: Clara Barton was a devoted aunt to her two nephews. Both boys exchanged long letters with their aunt, full of accounts of their daily activities, their perspectives on the politics and the war, and often a poem or two. She wrote to her nephews so frequently that James Norton, one of Clara’s hosts in New Jersey, wrote in a letter to Bernard that despite never meeting the young man he knew him “like a book,” because it seemed as though Clara wrote ten pages to Bernard daily.[iii]
In 1859, Irving was unwell. He was “physically delicate” and his family believed a trip to Minnesota would help improve his health.[iv] However, travelling to Minnesota was expensive and his parents couldn’t afford to send him. Aunt Clara stepped in and saved the day, writing:
Now My Dear Boy, a few words about Minnesota … You are going to Minnesota as soon as you are able to start, and your mother is going with you. You are to inform me at the earliest moment when you can be ready and by the next mail after that I shall forward you a check for $150, then if you need more I shall send it to meet you on your journey, or after you arrive. … I do not wish you to multiply words about this little matter, or trouble yourself about how you shall repay. I may never need it – if so how much better that you should have it, and if I do [need it] it may be when you are a great famous man, and could spare a few dollars to your old decrepit aunty.[v]
Like their aunt, both young men contributed to the war effort. Bernard was a member of Company E of the 15th Massachusetts Volunteers. He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, and resigned his commission while awaiting prisoner exchange. He then went to work for the Surgeon General’s Office. Irving was the chief clerk for Colonel Gardner Tufts of the Massachusetts Military Agency, located in Washington, DC. His work was described as “of arduous and confidential character.”[vi]
Looking through Sally and Clara’s letters, two other things are abundantly clear. The first is that the sisters cared deeply for each other. The second is that Sally supported Clara in her war work, and later her work at the Missing Soldiers Office.
The specifics of Sally’s contributions are not apparent; however, her letters include brief mentions of Barton’s 7th Street operation and running errands on Clara’s behalf. In one letter, Sally mentions delivering a note to Edward Shaw for Clara.[vii] In another letter, Sally tells Clara that she and a friend “went down to your house and put [supplies] in the cupboard wrapped every bottle in paper and covered it up and shut the door.”[viii] Why Sally felt it was necessary to hide the supplies in the coffee pot remains a mystery, but what is obvious is that running favors like this for her sister was not uncommon.
When Sally Vassall died in 1874, the Women’s Relief Corps of the Barton’s hometown of Oxford, MA, decorated her grave, calling Vassall “one of the two loyal sisters who were the first ladies to welcome the Massachusetts troops in Washington.”[ix] The Women’s Relief Corps’ recognition not only celebrated the years both Clara and Sally spent working on the soldiers’ behalf, but their selflessness and leadership on that first day, when they stood in the B&O Station waiting for the arrival of the 6th Massachusetts ̶ a moment that would bring them into the war effort and irreparably change the lives of both women.
[i] Oates, Stephen B. Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1994) 3.
[ii] Please Note: It is the protocol of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine to refer to all historical figures by their last name. The Museum has chosen to make an exception here since both of the featured historical figures at one point shared the same last name.
[iii] Vassall, Bernard B, and Bernard B Vassall. Clara Barton Papers: Family Papers: Vassall, Bernard B. nephew; Correspondence, 1851 to 1893, undated. to 1893, 1851. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss11973.010_0489_0695/?sp=15. (Accessed March 15, 2016.)
[iv] Genealogy, and Genealogy. Clara Barton Papers: Family Papers: Genealogy; Charts and notes, 1889, 1930, 1951 to 1952, undated. , 1930, 1951 to 1952, 1889. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/resource/mss11973.011_0207_0275/?sp=50. (Accessed March 15, 2016.)
[v] Vassall, Irving S, and Irving S Vassall. Clara Barton Papers: Family Papers: Vassall, Irving S. nephew, 1855 to 1862. to 1862, 1855. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss11973.010_0773_0791/?sp=6. (Accessed March 15, 2016.)
[vi] Genealogy, and Genealogy. http://www.loc.gov/resource/mss11973.011_0207_0275/?sp=50 Irving passed away in 1865, but Bernard would live until 1894. In his old age, Bernard worked to collect and share the Barton family legacy, highlighting his aunt’s contributions to humanity.
[vii] Vassall, Vester And Sarah Barton, and Vester And Sarah Barton Vassall. Clara Barton Papers: Family Papers: Vassall, Vester and Sarah Barton sister, 1855 to 1889, undated. to 1889, 1855. Manuscript/Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss11973.011_0008_0071/?sp=11. (Accessed March 15, 2016.)
[viii] Vassall, Vester And Sarah Barton, and Vester And Sarah Barton Vassall. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss11973.011_0008_0071/?sp=5.
[ix] Vassall, Vester And Sarah Barton, and Vester And Sarah Barton Vassall. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mss11973.011_0008_0071/?sp=54.
About the Author
Amelia Grabowski is the Education and Digital Outreach Specialist at the NMCWM and the CBMSO Museum. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage from Brown University, where she received the Master’s Award for Engaged Citizenship and Community Service. Amelia has worked for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, humanities councils, and community organizations: all endeavoring to connect the past to the present in engaging and creative ways.