Wednesday, March 14, 2012

An "Interview" Clara Barton, Director of the Red Cross "Sea Island Relief" in Beaufort, South Carolina, 1893

Clara Barton, 1850

(An "Interview" Clara Barton, Director of the Red Cross "Sea Island Relief" in Beaufort)

[NOTE: The following is an "interview" with Clara Barton, which appeared in Library Information Services Coordinator Dennis Adams’s "Answer Man" column in the August 27, 2000 Beaufort Gazette. Verbatim excerpts from Barton’s book, A Story of the Red Cross: Glimpses of Field Work, appear here out of their original sequence.]

Introduction: On August 27, 1893, a hurricane made landfall in Georgia just south of Beaufort. The hurricane went on to hit our own Sea Islands (it then followed a curve like an archer’s bow through the middle of South and North Carolina to die in central Virginia).

Clara Barton (1821-1912) directed the ten-month "Sea Island Relief" efforts in Beaufort following the storm. The founder of the American Red Cross was no stranger to Beaufort, having served as a Union nurse in Port Royal in 1863.

Clara Barton 1878
Clarissa Harlowe "Clara" Barton ( 1821 –  1912) was a pioneer American teacher, patent clerk, nurse, and humanitarian. She is best remembered for organizing the American Red Cross.

Question: When did the storm hit Beaufort, Ms. Barton?

Clara Barton: On the 28th of August, 1893, a hurricane and tidal wave from the direction of the West Indes swept the coast of South Carolina, covering its entire range of Port Royal Islands, sixteen feet below the sea.

Question: Charles Kovacik and John Winberry (in South Carolina: A Geography) reported "winds with velocities of up to 120 miles per hour". In the absence of modern emergency communications, how many local residents were caught without warning?

Barton: These islands had thirty-five thousand inhabitants, mainly negroes. At first it was thought that all must have perished. Later, it was found that only some four or five thousand had been drowned, and that thirty thousand remained with no earthly possession of home, clothing, or food.

Verdier House outbuildings in the 1890s (which no longer exist). Taken at the corner of Bay and Scott’s streets, the photo is a copy of one that originally appeared in a book about the Red Cross and was taken after the 1893 hurricane when Clara Barton organized a relief effort in Beaufort. It’s labeled “Carts loaded with grits for the distributing station at McLoud’s,” a reference possibly to McLeod’s Farm at Seabrook. Temporary distribution sites were established throughout the county. (source Historic Beaufort)

Question: Kovacik and Winberry lowered those grimmer, first reports to "an estimated 2,000 people (who) lost their lives". In Natural Disasters, Lee Davis wrote that "more than 1,000 people were killed" and set property damage at nearly ten million dollars. But how did the survivors evacuate the islands?

Barton: The few boats not swept away took them over to the mainland in thousands, and calls went out for help. In this emergency, Governor Tillman called for the services of the Red Cross (…).

Clara Barton 1865

Question: How severe was the damage when you arrived?

Barton: Indeed, there was more often nothing on the islands to return to. If all had been swept out to sea and nothing remained, it was described as "done gone". But if thrown down and parts of the wreck still remained, it was described as "ractified". A few of the churches, being larger and more strongly built, still remained standing. During the first ten days of our stay in Beaufort, it would have been impossible to drive through the principal streets of Beaufort. They were a solid moving mass, crowding near to the storehouses as possible to get, in spite of the policeman, who kindly held them back.

The contributions of food and clothing had been sent to Beaufort, and were in the warehouses of the perplexed committee of its leading citizens. This had naturally drawn all the inhabitants of the scores of desolated islands for fifty miles to Beaufort, until, it is safe to say, that fifteen to twenty thousand refugees had gathered there, living in its streets and waiting to be fed from day to day.

Charleston, S.C., in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck on Aug. 31, 1886. (Photographer unknown; courtesy of South Carolina Department of Natural Resources)

The shores of the mainland had not been exempt from the ravages of the storm and in many instances had suffered like the islands.

Our first order was to close every storehouse, both of food and clothing, and inform the people that all distributions would hereafter be made from the islands. The local committee had kindly pointed out the most suitable man to take charge of each community, and to him would be consigned the rations to be distributed to each family and person within his charge, for which receipt and distribution he became as responsible as a merchant. In three days there were not people enough left in Beaufort , besides its own, to be hired for a "job of work".

The submerged lands were drained, three hundred miles of ditches made, a million feet of lumber purchased and houses built, fields and gardens planted with the best seed in the United States, and the work all done by the people themselves.

Domestic gardens were a new feature among these islanders, whose whole attention had been always given to the raising of the renowned "Sea Island Cotton" … The result of this innovation was that, when we left in July (1894), it was nearly as difficult for a pedestrian to make his way on the narrow sidewalks of Beaufort because of piled-up vegetables, as it had been in October to pass through the streets because of hungry, idle men and women. (source: Beaufort County Library)

POSTSCRIPTS:  Grace Cordial, South Carolina Resources Librarian, added that "it took the racist Gov. Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman almost a month to even to ask for the help of the Red Cross. The Red Cross did not arrive until October 1st. The people of Beaufort, indeed the entire South Carolina coast, had to make do virtually on their own for over a month." A hurricane had already hit this area on June 16, and on October 13 a third storm struck Charleston!

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