Thursday, April 26, 2018

. . . And Clara Barton

A few weeks back, I got the chance to visit Clara Barton's Missing Soldiers Office in downtown DC. Clara Barton has a compelling story, but so does the museum itself.

Prior to the Civil War, Clara Barton was a longtime teacher and then a clerk at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington DC. She actually received equal pay to male clerks but was soon demoted because of opposition to women in the federal workforce. She was subsequently fired because of her political (i.e. Republican) leanings and spent several years at home in Massachusetts, until war broke out in 1861. She returned to Washington City and the Patent Office. In April 1861, shortly after the first shots of the war were fired, the passage of a Massachusetts regiment through Baltimore sparked a riot. Wounded men were brought to Washington City, and Barton immediately went to help nurse them. She would go on to perform herculean feats on behalf of the Union army, collecting provisions and nursing sick men. She was nicknamed the Angel of the Battlefield.

Near the end of the war, Barton rented rooms in downtown Washington City, near the Patent Office. During the Civil War, there were no dog tags and no systematic way to track the wounded and dead. Old methods of informing loved ones simply weren't adequate anymore. The sheer scale of death and destruction meant that tens of thousands of dead went unidentified, and the fate of tens of thousands of men was never known. Barton had realized that loved ones across the North were left not knowing what had happened to their sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, and friends. It became her mission to discover the fate of these men. She advertised, and loved ones would write her with the names of their missing men. She had long lists published in newspapers, in hopes that someone might know what had happened to the missing men. She also traveled to the prison camps and helped compile lists of those who died there. The information she found was then relayed to the families. She was able to discover the fate of over 22,000 men.

And then, having done all she could, Barton moved out of the office. She wound go on to found the American Red Cross and undertake many other humanitarian ventures. She was an extraordinary woman, but over the years, the Missing Soldiers Office became "lost". Partly, this was because it was rented space, and the building was put to many purposes over the ensuing decades. Partly, this was because at one point the city of Washington reordered the street numbers. Historians knew the office had been there but didn't know exactly where it had been. Doubtless, they figured it had been torn down in the ensuing years.

Fast forward to the 1990s. The property has been sold and is about to be redeveloped. A worker named Richard Lyons is surveying the third floor, which has gone largely untouched for decades and decades. He goes into a back room and notices a piece of paper poking out of the corner of the hatch leading to the attic space. He takes a closer look and realizes it's a piece of very old paper. On further inspection, it turns out that there was a treasure trove of documents and other items up in the attic, including a sign reading: MISS BARTON'S MISSING SOLDIERS OFFICE, 3RD FLOOR, ROOM 9.

Here's a video about the unlikely discovery:

The federal government owned the property and decided to partner with the Museum of Civil War Medicine (in Frederick, MD; a GREAT museum). The third floor was preserved and restored, with some of the original wallpaper patterns and the original doors and woodwork. I went on a chilly, sunny day, with bright light flooding in the windows. Downstairs is a modern welcome center, with a video for orientation and a gift shop. You can tour yourself or take a guided tour. Me and a few other visitors went on a guided tour, which took us up a set of narrow, dark stairs to the restored third floor. Those stairs were the entrance that Clara and other boarders would have used. At the top of the stairs is a narrow, dark landing. You turn a hundred-eighty degrees to retrace the length of the stairwell down the length of the landing. Beyond the stairs to the right is a long hallway with doors off each side. The rooms that Barton used are on the left and look down on the street below. They are furnished sparsely and would have probably been fairly spartan when Barton was there, too. In the next room, you can see the ladder that Richard Lyons climbed to find the trove of Clara Barton items. Across from that is a room set up as it might have been for Edward Shaw the man who owned the building and leased space to Barton.

While I was there, there was a temporary exhibit on Alexander Gardner's photography. Reproduction photographs were arranged essentially as they would have been for the famous Dead of Antietam exhibit that shocked New Yorkers in 1862. I spent a long time gazing at the old photographs through magnifying glassed tethered to the wall with a long string. I've seen many of the photos before, but seeing them flash briefly on a television screen isn't the same as standing close to them and really studying them, especially in detail. The photography might have been black-and-white, but it could capture astounding levels of detail--it was "high resolution".

So, if you get a chance, the Missing Soldiers Office is worth a visit. It won't take you long to see the place, and it's a heck of a story.
The sign found in the attic that hung outside
the Missing Soldiers Office

The landing on the third floor.

Reproduction wallpaper.

A list of the missing.

The surviving wallpaper and the reproduction. 
The ladder (the diagonal line in front of the bed)
leads to the attic where the cache of Clara Barton
and Civil War-era artifacts was found.

The note that was sticking out of the hatch to the attic.

The Dead of Antietam.

The long, dark staircase that boarders took.