Clara Barton's missing soldiers office discovered in Washington

Even as the tension mounted, Clara Barton felt alternately "indignant, excited, [and] alarmed," she wrote in her diary

Clara Barton's missing soldiers office discovered in Washington

Washington, D.C., teetered on the brink of war in the spring of 1861. Even as the tension mounted, Clara Barton felt alternately "indignant, excited, [and] alarmed," she wrote in her diary. In July, her excitement turned to horror when the soldiers of the Union were routed at Manassas, Virginia, a scant twenty-five miles away. Barton, a woman many men considered too independent for her own good, took immediate action.

Though untrained as a nurse, she rushed to the battlefield to care for the fallen fighting men of the North. It was an act that launched a lifetime of selfless service to her country, culminating years later in her creation of the American Red Cross. But perhaps her most solemn work, and certainly the most exhausting, came between the years 1865 and 1868. Fresh from the battlefields and wielding the authorization of President Abraham Lincoln himself, Barton became the finder of lost soldiers.

From a 300-square-foot room in downtown Washington, Barton worked feverishly to identify the Union men who had been listed as "missing in action" during the war. She gave her office an unwieldy name--"Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army." When, in 1868, she moved on to take up other work, her Office of Correspondence slowly faded from American memory until it was completely forgotten. It remained so for 130 years. Then, in November 1997, a worker who was preparing a vacant three-story building on Seventh Street for demolition discovered papers and personal effects scattered in the attic. Based on the find, historians have deduced that Barton's office, the place she called her "old rookery," was in the apartment below the attic. Now, government authorities are trying to determine exactly what wealth of information the nurse-turned-investigator left behind and, perhaps more importantly, what they should do with it.

Gary Scott, the National Park Service's chief historian in the Washington area, was one of the first people to enter the building, located at 437 Seventh Street NW, after the discovery. He and other historians recovered enough newspapers, letters, books, and clothing from the attic to fill more than twenty boxes, and none of the items dates later than 1868.

The building's "tattered shape" may have been what saved it, said Jim Williams, a spokesman for the General Services Administration (GSA). What was a new structure in Barton's time had become a building on the verge of collapse by the time the GSA acquired it in the early 1990s. The GSA--a federal agency Williams described as "one of the government's largest landlords"--owns about half of the block in which the building stands, about eleven blocks from the White House. The GSA had decided to raze the Barton building, which experts believe was constructed in 1853, because "no one knew of any historical significance in that part of Seventh Street." That all changed on November 19, 1997.

According to Williams, a worker was stabilizing the deteriorated ceiling on the third floor when he caught a glimpse of the attic and the objects within it. He recognized their possible historic value and contacted the National Park Service. Because the building was to be demolished, the objects were removed and taken to nearby Ford's Theatre National Historic Site on Tenth Street. A cursory study the next day indicated that 130 years of exposure to rats, insects, and pigeons had turned the artifacts into a serious health threat, so they were taken to temporary storage for decontamination and further study.

Among the artifacts historians found were newspapers, government reports, bills to Congress, a hat, a detachable collar, and bits of rugs and wallpaper. Two contemporary copies of Andrew Boyd's Washington and Georgetown Directory that were found list Barton's address as "room 9, 4881/2 7th west." Washington's street numbers changed in 1870 because, as Scott explained, the numbers had not strictly coincided with the blocks.

In addition, historians discovered two boxes filled with men's clothing along with some 200 letters received by Edward Shaw. A native of Barton's home state of Massachusetts, Shaw worked with Barton at the U.S. Patent Office, located just across the street from the apartment. These clothes may have belonged to him--he lived in Room 12, right across the hall--or perhaps to Dorence Atwater, a former Andersonville Prison inmate who moved into a flat on the third floor shortly after 1865.

After the discovery, the GSA immediately reconsidered its redevelopment project, and in mid-March, officials from the GSA and the National Park Service laid out preliminary plans for the future of the building. According to Andrea Mones, the GSA's regional cultural assets officer, the GSA intends to sell the building with the stipulation that the third floor be preserved. Meanwhile, the first two floors will be renovated for use as possible retail or office space. Because the scope of the project is as yet undetermined, so are its cost and completion date. But, Williams said, Barton's former office may be opened to the public when the renovation is finished.

Any such renovation project will center on the two rooms that constituted Barton's apartment. According to Williams, Barton used the larger room, measuring 240 to 300 square feet, as her office. The other was her personal living quarters. It measured between 96 and 120 square feet and was further divided by sheets of plywood. This, Williams said, indicates Barton's "austere lifestyle" and shows how important she considered her work.

Barton, a native of North Oxford, Massachusetts, was working as a copyist in the Patent Office when the war began in 1861. Soon after the Confederate victory at Manassas in July, more than 30,000 Union soldiers poured into Washington to protect it from the Rebels. It was an exciting time for Barton.

What Barton wanted most was to be a Union soldier, but as a woman she was refused that privilege. So she became what Stephen Oates, in his book A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War (1994), called "a veritable soldier, a nurse, and a one-woman relief agency operating in the heart of the conflict." Under fire, she took care of fallen soldiers on the fields of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and the Wilderness, to name just a few. According to Scott, Barton helped revolutionize battlefield care by providing first aid. Before her work, wounded soldiers would have lain bleeding where they fell, often for days, until doctors could get to them.

Barton took her mission a step further in the war's final days. In March 1865, Lincoln authorized her to search for the Union's missing soldiers. Initially, the War Department's Burial Bureau led the search, but the small agency's records of missing soldiers were sketchy, if kept at all, and the inundated War Department had neither the time nor the inclination to accept the help of a woman, let alone the very independent Barton. So, she struck out on her own, creating her "Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army" and running it from her Seventh Street apartment, where she had lived for the past three years. Thus, she became the first American woman ever to run a government office.

Barton and her staff received letters from families searching for lost soldiers, then compiled those names into a master list that they subdivided by state. They published those lists in newspapers and posted them in public places. Anyone who knew the whereabouts of a purportedly fallen man was asked to contact Barton, who in turn contacted the soldier's family. Only on rare occasions was a missing soldier found alive.

By June 1865, Barton's master list had grown to some 20,000 names. Late that month, Dorence Atwater, a Union veteran who had spent nearly two years at Andersonville, arrived at her office. The Confederate officers who ran the infamous prison, the Connecticut native told Barton, had assigned him the grim task of keeping track of the Union dead, who were buried only as numbers, not names. When the war ended and he was released, he smuggled a copy of the list to the North, hoping to expose the appalling conditions he and the other prisoners had endured. Atwater's list led to the identification of nearly 13,000 missing Union soldiers.

Barton's search continued for three more years, until she presented her final report to Congress in 1868. According to Oates, she had received 63,182 letters from families, sent 41,855 letters in reply, and distributed 99,057 copies of her master lists. In all, she had identified 22,000 of the roughly 62,000 missing Union soldiers. And of the tens of thousands of missing whom she could not identify, she asked Congress to declare them dead and pay their heirs what they were due. And it all happened from a 300-square-foot room on Seventh Street.

Later in 1868, Barton moved to a house on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from Capitol Hill, Scott said. Meanwhile, an exhausting lecture tour that she had begun in 1867 with Atwater took its toll on the formerly robust Barton. "It was night after night, train ride after train ride, town hall after town hall," Scott said. "She was pretty much consumed by that." Finally, one night she collapsed on stage.

In 1869 and in failing health, Barton traveled to Europe where she worked with the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War. When she returned to the United States and her health grew stronger, she chartered the American Red Cross, an agency she steered away from strict wartime service and toward general disaster relief. Its first test came in 1889 when water broke through a dam and flooded Johnstown, Pennsylvania, killing more than 2,000 people. Grateful for the help of the Red Cross, the people of Johnstown rewarded Barton with building materials, and with them she constructed a house in Glen Echo, Maryland, a few miles north of Washington. Barton lived there until her death in 1912. Today, her home is the Clara Barton National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service, and the Red Cross--what Scott said Barton would consider her most important work--is stronger than ever.

The same cannot be said for her old Seventh Street office; the GSA still has a lot of work to do. Williams recalled the first day he stepped into Barton's office and saw the leaky roof and the piecemeal ceiling. It was December, and the absence of heating and lighting on that cold day made the building seem even older than it was. "It was quite a mess, still is in some places," he said. "In February, we were there when a piece of the ceiling fell down. The faint of heart went running for the stairs." Despite the work that remains to be done, Williams remains enthusiastic about the building's future in light of the discovery of Barton's office. "From a real estate perspective, [the discovery] is going to make the building a lot more valuable. It now has an identity; it's part of the history of Washington."

Scott agreed. In his twenty-one years with the National Park Service, this discovery ranks as the rarest, and potentially the most revealing. You see how she really cared very little for herself; it was all her cause. She emerges as a very noble figure in that era."


Other Travel Tips: