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Rediscovering (and Redefining) Clara Barton’s Story

Rediscovering (and Redefining) Clara Barton’s Story

The building was due to be demolished until a carpenter checked the attic. Among old socks and newspapers was a sign that read “Missing Soldiers Office, 3rd Story, Room 9, Miss. Clara Barton.”

What the carpenter, Richard Lyons, had discovered was the remains of Clara Barton’s Washington, DC residence, where she had lived during and after the Civil War. Barton had moved to DC in the 1850s to become a clerk at the Patent Office, one of the first women in DC to receive a paycheck from the federal government. She temporarily lost her job when President James Buchanan fired his opponent’s supporters, including Barton. However, when Abraham Lincoln was elected, she reclaimed her job and established residence in a boarding house about two blocks away—the same building Lyons would explore over a century later.

A sepia tone photograph of a muddy street with brick buildings that are three or four stories tall on one side. The horse drawn ambulance at the lower right corner date the photograph.
Clara Barton lived at the far end of the block of 7 th street, photographed in 1864. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

It was there Barton lived when war broke out. It was there the former teacher’s students visited her on their way to the front. It was there she conceived of ways to help those soldiers by gathering supplies the army was lacking. It was that apartment she returned to after exhausting stints handing out supplies and providing medical assistance on the battlefield. She was on her way back there from a night out when she heard rumors of Lincoln’s assassination. And after the war, it was there she established her next venture, the Missing Soldiers Office, which tracked down missing Union soldiers—decades before the government would establish a service to do so. Before she moved out, she stowed a few belongings in the attic—forgotten for over 150 years.

Through Lyons’s discovery—and then his tireless work to connect with the right people with the General Services Administration and the National Park Service—the building was saved from the wrecking ball and Barton’s third floor rooms restored to their 19th-century appearance.

A blue wallpapered hallway with a door opening to a sun soaked room. The worn floorboards and extravagant wallpaper are a sign of the space’s age.
The restored hallway of Clara Barton’s boarding house rooms, with a door opening to
the room used for the Missing Soldiers Office operation. (Courtesy of the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.)

A brand new museum in a centuries old space was born, run by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. The challenge went from how to save Clara Barton’s home to how to tell Clara Barton’s story in a modern way.

Clara Barton is a woman that everyone’s heard of and no one knows. Learning about the Civil War in school, we meet her as a selfless nurse, the Angel of the Battlefield, who, spurred on by her Civil War experience, will found the American Red Cross. The truth is, of course, much more complicated.

A woman sits at a table reading a book or letter.
A photograph of Clara Barton, circa March 1865. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Technically, Barton was never a nurse. Dorothea Dix established a group of military nurses during the Civil War, but Barton never worked for her. Instead, Barton had begun gathering supplies for soldiers (utensils, socks, medical supplies, etc.), and had received permission to go to the battlefield, where she assisted as best she could, learning on the job.

Barton didn’t drop fully formed, a selfless angel on the fields of Antietam, like a character in a video game. Before moving to Washington, Barton was an educator who fought for equal opportunity for her students and equal pay for her, once remarking “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.”[1] She didn’t just become a household name, she made herself one through strategic use of the press before and after the war. However, she was known to stretch the truth in her reports from the field.

Barton didn’t leapfrog from the battlefields of the Civil War to Geneva. Her postwar years were ones of significant contribution as she and her staff helped track down over 22,000 missing soldiers. They were also years full of contradiction. In her work, Barton was dedicated to helping others by tracking down the missing, and when they were dead, providing their families with the documentation they needed to claim a pension from the federal government. However, she wasn’t simply angelic. Her sass sometimes showed through in letters to soldiers who were concealing their whereabouts from their family, for instance, once writing “It seems to have been the misfortune of your family to think more of you than you did of them, and probably more than you deserve.”

A black and white photograph of a man in a collar.
A picture of Wilber Hurlbut, sent to Clara Barton by his mother with a letter
entreating Barton to find her son. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

She was also a suffragist, remarking, “For every woman’s hand that ever cooled your fevered brow, staunched your bleeding wounds or called life back to your famished body you should bless God for Susan B. Anthony, Cady Stanton and their followers.” However, despite her proclamation to never work for less than a man’s pay, she did not pay the women who worked for her in the Missing Soldiers Office the same wage as the men.

In setting up a museum in Barton’s boarding house rooms, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine has worked to embrace and represent these contradictions. “We want to move the narrative away from worship,” explains the museum’s Director of Interpretation, Jake Wynn. “Clara Barton was a real person with real ideals who did real work that helped millions of people . . . but she was also a real person with struggles and foibles…. It does a huge disservice to the memory of Clara Barton to distill her down to the angel figure without looking at the full range of her life, and the full range of who was as a person.” This is the narrative—including many of the examples I cited above—the museum seeks to tell on its tours. Wynn explains, “We have these visitors for 40 minutes—we can’t get into everything. But we want to get people thinking more critically.”

Backlit silouette of a tall person in a skirt giving a tour.
Amelia giving a tour at the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. (Courtesy of the author)

The museum supplements the tour with programming and digital content that uses Barton to explore the era in which she lived, the issues at the time, and how they impacted individuals. “The Missing Soldiers Office, in addition to being a place of Civil War stories, is a women’s history site and is a Reconstruction site and should be thought of that way,” asserts Wynn. “She was really at the cutting edge of a social revolution,” he explains, citing her work in the suffrage movement, fighting for the 15th Amendment, and how she laid the groundwork for humanitarian law and practice today. “By highlighting the relationships she had with others, we can explore that revolution.” Programs and digital content have explored women’s fights for their widows’ pensions, contraband camps, the Freedman’s Bureau, and working girls from Patent clerks to sex workers.

The story of Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office Museum challenges us all to rethink how we remember our heroes. In Wynn’s words, we can move the narrative away from worship, and in doing so, cultivate a greater understanding of the world in which she operated and inspire ourselves to action.


    1. Elizabeth Brown Pryor, Clara Barton: Professional Angel (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 23.

Amelia Grabowski is a public historian passionate about connecting the past to the present in engaging and creative ways. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage from Brown University.

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