Clara Barton’s post-Civil War office, where the battlefield nurse had helped families find missing soldiers, may finally get the care and respect it deserves.
The top floor of an old brick commercial building in downtown Washington was Barton’s apartment and office where she collected donated medical supplies for the battlefield and later ran the Missing Soldiers Office. She closed the office in 1867, storing files and personal clothing in the crude attic above her rooms. She never came back for them, and they stayed in their hidden storage space until 1996, when a federal government carpenter discovered the cache while preparing the building for demolition.
The discovery saved the building but little else had happened until today when officials of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine of Frederick, Md. announced they had signed an agreement with the building’s owner, the General Services Administration, to open the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum in that third floor space.
The group must now raise $4.75 million to preserve and operate the museum. That may sound like a lot but the federal government sets a very high standard for restoration, safety and security of any of its properties. Just think about the difficulty of artfully installing an elevator in a building that dates to the founding of the city and one that will eventually have tenants on all three floors. The very narrow stairway leading to the second and third floors would definitely not meet government code.
I was working at The Washington Post newspaper on Nov. 26, 1997, when a government historian called me to meet him to see a “wonderful discovery concerning the Civil War.” Near Barton’s old office, we met in a small room where a wood table was piled with 10 open boxes of documents and next to them was an assortment of women’s clothing. They were the items that Barton had stored more than a century before. Richard Lyons, the man who found them, had turned them over to Gary Scott, the National Park Service’s chief historian at the time.
Scott was delighted with all these fascinating items that were directly tied to Barton but the best find, he said, was the ornately-written metal sign that had been posted on the building next to the doorway that read, “Missing Soldiers Office, 3rd floor, Room 9, Miss Clara Barton.”
For me, the opportunity to see up close and even touch the clothing that belonged to Barton, one of best known personalities of the Civil War, was an almost giddy experience. I held up one of her long-skirted dresses that looked like it would fit me and touched a hat, frock coat and embroidered slipper. I know that brings shutters to all curators everywhere but at that moment everything had already been handled by Lyons and more importantly, there was no one there to chastise us.