I write to you from a hotel just outside my nation’s Capitol, dear readers. As part of my son’s education, we arranged with his aunt, my sister, to meet here and tour the many sites and memorials herein. The plunge back in time began Friday morning, with some time spent in the forests and fields of Gettysburg, PA, where the men of our nation were once pitted against one another in bitter struggle. It was a fitting beginning to our day, to remind us of what once was, before we drove on to Washington DC and first glimpsed the bustle of the city.
Amongst the museums and memorials, just a few blocks off the Mall on 7th street, there is a tiny handpainted sign on a narrow building front. The sign (or one very like it) was first hung in 1865, and remained in place until 1868, telling the many visitors that the Office they sought was on the third floor in room 9. When they mounted the dark, steep, narrow stairs of creaking wood covered by thin carpet, perhaps supporting themselves by the handrail modern people find too short for comfort, they would be greeted by Clara Barton herself.
Having taken a leave from her work at the Patent office, and having won recognition for her nursing efforts during the War, the indefatigable woman now set herself to a heartbreaking task: discovering what had become of the tens of thousands of missing soldiers in the wake of the war. It was a different era. Mail was slow, newspapers were the only source of information on modern (to them!) events. Forensic science was in its infancy. Earlier that very day I had scrambled up and down steep, rocky, forested slopes in the long shadows of the monuments placed in recollection of the dead, the wounded, and the missing. It was easy to understand that a man fallen in such a place might simply have vanished from the face of the earth to his loved ones and even his comrades in arms.
Clara published rolls of men known to be missing, compiling those lists in her office at the top of this Washington DC building. She slept in a small room, and in the larger rooms she paid 0.50$ to have a mail slot cut into one of the solid oak doors to accommodate the correspondence of her Office of Missing Soldiers. In the time it was in operation, she received more than 60,000 letters from those who mourned missing men, or those who had seen a name they knew on the rolls, and could say they knew what had become of them. In return she or her assistants sent out almost 45,000 letters asking for more news, acknowledging the letter-writer… or telling what was known of the missing soldier. It isn’t until you see the rooms, with their tiny wood stoves, gass lamps, and transom windows for ventilation, that you can begin to comprehend the monumental accomplishment of finding what had become of 22,000 men.
After her final report to the Congress in 1868, Clara, exhausted, had her things put into storage by her friend and landlord. She went to Europe for a rest, and while there began the humanitarian mission that would become her life’s work: the American Red Cross. Meanwhile, forgotten, her rooms became storage for a shop at the ground level. The third floor was never fitted with modern electricity, or plumbing. It fell gradually into disrepair. A hundred and thirty years later, as the building was being evaluated for demolition, a worker discovered a long-forgotten attic above the third-floor rooms, and in it, a treasure trove of documents, letters, furniture, and even clothing that remained of Clara Barton’s least known work for the fallen boys on the battlefield.
Today the rooms have been partially renovated. Decorated in wallpapers that were painstakingly recreated from fragments discovered still clinging to the dilapidated walls, they show a glimpse into the past, and an obscure but momentous work that mattered to thousands of families in the wake of the worst kind of war, having pitted brother against brother. Little known and open only occasionally, the museum has been established to keep a memory of this accomplishment alive in the few who discover it. There is an elevator, we were told, but climbing up the steep, straight stairs brought home the feeling of dread and anticipation a mother might have had, hoping for news of her boy. The beautiful wallpapers and glowing gaslamps at the top would have set her at ease, perhaps. A homey place, for such sombre work.