NEW YORK NURSE: May 2011
by Alison Munday
What once was overlooked and boarded-up has now been found and will be restored. In this Civil War sesquicentennial year, it’s wonderfully fitting, yet possible only through an odd convergence of circumstances, that the Missing Soldiers Office of Clara Barton will enjoy a new lease on life, as a museum.
Barton, a renowned Civil War nurse, humanitarian, and founder of the Red Cross, opened the “Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army” in 1865, but over the years the office had been abandoned and forgotten.
Then, fifteen years ago, Government Services Administration (GSA) carpenter, Richard Lyons was charged with securing a run-down boarding house at 437½ Seventh St. NW, Washington D.C. prior to demolition, when he made a fluke discovery. According to the GSA website, he noticed an envelope dangling between the ceiling slats on the third floor. Continuing to explore he found artifacts including the metal sign for the Missing Soldiers Office, a blouse with a bullet hole, lists of missing soldiers and more than 2,000 other items, which he later learned had been stashed by Barton’s neighbor in the crawl space above her office, after she left for Europe.
He had chanced upon the cluster of rooms Barton had occupied during and immediately after the Civil War. Here, she stored supplies for battlefield nursing and ran the Missing Soldiers Office. From this space, boarded-off by the owner nearly a century earlier, Barton responded to more than 60,000 letters from grieving loved ones, most requiring further research and, ultimately, leading to lists of the missing she would publish.
By 1867, Barton’s office had been instrumental in identifying the fate of more than 22,000 men. Lyon’s find prompted the GSA to reverse the demolition order for the building, and to announce plans to create a museum that would honor Barton’s Civil War work. In March, the GSA and the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM), under whose auspices the museum will operate, reached agreement on a partnership that allowed the project to move forward.
“This museum would complete the circle with Clara Barton. Her contribution, both in terms of the nursing she delivered during the war and the humanitarian aid she gave during and after the war…helping families seek lost soldiers. . . that’s the story that needs to be told,” said George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland.
For more information on the Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office Museum, visit www.civilwarmed.org.