Thursday, May 30, 2013


Clara Barton couldn't have made the impact she did without friends.  Her friends supported her, motivated her and (constructively) criticized her.  One man who made an indelible difference in her life was the Honorable Henry Wilson.  It is not clear when they became friends, but by the end of the Civil War they were very close, and some in the Barton family claimed that they were planning to marry when Wilson died suddenly in 1875.  I'd like to relay some things about Wilson that most Americans do not seem to know.
Henry Wilson as Senator from Massachusetts

Henry Wilson was born Jeremiah Jones Colbath in Farmington, N.H., February 16, 1812.  In 1833 he moved to Natick, MA and learned shoemaking.  While living in Natick he also occasionally worked as a teacher.  Wilson served in the state legislature from 1841-1852.  He was elected U.S. Senator in 1855 where he served until 1873, when elected Vice-President of the United States on the Republican ticket with Ulysses S. Grant.  While in the Senate, he served as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs and the Militia. 

Wilson recruited a regiment of volunteers at Boston in 1861 including sharpshooters and artillery (the 3rd Battery Massachusetts Light Artillery and the 2nd Company Massachusetts Sharpshooters) that became the 22nd MA Regiment, and was elected commander (Colonel), but he resigned and returned to the Senate in late October 1861. The Regiment fought creditably as part of the Army of the Potomac throughout the War.   Five companies came from outside Boston, including Barton's former friends and students from the 6th Mass militia who were involved in the Baltimore Riots.  These company's enlistments for 90 days had expired.  The 22nd Regiment required a three year committment.  Friends such as Barton kept Wilson abreast of conditions in the field, making him a well-informed member of Congress.

Barton felt close enough to Wilson to express her deepest concerns and disappointments, a thing women did not do outside of their family during her time.  His responses, including a trip to her boarding room late in the evening while she struggled with depression reveals the depth of their relationship.  He adopted her as a sister when her brother died.  During one episode she wrote him,

I know how worthless a woman’s life is, and what a pity it is to wear one, -- few persons ever felt this more keenly or bitterly than I, few more ready than I for years to resign the useless bauble.  I have striven (against the fearful odds) to make my life worth something to mankind, but realize that it has been, and must be, a failure.

Wilson was able to provide significant support to Barton during her quest to break barriers to serve the wounded.  He put forward and received a commission for her brother David as a captain in the quartermaster department during the war in order to give her a way to serve at the front.  As Chairman of the Military Affairs committee he ordered, on her request, an inspection of buildings left vacant but available to house the wounded in Fredericksburg, significantly improving care in that city during the Overland Campaign of 1864. 

Henry Wilson as Vice-President of the United States

Wilson embodied the spirit of the American man of the 19th century.  He and Barton had several things in common besides Massachusetts that drew them together.  He was a self-made man as she was a woman, they both shared liberal values and had faith in the Republican party.  If there ever was a man who was worthy as a husband to Barton, he would have been the most likely to embody those qualities.  The family insistence that they were to marry in 1875 is not a far-fetched idea at all.  Henry Wilson was quite an impressive man in 1865, as he would be today.
Expect to find Wilson's name often here in the writings, he was an intrical part of Barton's work and a friend she could always count on.  America was lucky to have him in the worst crisis the young nation ever faced.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Secret Weapon

Hammond’s Secret Weapon

Thirty-three year old newly appointed Surgeon General of the Army, William A. Hammond inherited a seemingly insurmountable issue.  The timely delivery to the battlefield of desperately needed medical supplies.  A large part of the problem seemed to be inherent in how the military logistics system worked in 1861.  Logistics, or the transportation accompanying the army hauling needed supplies, seemed logical enough.  After the infantry came the artillery, the cavalry normally preceding the march and covering the rear of the army.  Next in line would be ordnance, otherwise the army would be powerless.  After ordnance came food for both soldiers and the heart of transportation, horses, mules and oxen.  Lastly advanced medical supplies because, if the army did not conduct battle, there was little need for more than what the medical personnel could carry.  At the end would be any non-government entities and army followers that may, or may not, be needed to benefit the army.  Once the battle commenced with huge casualties, medical supplies became scarce within a very short time.  As it became acutely evident earlier in the war, timely supply and assistance could mean the difference between life and death.

Supply Depot during the Civil War
Little did the Quartermaster in command of supply depots in Washington know that one day, sitting in front of him a woman wracked by frustration and incapable of stopping a flow of tears, would be Hammond’s solution.  Then-Major Daniel Rucker, after facing a day of endless appointments from all sorts of people needing or wanting something from him, was probably at his wits-end when his visitor broke down after another long day of waiting and almost certain rejection.  How could he help her, he inquired.  She apologized for her weak and weariness.  The lady explained that all she would like was to deliver her three warehouses of supplies to needy soldiers in the field.  All she needed was a pass and transportation for the goods. 

Asst. QM General Daniel Rucker
Did she say three warehouses full?  The army could certainly use the help.  At that time, however, the bulk of the army resided just outside his office building and where ever space was available in Washington.  He might be able to secure passes for her in the future, but the future was uncertain at that time.  She did return home to her boarding room across town without what she waited all day to accomplish.

Wagon train in pursuit of Army
Miss Clara Barton, determined to support and contribute to the war effort in some significant way, worked then as a copyist in the Patent Office.  The past Christmas she turned forty, and could not decide her role in the fraternal social system popular in the young United States of America.  The role society expected her to play included marriage, bearing her husband’s children, raising them to be well educated, good Christians and contributing members of the American public.  Miss Barton haughtily rejected this role for herself.  She did not oppose the role for those who chose it, but thought she could contribute so much more without the responsibilities of the traditional American woman.  Raised and educated as an equal to her male cousins living near the Barton homestead in Oxford, Massachusetts, she knew that she could accomplish anything they might try.  She had already proven that over her entire childhood, and her family acknowledged the fact by employing her to keep the accounting books for her oldest brother’s mill.  Miss Barton had tested for and received her teaching certificate at the age of seventeen and taught boys and girls in New England for eighteen years.  Additionally, after moving to Washington in 1854, the Commissioner of the Patent Office employed Miss Barton, at the same pay as men, as a confidential clerk.  Not only did she prove to be a very competent, she discovered a ring of thieves inside the Patent Office who had rejected patent applications and sold the patents to others for personal gain.  Patent office historians would consider her employer, Judge Charles Mason, as the Commissioner best known for reform because of her work.

Miss Barton was wise enough to know that she could not accomplish much without the support of influential men and fortunately cultivated some friendships over her years in Washington.  Political troubles compelled Judge Mason to leave town, but he would return later.  On the top of Miss Barton’s list until 1875 stood the Honorable Senator from Massachusetts, Henry Wilson.  Daniel Rucker and William Hammond would become staunch supporters as well as several officers and surgeons that accepted Barton’s assistance.  Family support for her included her brother’s acceptance of a quartermaster commission in order to help keep Barton in the field.  Wilson was particularly important, holding the position of Chairman of the Military Affairs committee, and frequent visitor of the White House.

After departing Rucker’s office, Miss Barton still did not fathom the importance she would play on the battlefield.  Hammond and his Medical Director in the military’s largest army, the Army of the Potomac, Jonathan Letterman, as well as Rucker, would use Barton to circumvent the system.  Through a cultivated “spy,” Miss Barton learned in September 1862 that McClellan expected to engage the enemy in force outside of Harpers Ferry, Virginia.  Hurrying to Rucker’s office, she asked if the information was true and could she get passes.  Rucker obtained passes for Barton and supplied an army wagon for transportation.  The trip would be a test of Barton’s pluck, and she passed beyond Rucker’s expectations.  Not only did Barton withstand the horrors of battle, she cleverly passed the army supply train during the night and camped on the battlefield the day before fighting commenced.  From then on, Barton became Hammond’s secret weapon.  As one officer found during the campaign, Barton knew she was not bound by army regulations to stay anywhere, or prohibited from acting without orders.  During the Maryland Campaign of 1862, Barton re-supplied an estimated 17 field hospitals the day after the battle and provided lanterns for night-time surgeries.  Each time she ventured to the field she improved in the quality and quantity of critically needed supplies and support.

Cdv of Barton during the War
Although they never wrote about Barton’s value as an outside player, Hammond and Rucker at least were easily intelligent enough to realize how Barton could help.  Hammond’s secret weapon would help them speed up the arrival of medical supplies, but she was also an influential advocate for military medical reform.  Largely through civilian pressure on Congress, the military medical system evolved from a disaster of epic proportions to the prototype for military medicine around the world.  Miss Barton would go on to contribute significantly not only to her country, but internationally in promoting the permanent organization of disaster relief for victims of war and natural disasters. In the war for saving lives, score Hammond one, death zero. 

Army Surgeon General William A. Hammond

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why Vote For Clara Barton?

As most of you know, my Museum, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine is participating in a National Trust contest for funding to restore and reinstall the original windows in Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office, our almost-open Museum in Washington D.C.  The contest pits 24 historic sites in the Washington DC area (several sites in Maryland and Virginia are included) in a popularity contest for funding through social media.  Overall first place in the voting is guaranteed funding, and the rest must compete for votes from a committee who will decide how to distribute the rest.  The competition is very stiff and all sites are deserving.  I wish every site could receive the funding that they need to either restore or maintain the historic structures in their care.  I do not envy the committee in their decision. 

Windows needing restoration and installation

So, it seems legitimate to me, dear readers, to ask why one should vote for the Missing Soldiers Office.  I believe there are many very good reasons to do so, and in the following, I shall try to convince you of the merits of the site.

Clara Barton was a pioneering woman on several levels, and certainly a woman well ahead of her time.  She was not the first person to dedicate herself to the service of others, or even the wounded soldiers in war.  Florence Nightingale became famous before the American Civil War in aiding the wounded, and a gentleman named Henri Dunant also participated in this work that led to a book titled A Memory of Solferino that led to the establishment of the International Red Cross.  Thousands of citizens answered the call for aid throughout the Civil War from 1861 to 1865 and beyond.  Miss Barton did not invent first aid or triage, they were present on the battlefield from the beginning of the war.  The U.S. Army and Confederate Army Medical Departments spend many long laborious hours working on medical efficiency and compassion, a long frustrating process to be sure.  Miss Barton was not the first to conceive of a permanent organization of civilians dedicated to providing support to armies in war-time.  In the United States, Congress recognized the U.S. Sanitary Commission at the beginning of the war to aid the medical department and act as a sort of watch-dog group advocating for the sick and wounded.  

Hospital at Savage Station

Her singular ability to stand back from the situation and determine where she might contribute the most marks the difference between Barton and others.  Barton felt organizations such as the Sanitary Commission might overlook the talents she possessed.  Abundant courage stood perhaps ahead of all others, but social practices of the time might have kept her from revealing her mettle under another’s supervision.  She had important friends in high places of government, and those inside the Army may not have ever known her as a contributing member of a large organization.   With these influential figures, she succeeded in blazing a path through glass ceilings, red tape, and politics.  Her trip to Antietam highlighted the latter, where she was not bound to abide by the military regulated hierarchy and therefore arrived on the field well before any official medical supplies could reach it.  Her insight to advocate for faster care for the wounded assisted in making effective emergency care available.  It was after this event that certain people in Washington came to appreciate her talents. 

Clara Barton during the Civil War

Even with these powerful friends, Barton struggled to maintain her position with the Army in the field.  Together with her family and friends, she managed to find a way to significantly contribute to her country and cause.  In 1865, looking for a new way to fill an immediate need, Barton realized through letters from desperate families of the missing, that here was a relevant way to relieve suffering  caused by the War.  While the military conducted the final phase of winning the war, she could help locate the whereabouts of missing soldiers for the nation.  Immediately, she developed an organizational plan and presented it to the government.  Although the military was wary about civilians operating within their jurisdiction, President Lincoln learned of the plan and published a note directing all who needed or had information should contact Barton.  In the end, the Missing Soldiers Office, operated out of Barton’s skimpy boarding house rooms, provided relief for tens of thousands of soldier’s families.  

One of the rolls published by Barton

The satisfaction Barton felt from her work must have been extremely gratifying.  So much so, that after she left the U.S. to rest in Europe, the leadership of the International Red Cross compelled her to assist refugees in that war.  However, after returning to the U.S., Barton was not ready to retire.  After recovering her health, she began an eight year campaign spanning three presidencies to establish an American National Association of the Red Cross.  Although she may have thought this would be a cake-walk compared to war, the struggle for establishing an organization for work in war would be quite difficult in peace-time.  But Barton’s indomitable persistence paid off in 1881, when the U.S. chartered the organization and 1882 when Congress ratified the Geneva Conventions. 

Original wallpaper from building hallway circa 1853

Barton was clever in convincing this organization was vital to America's interests.  She lobbied to add aiding victims of natural disasters and calamities to the responsibilities of the American Red Cross.  The first call for relief came about a month after receiving national recognition and proved the value of organized humanitarian aid.  Barton consistently deployed Red Cross forces in timely and efficient manner, answering thousands of disasters and the Spanish-American War before resigning from the Red Cross in 1904, at the age of 82!  But again, Barton did not retire.  Now she dedicated her time to a new idea, to train the general public in first aid, so timely help for accident victims might become commonplace.  She designed a first aid kit for students, and a first aid manual for reference in time of need.  Only a few years were left to her in rest before she died in 1912 at the age of 91.

Once Clara Barton realized she had unique talents to offer, she worked tirelessly for others and developed a first class international humanitarian organization that continues the work she began in the American Civil War.  Her legacy is the continued support of the nation in time of need.

Brooch awarded for service in Europe
Clara Barton should be recognized for the following critical work:
-  Humanitarian

Founder of the American Red Cross

Champion of International Humanitarian Law

Educator, Author and Public Speaker

Pioneering American Woman

First Aid Practitioner, Educator and Advocate

International Relief Organizer


Barton excelled in all of these areas.  To inspire others to the same, the Missing Soldiers Office will highlight these gifts to tell Miss Barton’s powerful story.  Our goal is to groom more citizens to recognize the virtues of helping their fellow man.  Won’t you help us?    

To vote for Barton's legacy, go to  It is easy and free to register and vote.  Every time voters tweet, retweet, post or share on Facebook or Instagram using #clarabarton, the site receives extra points.  Voting begins every day through May 10, 2013.  The Trust is conducting a press conference on May 13th to announce the winners.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pathway To Discovery

Clarissa Harlowe Barton as a young lady.
 photo from the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester Mass.

     Three years ago, I was approached by my good friend and colleague, Mike Hoffman, during a tour dress rehearsal and asked if I had heard about the discovery of Clara Barton’s boarding rooms in a building in Washington DC.  I had, from Park Ranger Alann Schmidt, while I was volunteering at Antietam National Battlefield.  He had visited the site.  Mike asked if I would be interested in visiting the site, and whether my Museum (National Museum of Civil WarMedicine, NMCWM) might be interested in partnering with the U. S. General Services Administration regarding exhibits.  I declared an immediate “yes!” and since then my life has changed as I conduct research into the history surrounding Clara Barton and her time as a resident of Washington D.C.

     Previously, I had spent the majority of my time researching Confederate General James Longstreet, hailed by historian Jeffry Wert as The South’s Most Controversial General in his 1994 biography.  Longstreet is a complicated man, worthy of deep study, and had not failed in many years to maintain an interest as I discovered how he came to earn Wert’s sobriquet.  With that experience behind me, studying Clara Barton seemed almost second nature with a few added bonuses.  First, I would have no trouble finding material, since the family blessed the Library of Congress with a donation of a great deal of her personal papers in the late 1950s.  Second, as the NMCWM’s director of strategic initiatives, David Price put it; Clara Barton is a “rock star!”  While I occasionally received requests for lectures on Longstreet, my phone became very busy after the museum announced a forthcoming partnership with GSA.  With the Civil War Sesquicentennial now in full swing, Clara Barton’s role in the national tragedy is receiving renewed attention. 

     I naturally began my research by studying the readily available biographies on Miss Barton.  I say readily, because Barton has had more than the average celebrity’s share of biographies spanning from her death in 1912 to the last few years.  The NMCWM carries Stephen Oates’ A Woman of Valor, and so that marvelous work was obviously the most readily available and very well written.  As a Civil War enthusiast, Valor is especially appreciated because Oates focuses just on Barton’s Civil War experience, which was naturally the era that interests me most.  I wanted to read something close to Barton’s lifetime, so with a short perusal of the Library of Congress’ online catalog, I noted two potential biographies; the first written by Percy Epler, whom Barton retained as her official biographer, and the second written by a relative, William E. Barton, an accomplished author who was not only close to Barton during her lifetime, but was named by Barton to her literary committee, charged with managing her papers after her death.  William Barton wrote that he compiled his biography because he realized after Epler’s work was published that the biographer didn’t have access to several important papers that he thought could change the context of Miss Barton’s life.  Easy, often access to Miss Barton’s other relatives and correspondence gives William Barton an advantage.  His two volumes seems almost an autobiography as his use of her personal writings fills much of the book. 
Miss Clara Barton later in life
photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

     Many discoveries since beginning this adventure continue to delight and motivate my enthusiasm to dig deeper into the events of Miss Barton’s long, productive life.  She defied common social values of her day, overcame significant obstacles to achieve results, and remained determined to improve on her vast accomplishments.  I would like to share this discovery, because Miss Barton is a role model of the highest commodity and in my opinion, her values and character cannot be over-promoted.  Thank you for your interest in my “scrawl” as they said in the 19th century.  I hope you find my discoveries as interesting as I have and will share them to help our current and next generation that one person can make a real difference in our world.


Susan Rosenvold
Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office
Washington DC