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

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