Clara Barton is well-known for founding the American Red Cross in 1881. What’s lesser known is that much before this, the wartime nurse was instrumental in trying to locate soldiers who were missing after the Civil War.
Throughout the war Barton spent a significant amount of time helping wounded soldiers on the battlefield. She stockpiled supplies, delivered them where they were needed, and saved the lives of many soldiers. At this time she was working as a patent clerk in Washington D.C., in the building that is now the National Portrait Gallery, and made her home in a boarding house across the street.
Once the war was over, Barton realized that there were tens of thousands of men missing, and she opened the Missing Soldiers Office in the room next to hers. During the years that the office was open, she and her staff received approximately 63,000 requests for help in determining the fate of missing soldiers. In that time, they either located or confirmed the death of around 22,000 men.
The office was packed up in 1868 when Barton went to Europe for a much-needed break. Instead of taking that break, she continued her humanitarian efforts in the Franco-Prussian War. Her work with the International Red Cross inspired her to start the American Red Cross. While she was away, paperwork and other items from the Missing Soldiers Office were moved into the attic and forgotten.
More than a century later, in 1996, the rundown building was inspected in preparation for demolition. A General Services Administration (GSA) worker named Richard Lyons discovered the artifacts in the attic, including a tin sign that advertised “Missing Soldiers Office, Miss Clara Barton, 3rd Story, Room 9.” That discovery spawned nearly two decades of preservation and restoration efforts until finally the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum was opened to the public in 2015.
The museum contains her original tin advertisement signs, handwritten letters, and a Civil War-era map of forts and hospitals in Washington D.C. The first level of the museum is accessible for free, and for a fee, a knowledgeable guide will offer a tour of the preserved rooms that once housed the Missing Soldiers Office.
Know Before You Go
The closest metro is Gallery Place / Chinatown. The museum is open Thursday through Saturday from 11:00 am to 5:00 pm.