Finding Clara Barton

On the day before Thanksgiving, 1994, the US General Services Administration sent one of its staff carpenters, a man named Richard Lyons, to check out a block of vacant buildings it had acquired on a decrepit block in downtown Washington, DC. Bulldozing was imminent, and they wanted him to clear out any derelicts who might be living there. The first two floors of the long-defunct shoe store at 437 7th Street were easy for Lyons to access, and he found no habitation. On the third floor, rough boards were nailed over the entrance at the top of a long flight of stairs. Lyons pried off several boards and clambered through. Again, the rooms were empty. But as he was preparing to leave, he felt a tap on his shoulder.

I’ve met Richard Lyons. He is the most phlegmatic, down-to-earth retired carpenter you can imagine. He doesn’t have any particular views on ghosts, one way or the other. When he says he felt a tap on the shoulder, I’m inclined to believe him. Be that as it may, when he turned around, he saw no one there. He spied instead a piece of paper protruding from a crack where the wall should have met the ceiling. Curious, he pulled himself up through a small hole into the crawl space above the ceiling.

There he found Clara Barton. Not her ghost, nor her corpse. But a wide assortment of personal items, files, and other artifacts relating to Barton (best known for founding the American Red Cross), including most prominently a metal sign: “Missing Soldiers Office. 3rd Story. Room 9. Miss Clara Barton.”

Lyons had a vague sense of Clara Barton as a historical figure. A prominent local highway was named after her. But he didn’t know very much, a deficiency he soon remedied by nightly visits to the Library of Congress. He didn’t share them with his supervisor, whose response to the find had been unequivocal: get rid of it, and don’t tell anyone. The mission was to get the block demolished, and he wanted no busybody delays.

What insubordinate Richard Lyons learned was that Clara Barton had been born in 1821 to a middle-class family in Massachusetts. Though she had her suitors, she was too independent for the customary nineteenth-century feminine path of early marriage and children. Instead, she took a job as a teacher. Her performance was excellent, in part because she realized that her path to success lay in taming the unruly older boys. With a combination of straightforward caring and firmness, rather than the more typical high-handed discipline, she won them over. As her confidence grew, she led a successful campaign to realign the school district boundaries so that children of mill workers could get the same quality of education as children of the affluent (a struggle still underway today). She was opposed by her father, among others, but helped organize a “packing” of the town meeting by mill workers to carry the day.

When she moved to Bordentown, New Jersey, the school situation was even worse—no free public education at all. She taught for a time at a school where families were required to pay, becoming so popular that she could succeed in getting the town to cover the costs itself. A Pyrrhic victory, indeed: when a man was brought in to supervise the expenditure of taxpayer funds at her school, Barton’s position was demoted to that of “female assistant” at less than half his pay. So she left.

Next she landed in Washington, DC. With the help of her congressman, she won a job as a clerk at the Patent Office. For a time, she was actually paid at the same rate as similar male clerks were. Some say she was the first woman federal employee to achieve this distinction; whether or not she was technically the first, she was certainly in a rarefied atmosphere.

The first combat deaths of the Civil War occurred not at Fort Sumter, but in Baltimore, Maryland, where troops rushing to defend the capital were attacked by mobs while changing trains. When the train of wounded soldiers from Baltimore finally pulled into the Washington station, Barton joined a frightened, chaotic crowd of gawkers. Unlike others in the crowd, though, she didn’t simply gasp as the bloodied soldiers emerged—she stepped forward and started to help. She had no formal medical training, but there were plenty of simple things she could do.

The situation grew catastrophic when Union casualties from the disastrous first battle of Bull Run began pouring in. The army was utterly unprepared for its crushing rout. Barton positioned herself at the Fairfax, Virginia, train station, providing both physical and emotional relief for the wounded, most of whom had received no attention at all. She loved the work, and the soldiers loved her. There were lots of controversies later in her life, but no one ever questioned those two facts.

With more help from her congressman, she won an extraordinary permission from the army to travel with the Army of the Potomac for the next year, giving care to those in urgent need during the critical interval between the battlefield and the hospital. A terrible year it was for that army, reeling from defeat to defeat, with its finest hour what historians call the “stalemate” at Antietam—the bloodiest day in North American history. Barton displayed so much personal courage that year—perhaps too much—that wagon drivers dodged being assigned to her.

As the war dragged on, though, the federal army grew more professional in every respect. Long before the phrase was invented, there came to be such a thing as “the right way, the wrong way, and the army way.” The army way meant, among other things, caring for its wounded by soldiers who were accountable through a chain of command rather than by good-hearted volunteers. Especially volunteers with a reputation for being as energetic about attracting fawning press coverage as they were about doing their jobs. Barton found herself shunted aside. She did herself little good with the senior command by carrying on a torrid romance with a married colonel during the protracted, frequently boring siege of Charleston.

At the end of the war, Barton found herself without a mission in life. She filled the void by creating the “Missing Soldiers Bureau,” based on a letter her congressman had wangled from President Abraham Lincoln. This makes her the first woman to head a federal agency, if that term is broadly defined. Civil War record keeping, especially for the thousands of federal prisoners at the horrific Confederate camp at Andersonville, Georgia, was slipshod at best. Barton took it upon herself to publish lists of missing soldiers in newspapers and bulletin boards across the country, with a plea for any information their comrades might have about their whereabouts or their place of burial. Tens of thousands of pieces of mail flowed into and out of the little third-floor office on 7th Street, where Barton slept on a cot in the back.

The trouble was, the army was doing the same thing, at the same time—the army way. There was an ugly dispute about who was entitled to a list of Andersonville prisoners one of Barton’s friends had found, that (quite properly) made her look bad. There were also her increasingly vocal demands in the press for federal funding (which she ultimately received) in an amount many thought was unjustifiably large. The criticism may have hit home, because the work of her office ended abruptly when she suffered a nervous breakdown. The landlord apparently stashed her belongings in the attic, where they sat undisturbed for the next 130 years.

Why had they remained hidden so long? Two main reasons: first was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, which killed 145 workers on upper stories who had no way to flee. City fire codes ensued, requiring building owners to install fire escapes for any floors in use above a second story. These were expensive; the owner of the DC building that once housed Barton’s office decided it was cheaper to comply with the code by walling off the third floor.

Secondly, everyone who might be interested knew that the Missing Soldiers Bureau was at 488 7th Street, an address that had blanketed the country while the bureau was operational. And every Washingtonian knows that in the northwest quadrant, even numbers appear exclusively on the west side of the street—the side of this block of 7th that had been torn down many decades before Richard Lyons arrived. There was no point looking for a 488 that was long gone. What people didn’t consider, though, was that the logical numbering system only arose in the 1870s, when a reforming mayor completely restructured the city. Clara Barton’s 488 was now 437.

After her breakdown Barton was laid up as an invalid for several years. Rightly or wrongly she felt mistreated by her government, even though her “boys in blue” still thought she walked on air. In 1870 she gathered the strength to travel to Europe, uncertain whether she would ever return. There she had the spectacular good fortune, odd as it sounds, of stumbling smack into another war, this time between France and Prussia. She dashed about madly trying to reprise her Civil War act, sending home breathless reports about all the good she was doing, urgently demanding contributions to support her noble efforts.

Sadly, all such accounts were fabricated; Barton never did find an active battlefield. When she finally submitted an accounting to her contributors about how their funds had been used, it was falsified, sometimes by simply tacking a zero onto a figure, changing, for example, three francs to thirty. In truth, Barton had been hobnobbing among Europe’s aristocracy, who showered her with the adulation she craved but couldn’t get from America’s elite. That in turn helped her find the Red Cross: a first-of-its-kind organization established by an international treaty, signatories to which promised to accommodate the organization’s efforts to aid victims during wartime.

Barton returned home obsessed with getting the United States to join that treaty. This was far harder than it sounds. Every American knew George Washington’s dictum to “avoid foreign entanglements.” Besides, we weren’t going to be in any more wars like the Civil War, so what was the point? Barton shrewdly expanded the Red Cross mission to include victims of natural disasters, and kept hammering away at her lobbying campaign with well-publicized efforts to provide immediate relief after floods and hurricanes. Some of Barton’s other firsts are difficult to prove, but she was unquestionably the first woman to lead a successful decade-long lobbying campaign of this magnitude.

Barton’s management of the American Red Cross wasn’t exactly proactive. Raising money, training volunteers, shrewdly allocating teams to the places they could do the most good—this is not what she did. What she did instead was wait for a disaster to happen (which usually didn’t take long), then race to the scene herself with a small but loyal staff and commence the hands-on caregiving she craved.

On a disaster scene, like the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, she had no equal. She did an extraordinary amount of good. But back in the office she was, quite arguably, a disaster herself. Record keeping was farcical, there was little or no distinction drawn between her funds and the organization’s funds, and clever con artists took advantage of the disorder.

While not in the field, Barton spent much of her time preoccupied with the refusal of Congress to pour money down her sinkhole, and vindictively undermining competitor organizations like the “White Cross” established by the US Catholic Church. She spent much of the rest of her time cultivating her public image. “Sensitive by nature, refined by culture, she has nevertheless taken unaccustomed fields of labor, walked untrodden paths with bleeding feet, and opened pioneer doors with bruised fingers, not for her own aggrandizement but for that of her sex and humanity.” Who wrote those immortal words about Clara Barton? She did.

Was this any way to build a permanent organization to pursue aims as noble as those set forth in the Red Cross treaty? Of course not. But the more she heard that complaint, the harder she dug in her heels. Eventually, the pressure grew so intense that at the age of eighty-three Barton was forced out of the American Red Cross itself, her own labor of love. She lived out her remaining years in bitterness.

Truly finding Clara Barton requires answering some hard questions, more than just stumbling on some of her belongings.

Was she a humanist? That word in its current usage didn’t exist during her lifetime. We know that she never worked through the auspices of any church, though life might have been easier if she had. We know that in a letter late in life she called herself a Universalist, as her parents had been, but she never joined or participated regularly in any congregation, Universalist or otherwise. We also know that she liked to call herself a “well-disposed pagan.” Some of her letters and talks expressed a standard nineteenth-century hope that God would do this or that, but there is no doubting the firmness of her conviction that wounded soldiers didn’t need prayers—they needed water. That sounds pretty humanist.

Was she a hero? Absolutely. Her flaws were stunning, but her achievements were staggering. She was smart, she was hardworking, she was imaginative, she was empathetic, she was politically adroit, and she could charm rude teenagers into cooperation (perhaps her most astonishing achievement). Indeed, the list of nineteenth-century Americans of either gender who accomplished half of what she did isn’t long.

How would a woman of her immense talents have fared in a less sexist environment? Historical what-ifs are hard, and ultimately useless. If she hadn’t grown that enormous chip on her shoulder by forced subservience to men far less capable than she, it’s possible she’d have enjoyed a productive but historically insignificant career, like millions of other women and men. What we can say for certain is that throwing up obstacles against people because of their gender, or race, or any other criterion aside from ability to get a job done is lunacy.

If you want to find Clara Barton, take one more look at her portrait. It’s a fascinating face, full of secrets, full of its own unique insights on life. Whether or not she was a humanist, whether or not she was a hero, hers is one hell of a compelling story.