At the beginning of my Fulbright year I did a windy bike ride to Glen Echo, Maryland, to visit the house where the founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton, spent the last 15 years of her life. At the time I also discovered that there was another exciting historical site much closer to the current American Red Cross National Headquarters: Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office. At that point in time, the site was still undergoing restoration and closed for public, so I totally forgot about it for quite a while.
Just before my last weekend in DC in August, something triggered me to check if the restoration had been finished. And it had, already a few months earlier actually. I saw this as an opportunity to close circles and biked to 437 ½ 7th Street NW late on a sunny Friday afternoon after work. I was very lucky with my timing as the Executive Director of the museum himself happened to be on site and gave me an extremely informative guided tour. He shared the whole story of the incredible discovery of the space and the extensive restoration work.
The exact location of the Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office in downtown DC was a mystery for historians for decades. Most of them believed that it had been in a building that had been since then demolished. In 1997, the mystery was suddenly solved when the General Services Administration was about to demolish yet another building. Luckily, one of the GSA employees discovered a number of carefully packed items in the attic that made him curious. A closer look revealed that these items had belonged to Clara Barton, and it became evident that the Missing Soldiers Office had been in the building. It turned out that the reason why the historians had been looking for the office a few blocks in the wrong direction was that the street numbering system had been changed at some point in the history. The demolition plans were cancelled, and now years later the space is open for public as a museum after meticulous restoration.
Clara Barton both lived and worked in the space from 1861 to 1868 during and right after the Civil War. She used it as home and as a warehouse for the supplies that she received for her work on the battlefield. Later the room 9 became famous as the office in which Clara Barton responded to more than 63,000 letters regarding missing soldiers. In total, she was able to identify the fate of over 22,000 men. In the same spirit, the American Red Cross keeps up the work started by Clara Barton by tracking people who have gone missing due to an armed conflict or a natural catastrophe and reconnecting families every day. The American Red Cross also facilitates getting important messages from the family members out to the current day battlefields as a part of its Service to the Armed Forces.
As a part of the guided tour, I also got a comprehensive recap of Clara Barton’s life from the Executive Director. Clara Barton really was a renaissance woman. It is incredible to think how the American Red Cross brings together so many of her passions from helping soldiers on the battlefields to teaching first aid for the general public and tracing missing people. Clara Barton’s work really lays the foundation for everything that the American Red Cross still does today.
For me, the museum visit was a great way to close circles in the end of the Fulbright year. The small museum is definitely worth a visit for anyone who is at all interested in the story of Clara Barton, the history of the American Red Cross, or the Civil War and American history in general. The museum is currently open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays 11AM-6PM. Check the Facebook page of the museum for exceptions and more information.