Closing Circles & Revisiting Clara

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.

Missing Soldiers Office

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.

Where the Treasure Was Found

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.

Room 9

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.

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A Little Bit of History & Visiting Clara

Despite being involved with the Red Cross since a kid, I did not know too much of its 150-year-long history before my Fulbright project. Of course I was familiar with the name Henry Dunant, the Swiss businessman known as the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863, but that was about it. Learning more about the history of the organization and how it intertwines with world politics has been fascinating.

When I started to read more about the Red Cross history, I soon realized that strong women played key roles in the early days of the organization. Even Henry Dunant himself commented that “it is to an English woman that all the honour of that Geneva Convention is due”, referring to Florence Nightingale. Nightingale’s heroic work during the Crimean War (1853-1856) to improve the care of sick and wounded soldiers was great inspiration for Dunant. Later, Nightingale initiated the foundation of the British Red Cross in 1870. In Finland, Countess Aline Armfelt was the driving force behind the foundation of the Finnish Red Cross (originally known as ‘the Association for the Treatment of the Wounded and Sick Soldiers’) in 1877.

The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton (1821–1912). Based on the biographies, she sounds like quite a character: “a renaissance woman” who seemed to excel in anything she did, despite being very shy and living in a society where women were all but encouraged to work outside home. In her early professional life, Clara Barton first pioneered as a teacher, and then worked in the Patent Office, becoming one of the first women to gain employment in the federal government. During the Civil War, Barton risked her life to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field, getting the nick name “Angel of the Battlefield”. At the time of founding the American Red Cross, she was already 60 years old and had a notable career behind her, but that did not stop her from leading the organization for 23 years, until the age of 83! Even after that she remained active and founded the National First Aid Society that later became part of the Red Cross.

Clara Barton was originally from Massachusetts. In 1855 she moved to DC for the first time due to her work in the Patent office, and since then she lived and worked on and off in the area. Hence here are several interesting sights commemorating her and her work. One of them is Clara Barton’s Missing Soldier’s Office on the 7th Street NW where Clara Barton lived and worked from 1861 to 1868. The site is currently undergoing restoration and hence closed to public, but the restoration should be finalized in spring, so I hope to be able to visit it still before my Fulbright year is over. 

The last 15 years of her life Clara Barton spent in Glen Echo, Maryland. When I heard that her house can be visited year round, I planned a bike trip there right away. And what a memorable bike trip it was: I had never before biked in 17-18 m/s wind combined with a sub-zero temperature! But it was well worth it, as the guided tour in the house was pretty interesting. For example, I learned that Clara Barton’s favorite drink was milk – so she would have made a good Finn! I also learned that Clara Barton’s home served as an early headquarters of the American Red Cross. (My workplace, the current headquarters was finalized only in 1917.) Interestingly, also the volunteers lived on the site, mainly to save travel time. That made me think if I should propose a similar arrangement either to my boss or to the current president of the American Red Cross…

WP_20131124_024Clara Barton’s home in Glen Echo, Maryland

WP_20131124_018Volunteers’ office in Glen Echo in early 1900s

WP_20131127_002A volunteer’s office in Downtown DC in 2013

WP_20131124_011A volunteer’s bedroom in Glen Echo in early 1900s

WP_20131024_003A volunteer’s bedroom in Columbia Heights in 2013