Clara Barton and the Missing Soldiers Office: A Chat with Amelia Grabowski

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Image courtesy of Amelia Grabowski

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Amelia Grabowski, the Education and Digital Outreach Specialist at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum.  A graduate of Gettysburg College, she earned her Master’s degree in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage from Brown University, where she received the Master’s Award for Engaged Citizenship and Community Service.  Ms. Grabowski has previously worked for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, humanities councils, and various community organizations. 

CWI:  What was the Missing Soldiers Office?  When, why, and how was it created?

GRABOWSKI: Clara Barton opened up the Missing Soldiers Office in 1865. Her original intention was to connect prisoners of war with their families. However, this operation quickly grew. Clara Barton and her team received over 63,000 letters from people looking for missing Union soldiers. They ultimately found over 22,000 missing soldiers.

Original sign from the Missing Soldiers Office. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine

CWI:  How did the Missing Soldiers Office operate, and what role did Clara Barton play in those operations?  What challenges did Barton encounter in her work with the Office?

GRABOWSKI: Barton rented many of the rooms in the boarding house where she lived. She transformed these rooms into the offices of the Missing Soldiers Office. She hung a sign outside and paid fifty cents to have a mail slot cut into the office door. Soon, thousands of people were sending letters and visiting the office in person, searching for their missing loved ones. Barton and her employees used their own experience on the battlefield, their network of acquaintances, and the power of the press to find over 22,000 missing soldiers . . . living and dead. Using only pen, paper, and the printing press, Barton conquered the chaos and confusion of both battle and reconstruction to find as many missing soldiers as possible.

CWI:  What was the long-term impact of the Missing Soldiers Office on the Union war effort and on the Union home front?

GRABOWSKI: The Missing Soldiers Office located over 22,000 soldiers. For many families, this finally allowed them closure. What’s more, families could then present confirmation of death from the Missing Soldiers Office to the Pension Office to receive their widows’ and children’s pensions. For a select few, the Missing Soldiers Office succeeded in connecting families to their missing loved ones (who were alive and well).

CWI:  Please tell us more about the current status of the Missing Soldiers Office.  How accessible is the Office to visitors today?  What preservation, interpretation, and educational efforts have you and the museum undertaken with the Office?

GRABOWSKI:  Clara Barton shut down the Missing Soldiers Office in 1868. The rooms that once held the operation reverted to their original boarding house status. Barton went on a European vacation to recuperate (instead, she will meet members of the International Red Cross and the rest is history). Her landlord will stick the remnants of the boarding house–spent office supplies, old shipping crates, the signs—in the attic. They will sit there, forgotten, for over 100 years. In 1913, the third floor of the building will be boarded up.

The bottom two floors continued to operate as a shoe store until the 1990s. The boarding house rooms (and their connection to Clara Barton) were only rediscovered in 1996 . . . by a carpenter preparing the building for demolition. Instead of destroying the museum, that carpenter (Richard Lyons) built a coalition to save the space and reopen it as a museum. Twenty years after his discovery, the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum is open to the public as a museum. Visitors are guided through the restored rooms by expert guides who share the story of what happened there and the impact it has on our world today.

The restored interior of Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office. Image Courtesy of the Clara Barton Museum.

If you are interested in hearing more from Amelia Grabowski and other distinguished historians, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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