Richard Lyons, a lifetime employee of the GSA, swears he felt a ghost.
In 1996, on an property evaluation assignment in Penn Quarter, Lyons climbed the stairs to the vacant third floor of Boyce and Lewis shoe shop at 437 7th st. NW. While the store had closed only a few years earlier, the third floor had been shuttered since 1911. A nearby fire prompted the District government to institute new building regulation laws. The 7th st. store wasn’t up to code, and wound up just closing off the third floor. While the building continued to fall apart over the years, eventually getting slated for demolition in 1996, the mysterious third floor acted like a time capsule, preserving whatever was left of the former tenants under the creaking rafters.
Lyons climbed the stairs to look at whatever was left of the space, trying to tell exactly how it should be torn down. The way he tells it, the space suddenly got very cold, and he felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning around, and looking up, he saw what looked to be a letter hanging from the ceiling. He came back with a ladder, pulled down the envelope, saw an opening that led to what used to be an attic, and crawled into the dark. What he found in the attic would turn out to launch a museum; a small, square metal sign that read “Missing Soldiers Office, Office 3rd Story Room 9, Miss Clara Barton.”
Clara Barton belongs to the tier of historical figures that are seldom covered in public school history classes. She might get a mention somewhere in an 8th grade textbook, or you might have seen her in a unit on the Civil War, but not much more than that. This is because history courses, particularly American history courses, tend to cover the most popular names and the most popular stories, as they’re easy to understand. It doesn’t even matter if they’re true; kids are still taught these mis-remembered historical events. For instance, Columbus did not sail out to prove the Earth was round, George Washington never tried to chop down a cherry tree, Marie Antoinette never said “Let them eat cake,” and the Declaration of Independence was not signed, written, ratified, or even introduced on July 4th. We spend so long learning the wrong “facts,” that we relegate people like Clara Barton to the footnotes; like a second-string historical figure.
To be clear, there is nothing second-string about the life of Clara Barton.
Born in 1821 to North Oxford, Massachusetts’ Captain Stephen Barton and Sarah Stone Barton, Clara was brought up in a well-educated home. She was painfully shy throughout her youth, and sought to break out of it by becoming a schoolteacher. She acquired her teaching certificate at age 17, and taught in Georgia and Canada over the following 12 years. She made waves in New Jersey, working to open the first free (public) school in Bordentown. She was so successful in not just keeping students, but growing the school population, the town voted to build a new school building to handle the class size. However, when the school was finished, she was demoted from her position as principal to “Female Assistant,” got replaced by a male educator from outside New Jersey, and was docked half her pay. She left for Washington DC a year later.
The District of Columbia was a much different place in 1855. Less than a century into its life, the fledgling United States teetered on the brink of civil war. Tensions rose during the 1850’s between the North and the South, chiefly over the institution of slavery in the Western territories. Washington DC stood not only on the fault line between the North and South, but also as the seat of the federal government. The District was rife with Northern causes and Southern sympathies. Clara Barton was heading into a volatile climate
She found work as a patent clerk at the United States Patent Office, becoming the first woman at the Patent Office to secure a position that payed as much as a man’s salary. This is part of a pattern that will later become more evident in reading about her life; she tends to make waves wherever she goes. As a result of her promotion, she was met with scorn from her male counterparts, and was eventually terminated under the James Buchanan administration. She returned to her parents in Massachusetts, looking for a way to start again, when suddenly, the fighting started.
The Baltimore Riot was the event that sparked the first bloodshed of the American Civil War. Some of the wounded sent to Washington DC for treatment belonged to Massachusetts contingents, Clara Barton’s home state. She immediately volunteered her novice services as a medic, and set out to treat the wounded arriving in DC. Some of the men she treated were men she taught during her years as a schoolteacher. It was likely at this moment she cemented her dedication to treating soldiers.
She collected medical supplies via newspaper ads. She coordinated volunteer efforts through the War Department. She worked with Ladies’ Aid Societies to bring food and bandages to the front lines. She did all this from a little room in a boarding house on 7th st. NW. Her work was not just confined to the District, either; she often left to work in the camps near the battlefields. While men were slaughtered every day, she did her best to clean, stitch, treat, and heal the wounded. They called her the “Angel of the Battlefield.” By 1865, she accompanied the Army of the James through the end of the major fighting of the war.
Clara Barton’s efforts were not slowed after the end of the Civil War. Stories of her work and acts of bravery circulated through families of soldiers. She kept getting letters from mothers, or daughters, or wives, asking if Clara had seen their missing soldier. She sought out permission from President Lincoln himself to respond in an official capacity to the letters she received. Lincoln agreed, and Clara cut a mail slot into the door of her room at the 7th st. boarding house. Her Missing Soldiers Office was officially ready for work.
The Missing Soldiers Office received 60,000 letters, and were able to track down 22,000 soldiers. Clara Barton did this with an extensive knowledge of Confederate POW camps, a staff of sixteen people, and no internet.
Today, the space is open as a museum. Since Richard Lyons’ discovery, the site is now a National Historical land. Narrowly dodging demolition, the space features a mix of period-original pieces and faithful reconstructions of design elements from Clara Barton’s era. The wallpaper was specially commissioned for the space, and is an almost perfect copy of its 19th-Century counterpart. The doors are still the same, though– Clara’s hand-cut mail slot is still open, letting in the tiniest sliver of sunlight from the ancient windows that face the noise of 2017’s 7th st.
Clara Barton changed lives, and did it with minimal training. She had little more than basic First Aid experience before going to the sidelines of the Battle of Fredericksburg, pulling bullet fragments from soldiers’ wounds. She went to wherever she was needed, and gave everything she could. The Missing Soldiers Office is as testament to her initiative to help those in need, and proof that stubbornness sometimes works perfectly.