[WARNING: For the next few weeks, it’s going to be all Civil War all the time here at the Margins as we lead up to February 16, when Little Brown releases Heroines of Mercy Street into the world. I’ll try to keep the My Book! My Book! to a minimum and focus on the stories instead, but I may slip now and then because I’m excited. On the upside, there will be a couple of chances to win copies of the book and possibly other swag if I can get my act together.]
When the Civil War ended, most of the women who had volunteered to serve as nurses went home and stepped back into their old roles as daughters, seamstresses, schoolteachers, and wives. (Not to mention factory workers, New York socialites, reformers…) Nursing had been a temporary event in their lives, just like being a soldier was a temporary part of the lives of most of the men who served in the war.
Clara Barton was one of the exceptions. (Does this come as a surprise to anyone?*)
After the end of the war, women wrote to Barton asking her to help them find missing husbands and sons, whom they feared had ended up in Southern prisons. The anguish in their letters convinced her that locating missing soldiers was the most important thing she could do now that peace had come. Barton opened the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, which operated out of her own rooms in Washington. She put together lists of missing soldiers, organized by location and unit, posted them in army hospitals, and had them printed in local and national newspapers, with the request that any information about the missing men be sent to her to pass on to their families.
Eventually she received official sanction for her new mission. Shortly before his assassination, President Lincoln wrote a letter to the public informing them to contact Barton with information about missing soldiers. When her own resources were exhausted, Congress appropriated $15,000 to complete the project—close to $3 million today. The search for missing soldiers led to an effort to identify graves, beginning with the unmarked graves of the 13,000 Union soldiers who died in the prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Between 1865 and 1869, she and her assistants received and answered more than 63,000 letters and helped locate 22,000 missing soldiers.
Her grueling work in the war had left Barton physically exhausted; her efforts after the war imposed a new kind of strain. In 1869, she was near collapse. Her doctors ordered her to Europe for a rest cure.** She did not rest for long. While in Switzerland she became aware of a little organization called the International Red Cross. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
*If you’re coming in late to the story, you can catch up here.
**A standard medical prescription for exhausted Americans*** in the nineteenth century, which has sadly fallen out of favor.
***At least for those with the time and money to spare. My guess is that no one suggested an exhausted small farmer or factory girl take several months in Switzerland.