Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clara Barton and the "Friends of the Missing Men"

Last Friday I went through some boxes in the Clara Barton Papers at the Library of Congress to find out more about the bureau she set up in Washington immediately after the war called "Friends of the Missing Men of the U.S. Army." Between 1865 and 1868 she lead the effort to catalogue those "who have been killed in battle, died in southern prisons, or otherwise lost in the service, and whose fate is unknown to their friends" [1] By the time she and her colleagues closed shop in 1868, they had responded to 63,182 letters of inquiry and identified 22,000 missing war dead. [1a]

In 1865 and 1866 Barton published the names of the missing in hundreds of newspapers around the country.

Barton prefaced the publication of each "roll" with a direct appeal to the comrades of the missing whose whereabouts "may be known only to you. The thousands of letters making these inquiries are in my possession," she wrote, "filed and recorded, and the bereaved families and friends are anxiously waiting the information which they hope to obtain from you."[2]

Publishing the rolls generated even more inquiries from parents, wives, and friends. By May, 1866 Barton was getting hundreds of inquiries a day. These were not only seeking information on Union soldiers but Confederate as well as letters from mothers and fathers of the Confederate missing started coming in.

The letters, catalogued in the Barton Papers in the Library of Congress, are from fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and friends. One mother from Illinois wrote:

"My son was twenty-two years old, wore no moustache or beard, was about six feet in height. When in College he was rather spare, but the out door life of the army had given him a robust appearance. He entered the army as Aid to General Richardson.[2a] After that officer's lamented death, he served in the Michigan Fifth. He had participated in more than twenty battles. Was severely wounded at Gettysburg, but from which he wholly recovered..."

"It may be well to add my son's name to the many missing ones, and could you by any means give to me any knowledge of the last resting place of my darling one you would confer such a favor as none less desolate than myself can appreciate. P.S. I neglected to mention that my son had dark hazel eyes, hair almost black."[3]

Barton's efforts in some cases paid off and individuals were found and reunited with friends and family. On at least one occasion, however, her efforts were not appreciated. On October 17, 1865 Joseph Hitchins wrote:

"Madam: I have seen my name on a sheet of paper somewhat to my mortification for I would like to know what I have done so that I am worthy to have my name Blazoned all over the Country. If my friends in New York wish to know where I am let them wait untill I see fit to write them. As you are Anxious of my welfare, I would say that I am just from New Orleans. Discharged in my way North but unluckily taken with Chills and Fever and could proceed no farther for some time at least. I shall remain here for a month."

Barton, nicknamed the Angel of the Battlefield, responded.

"Sir: I enclose copies of two letters in my possession. The Writer of the first I suppose to be your sister. The lady for whose death the letter was draped in Mourning, I suppose to have been your Mother. Can it be possible that you were aware of that fact when you wrote that letter! Could you have Spoken thus knowing all? The cause of your name having been "blazoned all over the Country" was your unnatural Concealment from your nearest relatives and to great distress it caused them. 'What you have done' to render this necessary I certainly do not know. It seems to have been the misfortune of your family to think more of you then you did of them, and probably more than your deserve from the Manner in which you treat them. They had already waited until a son and brother possessing common humanity would have seen fit to write them. Your Mother died wailing and the results of your Sister's faithful efforts to comply with her dying request "mortify" you. I cannot apologize for the part I have taken. You are mistaken in supposing that I am "anxious of your welfare." I assure you that I have no interest in it, but your accomplished Sister, for whom I entertain the deepest respect and sympathy, I shall inform of your existence lest you should not "see fit" to do so yourself." [5]

For further reading on Clara Barton at Antietam click here.


[1] Clara Barton to Soldiers and Friends of Soldiers, May 1, 1866 and published in various newspapers throughout the country. Clara Barton Papers, Reel 65, Frame 005, Library of Congress.
[1a] Judith E. Harper, Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia (New York, Routledge, 2004), page 31.
[2] Barton Papers, Reel 65, Frame 005.
[2a] General Israel Richardson, commander of the First Division, II Corps, was mortally wounded in the fighting around the Bloody Lane at Antietam. He died at the Pry House (McClellan's HQ) on November 3, 1862.
[3] T.B. Hurlbut to Clara Barton, September 26, 1865 with notation: "Found in an evelope marked: Scraps for my Book." Clara Barton Papers, Reel 64, Frames 756-57, Library of Congress.
[4] Joseph Hitchens to Clara Barton, October 16, 1865. Clara Barton Papers, Reel 64, Frames 756-77, Library of Congress.
[5] Clara Barton to Joseph Hitchens, [no date], Clara Barton Papers, Reel 64, Frames 758-59, Library of Congress.

Photograph: National Park Service

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