“We have captured one fort—Gregg—and one charnel house—Wagner—and we have built one cemetery, Morris Island. The thousand little sandhills that in the pale moonlight are a thousand headstones, and the restless ocean waves that roll and breakup on the whitened beach sing an eternal requiem to all the toll-worn gallant dead who sleep beside.”
-Clara Barton, Morris Island
The Library of Congress commemorates the sesquicentennial of the Civil War with an incredible exhibition of about 200 artifacts from the period—many of which have never been seen before. Last week we were honored to attend the exhibit, and to sit in on a fascinating conversation between filmmaker Ric Burns and Harvard President Drew Gilpen Faust. The two recently collaborated on making a documentary from Dr. Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War.
Faust’s book focuses on the ways that the Civil War significantly shaped the way we grapple with death—both personally and pragmatically. At least 2% of the population died during the war, making it the most fatal of all the wars in American history. Several significant figures emerged in this struggle. For example, Edmund Burke Whitman, an abolitionist who’d come from Kansas, took it upon himself to collect information about missing soldiers and the locations of unmarked graves. A quartermaster during the war, Whitman would go on to become the Superintendent of National Cemeteries after the war ended.
Barton’s Role during the Civil War
But Whitman wasn’t the only one to feel a higher duty to identify the lost and fallen. Born in Massachusetts in 1821, Clara Barton grew up to be one of the most distinguished nurses in the United States. Perhaps best known for founding the American Red Cross, Barton also played a pivotal role during the Civil War—not only as a nurse, but also as a record keeper.
Barton first came to Washington, DC in 1854, where she took a position at the US Patent Office. She worked there for three years, until her abolitionist views made her to controversial and she returned to New England. But 1861 saw her back in the capitol, and when the Civil War broke out Barton was one of the first volunteers to arrive at the Washington Infirmary.
After Barton’s father died, she left the city hospital to care for soldiers in the field. What she found here reflected the scene in battlefields all over the country. There was a dizzying shortage of medical supplies, and Barton purchased supplies with donations and her own money. (Congress would later reimburse her for these expenses.)
Barton also quickly discovered what would turn into one of the greatest challenges in the nation’s recovery: there were no processes for documenting the wounded, the dead, the buried; no protocol for notifying families if a loved one had been wounded or killed. Barton immediately set about collecting as much information as possible. She would post lists of the missing and solicit input directly from the soldiers.
The Nation Faces a New Challenge
It became readily apparent that the isolated efforts of individuals like Whitman and Barton would not be enough. In March 1865, Abraham Lincoln appointed Barton General Correspondent for the Friends of Paroled Prisoners. Her mission was to respond to inquiries from family members who were searching for loved ones. To do this, Barton sifted through all the prison rolls, hospital records, and casualty lists she could get her hands on. These documents weren’t always accurate.
Take, for instance, the case of John Shuman. He joined the Union Army in August 1862, but died of dysentery in August 1863. Shuman left behind an extensive correspondence with his family, which offers a fascinating glimpse into Civil War soldiers’ daily lives. Though the family name appears to be “Shuman” in the letters, the local census lists the family as “Shurman.” Furthermore the office responsible for removing John’s remains identified him as Shuman, but the grave marker and index at the cemetery list him as “Sherman.” The history of John’s infantry, published in 1895, calls him “John Shewman.”
Many soldiers in the war were not so lucky; they were not identified. Whitman and Barton again led the charge, independently insisting on the identification and marking of soldiers’ graves wherever they could be tracked down. Eventually it was thanks to their efforts that our national cemetery system was developed and implemented.
Barton would go on to distinguish herself as the founder of the American Red Cross and a true pioneer in the field of nursing. But her contributions during the Civil War were an equally significant accomplishment. What do you believe is Barton’s greatest achievement?