Clara Barton’s Search for Missing Soldiers

ECW welcomes guest author Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

The letters came by the thousands to the office that Clara Barton hastily set up on the third floor of the Washington, DC, boarding house where she lived. “I still cherish a hope,” wrote a Brooklyn mother about her son, who was captured at Cedar Creek in October 1864. “Could you by any means give to me any knowledge of the last resting place of my darling one?” beseeched another mother, this one from Upper Alton, Illinois.[1] Each of the more than 63,000 letters sent to what became the Missing Soldiers Office received a response; about 22,000 were resolved. When a missing man could be tracked down, it was almost always to report his death. But at least the grieving relative knew his fate.

A Solution to a Problem

Until the twentieth century, the U.S. Army did not notify family members when soldiers went missing or died. During the Civil War, families might find out from another member of the soldier’s regiment (a chaplain, an officer, a fellow soldier) or from the occasional lists that appeared in local papers. When families did learn about a death, many had to struggle with the fact that their loved ones lay buried unidentified, unmarked, and far from home.

In February 1865, Clara Barton, who gained fame as the “angel of the battlefield,” visited Camp Parole near Annapolis, Maryland, when she came upon the idea for the next chapter in her life. Camp Parole was one of several camps set up to receive Federal prisoners of war, and she witnessed “poor wretched men” coming by the boatload.[2]  After “much thought during the night,” she decided to offer her services as a correspondent to connect the prisoners with government officials, families, and others.[3] When a camp official rebuffed her, she went around him to her well-connected allies in Washington (most notably, Sen. Henry Wilson from Massachusetts) to elicit support from President Abraham Lincoln. Concurrently, she was mourning her own tragedy: the death of her brother Stephen.

Clara Barton, originally taken by Mathew Brady. Public domain.

Lincoln’s support finally obtained, Barton returned to Camp Parole in March. More than 360 letters awaited her from despairing family members, with more arriving each day. She would ask the Parole arrivals if they knew anything about the men who were the subjects of the letters. As the numbers increased, she posted lists of names. The approach was haphazard, but it was a start.

Rolls of Missing Men

After Camp Parole closed, Barton returned to Washington to carry on and expand the search. Based on the letters that continued to be sent to  her, she compiled massive “rolls of missing men” that were published in newspapers and posted in public places. She managed to get the Government Printing Office to shoulder the printing, and Wilson and other congressmen covered the postage. From a wage she still managed to receive from the Patent Office (although she had not been on the job for years, she still drew a salary from supervisors supportive of her field work) and a small inheritance, she paid wages to several assistants and rent for the larger space in the boarding house.

To deal with the quantity of mail, they designed a pre-printed response, personalized with the date and name of the missing soldier and signed by Barton.

For example, when the wife of Thomas J. Payntar, 4th New York Calvary, wrote about her missing husband in July 1865, she received a response that his name “will be placed upon my rolls….Be assured that as soon as any information of interest to yourself is gained, it will be most promptly and cheerfully forwarded to you.”

The letter mentioned above. Courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Mrs. Payntar had a partial answer a year later. In August 1866, W.H. McCowan “on looking over the Rolls of missing men that Clara Barton has published” wrote with the news that Mrs. Payntar dreaded but needed: “[I] feel it my duty for his sake to inform you as near as I can [of] the place and time I last seen him. It was at Travillian Station Va. on the 11th of June 1864.” McCowan described a chaotic scene—“we were overpowered and forced to fall back on our Horses” and concluded with his belief that Payntar was not taken prisoner but killed.


A few months into the project, a man named Dorence Atwater wrote Barton with “some information that would be beneficial to the great cause you are engaged in.” Atwater had been sent to Andersonville prison in Georgia when it opened in February 1864. His good penmanship landed him the task of recording the names of the prisoners who died, and he secretly kept a duplicate record with the names of more than 12,000 men and their approximate burial location. Broken and traumatized by his experiences, he was trying to get the War Department to use the list without success when he learned about Barton. They met in June 1865.

Barton recognized Atwater’s fragile state, as well as the value of his list, which was still held in the War Department. She worked her connections to travel to Andersonville to mark the burial sites with Atwater’s list as a guide. She later recounted that Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom she had avoided meeting in person because of his fearsome reputation, supported the idea and dispatched a team of workmen and clerks, under Assistant Quartermaster Capt. James Moore, to go to the southwest Georgia site. Barton, of course, wanted to come. Forced to include her and Atwater in the expedition, Moore did his best to marginalize them. She, again not surprisingly, did her best to work around him.

They were at Andersonville for almost a month amidst heat, illness, and evidence of horrific conditions.[4] Although she and Atwater were excluded from the cemetery work, Moore gave Barton the honor of raising the flag at a ceremony to mark the site and honor the dead on August 17.

Pulling Things Together

Things got difficult in the fall of 1865. Her nemesis Moore badmouthed her. Moore submitted his official report about the trip (that he freely shared with Harper’s Weekly and other publications) in which he claimed all credit for the Andersonville mission.[5] Worse, Atwater was formally accused of profiting from his list, convicted, and sentenced to hard labor. Barton’s position at the Patent Office was eliminated. Her inheritance dwindled. Attempts to get funding from the War Department were unsuccessful. The Missing Soldier operation seemed doomed. On December 31, 1865, she wrote of the “sad close of a weary year.”

But Clara Barton was resilient. Through her and others’ efforts, Atwater was released from prison. The New York Tribune published his Andersonville list in a special edition and a pamphlet, with “introductory remarks” by Atwater and Barton.[6] A few months later, Atwater was pardoned and his name cleared.[7] She lobbied for a Congressional appropriation (she asked for $30,000, and received $15,000). The Missing Soldier Office was back up and running until 1868, by which time the volume of requests and the clues provided declined.

The Missing Soldiers Office sign. Courtesy of the Clara Barton Museum.

Between 1865 and 1867, the office compiled five Rolls of Missing Men.[8] In a report to Congress, she stated the office had received 63,182 letters, sent 58,693 circulars and 41,855 letters, and distributed 99,057 copies of the rolls. With about 40,000 men unaccounted for, she regretfully concluded that “it is a reasonable presumption that those of whom no trace has yet been found have perished through the casualties and hardships of war.”[9]

Barton also discovered that she could earn money giving lectures about her wartime experiences, although in typical Barton fashion, she overbooked until her health broke down. She went to Geneva, Switzerland, to recuperate, where she was first introduced to the International Red Cross. That led her to her next crusade, the formation of the American Red Cross.

An Office Lost, then Found

In 1918, an article noted that the letters “have been preserved as Clara Barton filed them away,” but, except for a few, their whereabouts are now unknown. The Missing Soldier Office itself went missing for more than a century. Barton moved out in 1868, and a shoe store and other businesses occupied the lower floors throughout the decades. As part of Washington, DC redevelopment, the building was scheduled for demolition. In 1996, Richard Lyons, a GSA employee making a final inspection, spotted a few letters and artifacts above what is now known as Barton’s bedroom. The discovery saved the building from destruction, and a multi-year renovation brought it back to what it would have looked like in Barton’s time. It is now a museum on Seventh Street NW owned by the U.S. government and operated by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.[10]


Paula Tarnapol Whitacre contributed a chapter to the book Clara Barton: Civil War Humanitarian(NMCWM Press, 2022). In 2017, she published a biography of abolitionist Julia Wilbur titled A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose (Potomac Books, 2017). She is currently researching a book that focuses on Alexandria, Virginia, during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

[1] Transcription of all letters included here can be found in “The Missing Soldiers Office Letters,” edited by John Lustrea and Terry Reimer, in Clara Barton: Civil War Humanitarian (The NMCWM Press, 2022) .

[2] For background on Camp Parole, see R. Rebecca Morris. A Low Dirty Place: The Parole Camps of Annapolis, MD, 1862-1865 (Anne Arundel Historical Society, 2012). For a recording of Morris discussing the camps, see

[3] Clara Barton’s diaries are online in the Clara Barton papers, Library of Congress,

[4] For an account of Barton’s trip to Andersonville, see pp. 293–339 in Stephen Oates, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War (The Free Press, 1994).

[5] Moore’s report to Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs, dated September 20, 1865, was published in the Official Record, Series 3, Volume 5, pp. 319-322. Neither Barton nor Atwater are mentioned in the report.

[6] “A list of the Union soldiers buried at Andersonville” is available online through the Library of Congress

[7] As researched by historian Thomas Lowry, Atwater went on to political patronage jobs in the Seychelles and Tahiti, where he married into the Tahitian royal family, ran several profitable businesses, and was buried with much fanfare in 1910.

[8] Transcriptions of the rolls can be browsed and searched at

[9] Memorial of Clara Barton, 40th Congress, 3d session, Misc. document 57, online at

[10] The Museum at 437 7th Street NW in Washington, DC, is open Fridays and Saturdays, or a group can book a tour. For more information, see

8 Responses to Clara Barton’s Search for Missing Soldiers

  1. In Massachusetts, Clara Barton, is a local hero. I knew of her battlefield work but not the Missing Soldiers Office. Thank you so much for this eye opening, scholarly work. On my next visit to DC, I plan on visiting Barton’s museum.

  2. This is so interesting! As a child I read a book about Clara Barton and therefore knew her only as the nurse on the battlefield and then the founder of the Red Cross. It’s nice to learn so much more here. Thanks so much for deepening our knowledge not only of Barton’s work but of the person she was.

  3. Love Barton’s determination in the face of bureaucratic obstacles and self serving superiors. As far as Atwater, he obviously wasn’t as “fragile” as Barton originally thought, given his later career.

  4. In 1996, I was working with the G.S.A. in DC when Mr. Lyon found the letters during the inspection you mentioned.  A satellite office was just around the corner in the historic Old Patent Office Building, so it was a short walk over to the building where I went on a tour just after the find. Your blog clarified many questions. Many thanks!

  5. This is such a fascinating story! I used to work in an office buliding at 7th & Penna. Ave NW, across the street from The Missing Soildier’s Office. I remember the discovery of items in the building where the Office was located and the plan to make a museum and I am glad that it was accomplished several years ago. Ms Tarnapol’s article brought back some good memories of the neighborhood and also a reminder of Clara Barton’s selfless work in assisting families to learn what happened to their missing fathers, brothers and sons. A great tribute well written!

  6. Many thanks to Ms. Tarnapol for illuminating the life of a true Civil War hero whose legacy lives on in so many ways. The next time I drive down the Clara Barton Parkway in Maryland, I will salute this valiant woman and marvel at how much she helped our nation to heal.

  7. She certainly made a difference in many people’s lives! Thanks for this informative article. I’ve written on here about the work of Emily Parsons, who supervised nurses at Benton Barracks in St. Louis, MO for a time, and I recently enjoyed reading the historical fiction novel “Sunflower Sisters,” which talks about the work of Georgiana Woolsey. It’s always great to learn more about the work of women in the war!

  8. This is an excellent article about something I knew little about. It is well-researched and flows well. Clara Barton was certainly a fighter and had much to fight against. So many people seeking their lost loved ones must have greatly appreciated her efforts and accomplishments.

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