Saturday, September 27, 2014

Frequently Asked Question: How did Barton get to D.C.?

A question that has come up in our tours and amongst our staff as of late has been one of location, location, location: How did Clara Barton, a native of Massachusetts and a schoolteacher in New Jersey, become a U.S. Patent Office clerk in Washington D.C.? It seemed like a bit of a geographical and vocational stretch until we dug deeper into Clara’s life preceding her time here at 7th Street NW.

In 1850, at the age of 29, Clara Barton enrolled at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, for a year of study. During this time her mother, Sara Barton, died, and Clara visited her friend Mary Norton in Hightstown, New Jersey. While visiting, they went on a trip to Bordentown where Barton was dismayed to see “idle boys. But the boys! I found them on all sides of me. Every street corner had little knots of them, idle, listless, as if to say what shall one do when they have nothing to do?” New Jersey lacked in free public education, instead using private schools and pauper schools to educate the young in the community.

Barton's Original Bordentown, NJ Schoolhouse (Wikimedia)
After finishing her courses in Clinton, Barton moved to Bordentown and said “If you will let me try, I will teach the children for free for six months.” Barton was given a ramshackle one room school house, and by 1853, the school grew from 6 pupils to 600. The citizens of Bordentown, pleased with her accomplishments, raised $4,000 to build a larger school. However, when Schoolhouse Number One opened in the fall of 1853, Clara Barton was not to be the head of the school she founded. A bout of laryngitis had kept her occupied for a few months and in that time a man was hired, at twice her salary, to be the principal of this successful new public school. Barton, hurt by this clear injustice, was "willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay."

Washington D.C. circa 1850's (

There are a number of reason why Barton goes to Washington D.C. She mentions that she wanted “the mild air for my throat” and that D.C. was as far south as a single, unaccompanied woman could go – perhaps a nod to her staunchly Northern sensibilities. She also attested that she was interested in politics and the Library of Congress as a resource for study. She quickly made the acquaintance of a congressman from her home district and distant cousin, Alexander DeWitt. Through this contact she began to broaden her circle of acquaintances in D.C. to include Mr. Charles Mason, the United States Commissioner of Patents. They became friends and, originally, Mason hoped to employ Barton as a governess for his twelve year old daughter, Mary. However, with some persuading on the part of DeWitt, a private carriage ride to the Patent Office, and an interview, Mason hired Barton as a temporary clerk at the Patent Office in July of 1854.

U.S. Patent Office circa 1850 (now the American Portrait Gallery)
As a clerk, Barton was paid $1400 a year to copy patent applications, caveats, and regulations – the same salary as a male clerk. When Barton began, she only knew of four other female clerks in the federal employ, although, after only a year, there were four working in the Patent Office alone! However, this positive atmosphere was not to last. Mason retired from the Patent Office in July of 1855 to return to his farm in Iowa, and his replacement, Mason’s former chief clerk Samuel T. Shugert, was eager
Charles Mason
to please Secretary McClelland, who wanted only men in the federal employ.  Barton was demoted immediately from recording clerk to copyist, who made 10 cents for every 100 words copied. Even the best could only make around $900 per year. Barton and the other women in the office were given no work to do and sat idle and without an income for July, August, and September. Despite the letters written on her behalf by Mason, DeWitt and others, Secretary McClelland was determined to stop women from working within the four walls of the Patent Office. So, in October, Barton took her work home, picking up and dropping off her work at the Patent Office, and managed to make $73.56 that month, more than most copyists.

Fortunately for Barton, this trend did not continue, as Mason was brought back by popular demand in November of 1855 and she received double wages that month, again consistent with her previous $1400/ year salary. She would still be kept on the rolls as a temporary copyist so as not to goad McClelland, but was kept busy with aiding Mason in untangling bad eggs in the office and dismissing frauds. But by 1857,
Alexander DeWitt (wikimedia)
she was exhausted from the driving work pace, intermittent bouts of malaria, and the sexism and rumors that prevailed about her from her male colleagues that ranged from affairs with her boss to illegitimate children with African American features. Her best allies were also fading from view - Congressman Dewitt was not reelected in 1857 and left the District, and Mason resigned from the Patent Office for good in August of that same year. A month later, in September of 1857, Barton was told her position at the Patent Office was wanted, and so she returned north to Massachusetts only to return to Washington D.C. a mere three years later and take up lodging at our location on 7th Street for the next eight years.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Clara Barton and Quicksilver
The Mad Hatter by Lewis Carroll
(Wikimedia Commons)

Most of us are familiar with the often nonsensical, flamboyantly dressed Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Most of us are also, no doubt familiar with the expression “mad as a hatter.” Now this expression is not based upon Lewis’s tea drinking, top hatted character, but it may come from a real phenomenon that occurred amongst 18th and 19th century hat makers.   
Men’s hats of this period often contained animal skins that were turned into felt through a process called carroting, which, among other steps, included the pelts being specially treated with a heavy metal called mercury (or more specifically mercuric nitrate). Mercury, when it accumulates within the body, will frequently lead to debilitating illness, disfigurement (especially of the face due to excessive salivation), death, and, of course, “madness.”

         Now, despite all of these foreboding symptoms, mercury was a commonly prescribed medication at the time of the Civil War for soldiers and civilians, and many notable people took doses of mercury, such as author Louisa May Alcott, President Abraham Lincoln, and, you guessed it, Clara Barton. None of these historic figures fared well from their treatments.
Hospital Sketches - 1897 edition
(Wikimedia Commons)
While serving as a Union nurse in Georgetown for six weeks in late 1862, Alcott contracted typhoid fever and was treated with mercury chloride, also known colloquially as calomel. Calomel was taken internally and was popular as a purgative and diuretic treatment in the age of ‘heroic medicine,’ forcing patients who were ill to cleanse their body of impurities thought to be causing the sickness. After her letters from this time were published as “Hospital Sketches” in 1863, she remarked "I was never ill before this time, and never well afterward." Many historians have contested as to whether her exposure to mercury was eventually what ended her life in 1888, nevertheless her encounter with the toxic drug certainly did not help her constitution.

      President Lincoln also took mercury in the form of “blue mass.” The ingredients of blue mass varied, but all contained mercury either in elemental form or in compound form (such as calomel). It was administered in either pill or syrup form for a wide variety of ailments such as tuberculosis, syphilis, toothaches, and constipation (often the result of a poor soldiering diet lacking in fruit, fiber and freshness).  While we don’t know if Lincoln suffered from mercury poisoning, we know that he took blue mass before and for some time during his presidency, potentially for constipation and/or “melancholy.”
Martin & Pleasance's Podophyllin Pilules

       Clara Barton also was a recipient and victim of mercuric medicine. In late 1868, the year Clara Barton left the site of the museum at 7th Street NW, she was feeling poorly. In March of that year she took ill, reporting first hoarseness, then coldness and cramping, fevers, and fainting, and then took sick again in August and September. On October 20th, 1868 she writes: “Mr. Ramsey called this evening and gave me a prescription for my bilious difficulty.” Bilious refers to being sick to ones stomach. Mr. Ramsey prescribed her mercury, a local remedy dubbed “Hubbels ferated eliscer Calijasa,” and what I could decipher from her handwriting to be “phodophellan.”  Using some creative search engine inputs, I came up with what I believe she meant: podophyllin. Podophyllin is a substance from the plant Podophyllum, more commonly known as a May apple. Used to treat warts and as a laxative, the entirety of the plant is poisonous when ingested orally.  What little I know about this Mr. Ramsey concerns me. She writes in that same October 20th entry, on an unrelated tangent, that he is not a doctor, but a farmer! As you will read, this farmer’s remedy is nearly fatal to Clara Barton.
     She obtained the medicines prescribed by Mr. Ramsey on the 21st of October and by the next day she reported “losing strength” and by the 23rd she is “exceedingly weak” and “went to walk at evening to see if it would improve me, but grew worse and returned home with some difficulty and in great pain.”
Calomel Pills from Abbot Laboratories, Chicago
(From the collection of Dr. Gordon Dammann)
               She grew worse quickly, even after she finished her prescribed dosage of medication, becoming “exceedingly weak” and bedridden and “nearly fainted” on the 25th. She did, however, recognize that the medication was causing some of her distress, commenting on the 26th that she had a “great deal of pain in [her] chest and limbs- the latter the result of medicine.”  By the end of the month, she wrote very little, could not move from her bed, ate nothing, began to hallucinate, and was “alone with my house in great confusion.” Fortunately she thought enough is enough. She decided “to go North for treatment” after she was unable to walk home from her sister Sally’s lodging on November 7th.
      She first went to New York City, where soon after her arrival, she “went to call on Dr. Fuller” (notice Dr. Fuller and Mr. Ramsey!) This doctor examined her and concluded that she was “not bilious and had not been” but her “medicine had greatly injured me.” He gave her a more benign, if potentially ineffective, prescription of “roots and herbs.” She still felt poorly as of the 15th of November, so she headed north again, this time to Boston, where another doctor, Dr. Snow Small of Newtonville, examined her and finds that she has a “polypus.” She wrote that he will remove it the following week, however I find no mention of the operation in her diary, only that she was feeling better by the 22nd of November.
              When she returned to Washington in December of 1868, she very abruptly left 7th St. NW for another lodging on Capitol Hill by New Years Eve of that same year. Was this due to her illness in any way? More research to be done on that front!

        Mercury’s toxic properties became more fully understood as the century wore on, but it continued to be used in the form of skin lightening creams, teething powders, and treatment for syphilis (which would be phased out in favor of arsenic!) Some of you, dear readers, may have mercury inside of you right now in the form of dental fillings!
            To learn more about all the medicines used during the Civil War be sure to visit our flagship museum, the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Israel Libbey

At the intersection of 7th and E, you’ll find a number of stores, museums, and restaurants. Just this intersection alone boasts a coffee shop, a museum, several restaurants, a liquor store, a frozen yogurt joint, and much more. The nature of the area hasn’t changed in the last 150 years, even if the facades, people, and diversity have.

437 7th Street has housed numerous people over the years. If you were to walk up to the front door on the first floor 150 years ago, 1864, you wouldn’t see a museum dedicated to Clara Barton. You wouldn’t even see Clara Barton! She lived on the third floor.

You’d see a watch and jewelry store, managed by Israel Putnam Libbey, on the street-level floor of 488 7th Street.

Israel Libbey was born in 1834, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We don’t know much about his early life, but it is likely that he had at least one brother, William Langdon Libbey. William was in charge of the Boston, Massachusetts, Mount Washington Glass Works.

Israel Libbey took a similar approach to life. He was a silversmith, clockmaker, and jewelry seller. He traveled around the east coast for much of the mid-19th century, from New Hampshire to Massachusetts to Washington, DC, and likely to several other states. The year 1850 has him as a silversmith in Rosbury, New Hampshire. Israel got married to a woman named Sarah Caroline Flint while in Middlesex, Massachusetts, in 1860. She was likely with him when he moved into 488 7th Street. As far as we can tell with available records, Israel and Sarah had only one child, a son named Frank Putnam Libbey, born in DC in 1865.

According to the occupant history, Israel operated a store at 488 7th Street from 1864 to 1878. By 1865, his letterhead read: “I.P. Libbey, Dealer in Watches, Clocks, Jewelry, Silver and Plated Ware, No. 488 Seventh Street, between D and E”.

Israel Libbey's letterhead
Another advertisement, this one in the National Freemason from 1863, refers to his store as the “American Watch Depot, 488 Seventh Street”, which offers watches of “every size, style, and quality” in “gold and silver cases”.
Libbey's ad in the National Freemason
Though Israel was in the same building as Clara, they rarely interacted. Very occasionally, Israel would hold onto her keys or rent while she was out on the battlefield or lecturing. There is also evidence that Clara paid Israel for the use of some of his storage space. On May 22, 1866, she recorded that she “Engaged Mr Libbies cellar at three dolls per month, commenced May 22/66.” We don’t know what she would have stored in his cellar.

In her 1869 ledger book of expenses, she states that on April 15, she “Sent a note of $250 held against IP Libbey to him which he took up returning me interest due and one hundred dollars of the principle and a new note of present date for $150, which I hold against him.” A couple of pages later, on May 14, she states that “Mr Libby paid me the remaining $150 and took up his note.”

What was all of this money about? We can’t figure that out. She also sends a collections agent against Mr. Edward Shaw, with similarly minimal explanation. If we see anything we’ll post an edit to this entry.

Now, Israel Libbey operated his store at 488 7th Street until 1878, but where did he go after that?

That is, indeed, the big question. There’s evidence that Libbey traveled out west at this point, but not very much. Some of his silverware and clocks can be found out there. However, there is also evidence that he may have come back to DC after he was finished out there; an “Israel P. Libbey” shows up in several of the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia, in particular the 1907 edition, which would put him in DC well into his 70's. If he was a Freemason, which the evidence points to, then that would explain why he helped Clara so much during and directly after the Civil War. She was known to have great relations with the Masons.

But all of that is speculation for now, until we can find more clear evidence.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

A Common Question – Letters!

A question that we always hear at the CBMSO is this: Where are the letters that all of these mothers, sisters, brothers, and friends of missing soldiers sent to Clara Barton?

The answer is both simple and frustrating: everywhere!

You can find them in museums, in the Library of Congress, in university collections, and most other places you could think to look. The issue is that they usually aren't labeled very well, which is why they seem so rare. The Library of Congress has one of the best selections of freely available material on Clara Barton; it can be very hard, though, to use their search options to find a specific item. The best method is persistence!

Once you've found one of these letters, it now becomes a matter of being able to read it. They were all written by desperate, grieving family members and friends; their handwriting, quite understandably, isn't always the best. When you finally make it out, you find something heartbreaking and tragic. And remember: Clara Barton received over 60 thousand of these letters.

Here’s one that I found today, written by a Mrs. G.Vale from Brooklyn on March 21, 1865, begging Clara for information about her son.
Miss Clara Barton
                Dear Madam
my Son, Serg’t Adrian Vale
of Co D, 176th NY inf was captured
by our enemy at the battle of
Cedar Creek in the Nineteenth of
Oct 1864.
                We had tried in every
way to learn at what Prison
he was confined, that we might
in some measure comfort him
in his hours of suffering.
                But the first we knew of him
was to find his name among the
dead of Salisbury, N.C. The date
of death being the 18 of Nov, one
month after his capture.
                I still cherish a hope that this
news may not prove true.
                Will you aid me in ascertaining
the truth of his report, and if
true, something of his last days or
hours. The natural longings of a
mothers heart, to know something of
her dear boy, who died in the hands
of such an enemy, promps me to write
to a stranger – Pardon the liberty.
                I know that he was brave in
battle. Oh! that I could know he
was brave in the presence of the “grim
monster death”, and that the Savior
was with him in the last conflict, when away
from home and mother. If you can
learn anything about will you please
communicate by letter. If you see
any of the poor fellows who knew him
in the Prison, and one comes this
way to reach their homes, If they
would call at my home, I would be so thank-
-ful to them. Or drop a line with
their address, then I would call on them.
                Oh where would I go, to learn something
of my dear boys last moments.
                My dear Madam I hope you will
cause this sheet, written with a
trembling had, and bloted with
my tears. This has been almost
to much for me to do, but I
felt I would rather write myself, to you
that ask another to write for me.
                Hoping that God will bless and
give you strength in your noble
work, which you have undertaken for
those in distress and trouble.
                “Inasmuch as you have done it unto
one of the least of them, my brethren
ye have done it unto me.”
 Yours with respect.
Mrs. G. Vale
10 South 6th Street
Brooklyn, [CD?]
I did a little digging and found her son, Adrian Vale, in Clara Barton’s Roll of Missing Men No. 1.

Adrian Vale in Roll of Missing Men No. 1

The safe, and likely true, assumption is that Sergeant Adrian Vale of the 176th NY Infantry did indeed die in Salisbury, NC, on November 18, 1864. He probably died from one of the many diseases that were endemic in Civil War era prison camps. I haven’t found any indication that Clara Barton received any news regarding Vale. I hope she did manage to set Mrs. Vale’s mind at least partially at ease, as she was asking; I’ll keep looking, and post an update if I ever do find anything!

As soon as we can get a security system installed in the CBMSO, we'll have many letters like this available for the public. If you have any interest in seeing that happen, please go to and donate!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Dorence Atwater – Part 3

Cover of A List of the Union Soldiers Buried at Andersonville
Andersonville National Historic Site
It is 1867.

Dorence Atwater is entering the 22nd year of his life, and he has already had enough hardship for an entire lifetime. He served in the 2nd New York Cavalry as a scout during the American Civil War, was captured by Confederate soldiers after the Battle of Gettysburg, imprisoned for almost two years in four individual Confederate prisons, kept a secret list of all of the dead from Andersonville prison in Georgia, had that list stolen from him by his own government, and then was imprisoned by his own government in Auburn State Prison when he tried to take his list back. He was spared a death by disease and maltreatment by the intervention of the Angel of the Battlefield, Clara Barton, who through her influence managed to get Dorence released from Federal prison. He spent the last year or so since his release helping Clara in her office, lecturing on his experiences, and getting his List of the Union Soldiers Buried at Andersonville published, despite opposition from those around him.

It is 1867, and it is about time for Dorence Atwater’s life to turn around.

The Seychelles Islands, east of Africa
Seychelles: geography. Map/Still. Britannica Online for Kids.
President Johnson, impressed by Dorence’s attitude and intelligence, and acting on the suggestions of many of his advisors and prominent citizens, decided to place him into consulate training. Dorence caught on quickly and, by 1868, he had been sent to the Seychelles Islands, a group of islands east of the continent of Africa and north of Madagascar, acting as the US Consul.

Reports of his experiences at the Seychelles are mixed. By some accounts, he performed his duties admirably, earned an invitation to the home of an Indian prince, and had an excellent time until his transfer. By other accounts, he had charges leveled against him for dereliction of duty, incompetence, and carelessness, until he was transferred to a different consulate position.

Regardless of what actually took place, the accounts agree on one detail: his transfer, in 1871 at the age of 26, halfway around the world to the island of Tahiti.

By all available accounts and information, Dorence did quite well as the US Consul to Tahiti, receiving commendations from many. Dorence himself is said to have loved the island, taking on many charitable works to enrich his new home, especially in his work with lepers; additionally, he started to pursue several entrepreneurial ventures into local plantations and other mercantile interests.

Princess Moetia Salmon of Tahiti
At some point during his first couple of years on Tahiti, Dorence met a woman named Arii’ino’ore Moetia Tepau Salmon – just Moetia Salmon for short – and they hit it off almost immediately. They were married by 1875, which certainly shocked all of Dorence’s detractors back in the United States, as he had married into royalty.

Princess Moetia Salmon, educated in France and England, was the sister of Queen Johanna Marau Ta’aroa a Tepau Salmon – Queen Marau Salmon, wife and consort of the current king – and though Moetia had no chance of becoming queen, she was the heiress of their father’s estate. Their father had been an English banker named Alexander Salmon who managed to marry Princess Oehau after traveling to Tahiti in a business venture.

Dorence Atwater did not hold the position of Consul to Tahiti forever, and resigned from his position in 1888. He maintained his influence over the island, continued his entrepreneurial and charitable works, and lived a very happy and successful life. He had taken a Tahitian name when he became a part of the Tahitian royal family: Tupuataroa, or “Wise Man”.

Dorence Atwater later in life
As he neared his 60’s, however, his health began to fade. He had never fully recovered from his mistreatment in the 1860s, mentally or physically; he is said to have raved at the sight or mention of a soldier, especially a US one, and even his wife’s later testimony mentioned his poor physical health.

Dorence and Moetia traveled to San Francisco in the early 1900s, and there Dorence died in 1910 to what was likely a heart attack while under the care of a doctor. He wished to be buried in Tahiti, having expressed that he certainly didn’t want to be buried in the United States. His body was embalmed and put on a ship headed home. Dorence Atwater was the first non-royal Tahitian to receive a Tahitian royal funeral; he is buried in the Papara Protestant Church Cemetery in Papara, Tahiti.

His wife, Moetia, lived for many more years than Dorence did, dying at the age of 87 in 1935.

This is why I am so fond of Dorence Atwater’s story. A boy who became a soldier was sent into an enemy prison for almost two years. After his release, he was arrested and mistreated by his own government for doing what he thought was right. He certainly was right, by every moral definition of the word, and he did get what was coming to him, even if it wasn't immediate.

That boy turned soldier turned prisoner married into the royal family of a prosperous island, and spent the rest of his life succeeding as a businessman and helping others.

Dorence Atwater's Monument in Tahiti
I can think of no better end for Dorence Atwater’s tale than what is inscribed on his 7000lb stone grave marker: “He builded better than he knew that one day he might awake in surprise to found he had wrought a monument more enduring than brass.”

If you have enjoyed or are interested in Dorence Atwater’s life, please consider donating to the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office in DC. The Missing Soldiers Office would not have been possible without Dorence’s Death Register from Andersonville prison, just as Dorence’s later life successes would not have happened without the intervention of Clara Barton. Their lives are intertwined, and both stories will be told at the CBMSO.

If you are interested in playing a role in the preservation of the CBMSO, please go to or call 301-695-1864.

Until next week!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Dorence Atwater – Part 2

I know I said this would be a two part blog post, but I’m finding so much to write about that it’ll have to be a three part one! This one will finish out the Civil War, Andersonville, and the Missing Soldiers Office, and the next one will complete the story with Atwater’s later life.

Samuel Breck
From Companions of the Military Order of the
Loyal Legion of the United States
It would be difficult to recount all of the intrigues and double dealings that were going on in Atwater’s life at that time, but I’ll give you the basics. Despite being extremely ill, Atwater reported for duty in DC; he wanted to get his secret Death Register published, so the friends and families of the dead would know what happened to their loved ones.

The Adjutant General’s Department desperately wanted a copy of Atwater’s list; Samuel Breck, an assistant Adjutant General, convinced him to let a copy be made in exchange for a job, some money, and the return of the original once the copy was finished. Atwater agreed, then returned home for a time to rest and recover.

It was around this point that Atwater met Clara Barton. He had been trying to get his original list back from the military or at least get the military to publish the list so the families of his comrades could have some closure, and was meeting with what amounted to a brick wall.

Somehow, Atwater heard about Clara Barton’s work at Camp Parole, Maryland. Either through word of mouth from other ex-POWs or through President Lincoln’s advertisement that was published in the paper, he ended up contacting her. She was hard at work at this point, interviewing former POWs for information regarding anyone who might still be imprisoned, missing, or dead.

Atwater met with her, told her about his Death Register and the poor condition of the cemetery at Andersonville, and very soon he and Barton were a part of a Federal mission to Andersonville, to identify graves. This still wasn’t what Atwater wanted, though. He wanted to publish his list.

Clara Barton raising the flag at Andersonville
Property of the Library of Congress

After the graves at Andersonville were marked using his original list, a copy, and another list that the government had obtained, Atwater decided to take matters into his own hands. He took back his original list, again smuggling it with him from Andersonville to DC. He hid the list somewhere that was never disclosed, even to this day.

This “theft” of his personal property landed Dorence Atwater with a prison sentence of 18 months or more at Auburn Prison in New York. He’d barely had time to recover from his ordeal in the Confederate prisons (he lost about half of his weight), and now he was to be put to hard labor by his own government.

In Atwater’s own words: “I was convicted, and sentenced as follows: ‘To be dishonorably discharged from the United States Service, with loss of all pay and allowances now due; to pay a fine of three hundred dollars; to be confined at hard labor for the period of eighteen months, at such place as the Secretary of War may direct; to furnish to the War Department the property specified in the second specification [this being the “stolen” original Death Register] as the property stolen from Capt. J.M. Moore, and stand committed at hard labor until the said fine is paid, and the said stolen property is furnished to the War Department.”

Here is again where Clara Barton comes in, this time to save Atwater’s life.

Auburn State Prison
Courtesy of
Barton knew that Atwater wouldn’t survive for long in Federal prison. During his imprisonment at Belle Isle, Smith’s Tobacco Factory, Andersonville, and Florence, he’d lost more than half of his body weight and developed numerous diseases, including scurvy, diptheria, diarrhea, and others. 18 months of hard labor was likely to just kill him outright.

She started doing what she always did when it came time to convince people she was right: pulling strings. She contacted several sympathetic newspaper editors to start getting the public on her side, the chaplain of Atwater’s prison who was known to be sympathetic toward Atwater, the governor of Connecticut (Atwater’s home state), General Rucker, Senator Henry Wilson, President Johnson, and many others. It took her two months of work – during which time Captain Henry Wirz, the former commandant of Andersonville, was tried and hung – but by early December, Dorence Atwater was freed under a general pardon by President Johnson. He returned to DC, to Clara Barton, and to the work of paroled and missing men.

Clara Barton Lecture Broadside
With mention of Dorence Atwater
From the collection of Chris Foard 
While Atwater did work with Clara Barton in her Missing Soldiers Office, he did not really hold the position of a clerk. Much of his work was personal, relating to the editing and publication of his Death Register; this also benefitted Clara Barton, giving her thousands of names she wouldn’t otherwise have. Atwater joined Barton on her lecture circuit, often offering a lecture himself. His were about his experiences in Confederate prison, and he would showcase his original Death Register alongside Clara Barton’s Andersonville Relics.

Atwater’s lectures were always less popular than Barton’s, for a couple of reasons. The main reason was that she was much more popular and well known than he. “Clara Barton” had been a household name in much of the country for most of the war; “Dorence Atwater” had only surfaced in 1865. The other reason is one that would be a thorn in Atwater’s hand for most of his life.

Many veterans’ groups decided that they did not trust Dorence Atwater’s account of his time in Confederate prison, and accused him of collaborating with the enemy at Andersonville, and of being a deserter. Some of these veterans refused to attend Atwater’s lectures; they held on to their fictional grudge for decades, opposing an Atwater monument in his hometown of Terryville, Connecticut, his appointments to Consular positions, and more.

Dorence Atwater's monument at Terryville, Connecticut
Property of Plymouth Historical Society

A brief segway: Where is the Death Register I’ve written so much about? Copies of it abound. You can find it online and even purchase recreations of it. Most of these are copies that Atwater had published; Atwater kept his original in his personal possessions until it was destroyed in a San Francisco fire in the early 1900s, which I was very disappointed to learn.

There is a copy that the National Archives makes freely available here:

Atwater’s life after the Civil War, his Confederate and Federal imprisonment, the publishing of the Death Register, and helping Clara Barton at the Missing Soldiers Office improved quite a bit.

That is a post for next week, however!

See you then.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Dorence Atwater - Part 1

Dorence Atwater in 1865
Property of the Connecticut State Library
I just read a biography on the life of Dorence Atwater (From Andersonville to Tahiti: The Dorence Atwater Story by Thomas Lowry), one of Clara Barton’s friends and allies after the end of the Civil War, and it inspired me to do some extra research into the man's life. I feel that he's interesting enough to share on this blog! How a young Connecticut boy managed to befriend one of the greatest humanitarians of the United States is both fascinating and heartbreaking.

Due to the amount of content that’s available about Dorence Atwater’s life, this will be a two-parter.

Atwater was very young, only 16, when he signed up for service in the Union military. He joined the Connecticut Squadron of Cavalry, which was merged with a couple of other units not long after to form the 2nd New York Cavalry. He mostly served as a scout and a messenger.

The 2nd New York Cavalry, otherwise known as the “Harris Light Cavalry”, getting its name from Senator Ira Harris of New York, was in service from the beginning of the war (August 1861) to the end (June 1865). They saw action at numerous small engagements, and in several major engagements and campaigns, including the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Maryland Campaign, the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Gettysburg, numerous engagements throughout western Maryland following Gettysburg, Kilpatrick’s 1864 Raid on Richmond, the Battle of the Wilderness, the Battle of Cold Harbor, and many more. They were even present at Appomattox Court House.

The cover page of the "Song of the Harris Light Cavalry"
Set to the tune of "Maryland, My Maryland"
Property of the Library of Congress
Dorence Atwater was only present during the first two years or so of the Harris Light Cavalry’s service. He was captured by Confederates in early July of 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg. From there, he received a tour of the Confederacy that no one would ever want: first, he went to Belle Isle Prison near Richmond, Virginia, then to Smith’s Tobacco Factory inside Richmond. From there, he was transferred to one of the worst prisons in the war, Andersonville, Georgia, and then finally to Florence Prison in South Carolina. He was released to Federal forces in late February of 1865.

Atwater, as a young man, survived four separate Confederate prisons, contracting numerous diseases and losing roughly half of his body weight in the process. That in itself is a feat worthy of acclaim, but his story is far from over.

During his stay at Andersonville, Atwater was put to work in the medical offices, in charge of recording the names of the dead Union prisoners. While carrying out his work, he figured that there was little to no chance of the official “Death Register” finding its way into Federal hands; and indeed, the complete official list never did. Atwater made a second, secret copy of all of the dead of Andersonville Prison. He smuggled this list out of Andersonville when he was transferred to Florence Prison, and then again when he was released and he could finally go home.

Andersonville Prison, Georgia
Property of the Library of Congress
Dorence Atwater’s story will be completed in next week’s blog post, where I’ll talk about the consequences of his Death Register, his involvement in Clara Barton’s work, the injustices done to him by the Federal government, and his later life as a US diplomat.

This young soldier’s life played a key role in Clara Barton’s establishment of the Missing Soldiers Office. If any of this interests you, please consider donating to the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office in Washington, D.C., so we can preserve the history of these people and events. Any donations, big or small, will put us one step closer to being able to tell the full story of the CBMSO.

Anyone interested can go to or call the National Museum of Civil War Medicine at 301-695-1864.

See you next week.