Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving & the Civil War

The celebration of Thanksgiving is an integral and unifying component of American culture. Thanksgiving Day, as we know it in 2014, did not become a national holiday until the Civil War.

President Lincoln & Sarah J. Hale
On November 29, 1860, the newly-elected Abraham Lincoln shared an unofficial Thanksgiving celebration with his family, which included a meal of roast turkey. This was three years before he received a letter from Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor of a popular women’s magazine. Hale lobbied President Lincoln to encourage him to establish a national day of Thanksgiving. Known as the “Mother of Thanksgiving,” she understood the holiday’s potential as a means of unification for a nation strongly divided along social, economic, and ideological lines. Her letter to Lincoln brought about the results she desired: on October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation that officially established the custom as a national holiday. This Proclamation, written by Secretary of State William Seward, offered a hopeful message:
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.
President Lincoln's Thanksgiving Day Proclamation

During the Civil War, the holiday remained a cultural tradition celebrated locally by communities in different regions of the United States. Similarly, both the Union and the Confederate Armies held periodic and separate days of thanksgiving in response to military victories. On August 6, 1863, for example, the Union held a day of thanksgiving in honor of its success at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3). On November 26, 1863, President Lincoln held the first official Thanksgiving Day celebration.

Where was Clara Barton in 1863 and how did she observe the newly established holiday?


Map of Morris Island, SC
Throughout 1863, Clara Barton traveled between Hilton Head and Morris Island, South Carolina. When the battle of Battery Wagner broke out on July 18, Miss Barton sprang into action to help wounded soldiers.
Col. Robert Gould Shaw
Brig. Gen. Quincy Gillmore
Union Brigadier General Quincy Gillmore initiated the battle of Battery Wagner. Gillmore planned to seize the Confederate fort on Morris Island in an effort to use Cummings Point as a strategic location to attack the Confederate Army at nearby Fort Sumter. On July 18, Gillmore sent the 54th Massachusetts regiment, led by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, to attack the narrow beach at Battery Wagner. As the 54th Mass. neared the fort, they were subjected to artillery and musket fire that pinned down their exposed ranks. Despite the loss of 1,515 soldiers, the 54th Mass. bravely descended into the fort by engaging in bloody hand-to-hand combat with Confederate soldiers. The battle of Battery Wagner and the 54th Mass. were  immortalized in the movie Glory (1989).

In her diary, Clara Barton recalls:
Weeks of weary siege scorched by the sun—chilled by the wave, rocked by the tempest. Buried in the shifting sands—toiling day after day in the trenches, with the angry fire of forts hissing during the day.
During one artillery assault, Miss Barton braved exploding shells and debris to rescue Colonel Robert Leggett, whom she found lying on the sand with his leg blown off at the knee. Clara Barton tore off some of her dress, tied the cloth into a tourniquet, and used it to stem the bleeding. Throughout the remainder of the battle, Miss Barton and her assistant Mary Gage walked the beach looking for survivors. If they found a living soldier, the women would call out to Union stretcher-bearers to bring him back to the beach hospital. In addition, Miss Barton and Miss Gage nursed wounded soldiers by feeding them and offering emotional support. Clara Barton rarely left the bedsides of wounded soldiers once they arrived at the beach hospital.

Col. John Elwell
In August 1863, Clara became exhausted and ill from lack of sleep, inadequate food rations, and the overall harsh conditions on Morris Island. Suffering from diarrhea and fever, her friend Colonel John Elwell instructed quartermasters to put her on a boat for Hilton Head where she could recover from her illness.

Miss Barton returned to Morris Island shortly before Brig. Gen. Gillmore succeeded in forcing the Confederate Army to abandon Battery Wagner on September 7, 1863. On September 15, Clara Barton received a letter from Gillmore’s office instructing her to leave Morris Island because her services were no longer needed. In her diary, she speculates that Gillmore believed she “was some frail creature who could not endure hardship.” He did not understand Clara at all, even after she rose from her illness and returned to her post. The sexual discrimination that Clara Barton faced on Morris Island caused her great humiliation and anguish. With a heavy heart, Miss Barton conceded to Gillmore’s instructions and left Morris Island for Hilton Head.


On November 11, 1863, Col. Elwell managed to secure a pass from Gillmore’s office for Clara Barton’s return to Morris Island. The U.S. Sanitary Commission invited Clara to care for each dying soldier on the Island “as if she were his mother or sister.” Now Miss Barton had a decision to make: should she return to Morris Island for the winter or move back to Washington, D.C.? On November 12, Miss Barton wrote a letter to her best friend Mary Norton asking what to do:
My friends here at the Head are trying to keep me from going to Morris Island this winter now that there is so little doing there, and to coax me off the notion, they have built me a most beautiful suite of rooms—and I think perhaps I ought to remain with them unless the troops move…So what shall I do?—and I know you will tell me to remain at Hilton Head and keep comfortable this winter. Well, I don’t know—perhaps I ought—but will watch and see and tell you.
Clara Barton, Letter to Mary Norton, November 12, 1863, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC

As it turned out, Clara Barton went to St. Helena Island, South Carolina to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. The Seventh Connecticut was stationed there, and Clara had become friends with several of the officers of that regiment and their wives. While the soldiers feasted on ten roasted pigs, Miss Barton and the wives enjoyed a turkey dinner. At the end of the evening, Clara journeyed home by moonlight across the bay.



Civil War Trust, “Fort Wagner: Battery Wagner, Morris Island,” accessed November 22, 2014, Civil War Trust, “Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation: October 3, 1863,” accessed November 22, 2014, Clara Barton, Letter to Mary Norton, November 12, 1863, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, NC. History Channel, “Abraham Lincoln and the ‘Mother of Thanksgiving,’” accessed November 22, 2014, Library of Congress, “Sarah J. Hale to Abraham Lincoln, Monday September 28, 1863 (Thanksgiving),” accessed November 22, 2014, National Archives, “The National Archives Celebrates Thanksgiving,” accessed November 22, 2014, PBS, “The History Kitchen: Thanksgiving, Lincoln, and Pumpkin Pudding,” accessed November 22, 2014, Stephen B. Oates, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, (New York: The Free Press, 1994), 173-178, 180-186, and 196-198.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Updates on the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum

Hello everybody!

There are exciting updates at the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office (CBMSO) Museum in Washington, DC.

New Staff & Volunteers

The CBMSO would like to welcome new staff members to the Museum. Emily Peikin transitioned from a summer internship at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine (NMCWM) to become a Guest Services Representative at the CBMSO in September 2014. She is currently an undergraduate History major at American University. Sara Florini, Acting Site Supervisor, also joined the CBMSO team in September 2014. She previously worked at the Clara Barton House in Glen Echo, MD, and possesses extensive knowledge regarding Miss Barton’s life and humanitarian work. Emily Dean, Store Manager, has been a part of the CBMSO since the Museum opened for guided-tours in March 2014. The CBMSO Museum also employs a dedicated volunteer docent staff. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, please visit our website or stop by the Museum in person to fill out an application today! Volunteers are critical to the Museum’s mission to educate the public about Clara Barton and her legacy of humanitarian work.

Social Media

Recently, the Museum ventured further into the world of social media. If you would like to learn more about our organization, “Follow” us on Twitter @CBMSO and “Like” us on Facebook. In addition, the Museum operates a Go Fund Me page where visitors can directly help the CBMSO raise money for an artifact security system!

CBMSO Artifacts

Speaking of CBMSO artifacts…

On October 13, 2014, Museum staff attended a tour of the collections room at the NMCWM in Frederick, MD—the main operating museum of the CBMSO. During the tour, staff members had the opportunity to view a variety of pertinent artifacts, including the CBMSO black & gold tin sign, a rubberized shelter half, as well as a steel sewing thimble found in Room 12 of the museum.

“Miss Clara Barton, Missing Soldiers Office, 3rd Story, Room 9.” Tin sign measures 9in x 9 3/4in. There is a nail hole in each corner of the sign, and gold paint is scratched in places, especially in the word “Missing.” ©National Museum of Civil War Medicine (L6.2012.4)
The “Miss Clara Barton, Missing Soldiers Office” tin sign welcomed military families to 437 7th Street, NW, Washington, D.C. from 1865-1869. Without this artifact, Mr. Richard Lyons, a contractor for the General Services Administration (GSA), would not have been able to save the CBMSO from demolition in 1997!

“Rubberized Shelter Half.” Rubberized canvas square with hand-sewn buttonholes across the top, and hand-sewn grommets at corners. There are short remnants of rope present in some grommets, the fabric and rubber are brittle, and the fabric is stained with black mildew spots. The rubberized shelter half measures approximately 62in x 64in (because it cannot be unfolded). One corner of the canvas is stamped with “Sanitary Commission” in black ink. ©National Museum of Civil War Medicine (L6.2012.7)
Why did Clara Barton have a rubberized shelter half in her possession? Traditionally, the Army issued rubberized tents to officers and generals to help shelter them from rain on the battlefield. Due to the short supply of waterproof shelters, Enlisted men received canvas tents. Somehow Clara Barton managed to obtain the rubberized shelter half seen in the picture above. The Museum speculates that Miss Barton used the shelter half to protect her medical supplies on the battlefield. Powdered medicines like morphine and opium were useless to wounded soldiers if they got waterlogged. The CBMSO rubberized shelter half is incredibly rare; it is one of few surviving Civil War Era shelters.

©National Museum of Civil War Medicine. Socks are property of the U.S. General Services Administration.
“Thimble.” Steel sewing thimble with aluminum lining and dimpled upper portion. There is slight rusting on the interior of the artifact. Bottom rim of thimble has embossed design of diagonal parallel lines, which is repeated on the body of the thimble just above the rim and below the dimpling. The thimble measures 7/8in x Dia. (base) ¾ in. This thimble was found circa 2006 in Room 12 of the CBMSO. ©National Museum of Civil War Medicine (L6.2012.21)

In addition to lacking dry shelter and blankets, Civil War soldiers lacked clean clothes. As a supplier during the Civil War, Clara Barton supplemented soldiers’ rations by providing them with food, clothing, medicine, and other supplies. This included socks, which were crucial during long winters and grueling marches. Lyons discovered a large pile of bloodstained socks and sewing materials in the attic and rooms of the Missing Soldiers Office in 1997 (READ MORE HERE). The Museum speculates that Miss Barton mended and washed the bloodstained socks before sending them back to active soldiers on the front.

The CBMSO Museum is looking forward to displaying the tin sign, rubberized shelter half, and sewing materials in a proper climate controlled and secure exhibit environment on the third floor. Other potential artifacts for display include: medicine bottles, documents, clothing, letters, and original wallpaper rolls. It is truly a special privilege to be face-to-face with 150-year-old history!


The CBMSO Museum is undergoing multiple renovations within the third floor boardinghouse space. Recently, a historical light technician finished installing special LED lights, which simulate gas lighting throughout the museum. In addition, GSA contractors are working to replace the current pine floorboards with historically accurate reproductions. Contractors are also in the process of restoring original CBMSO windows along the inside courtyard of the building. They also plan to add a doorway connecting the first floor lobby to the staircase that leads to the third floor.

Due to ongoing renovations, and the upcoming holiday season, the CBMSO Museum will be closed November 28, 2014-January 15, 2015.

Plan Your Visit Today!

Guided interpretive tours of the CBMSO Museum are conducted on a walk-in basis Fridays-Sundays from 11:00am-6:00pm. Group tours for 10+ people require a reservation. Please contact Katie Reichard at or call (301) 695-1864 ext. 1010 to plan your group tour today!

Questions about Clara Barton and the Missing Soldiers Office? Leave your comments below!