As she spoke to men at the hospital, Barton noted how many were desperate that their families should know what happened to them. And she realized that there was a glaring gap in the army’s system of accountability. By 1864, strict roll calls were required and meticulous rosters of army regiments were kept. But next to many names was the word “missing”—and increasingly so after the terrible battles of spring 1864. Prison records on both sides were at best incomplete. In fact, by the end of the war, half the Union dead were unidentified, and some 200,000 were officially listed as missing. These figures were shocking enough. But Barton understood that raw statistics couldn’t express the emotional and psychological scars the conflict had left on the nation’s spirit. The mental anguish of uncertainty maximized the suffering. This was not just a problem for the military, but a terrible burden for the American people, both North and South.
But the army and navy had no mechanism to find out what had happened to so many of their men. Barton recognized that the only “record” (as it were) of these soldiers was in the memory of their comrades. Brothers in arms recalled where one had fallen, or had been captured; where a patrol boat had gone down; or, in some cases, who had disappeared while straggling. Barton had also begun to receive a great many requests from anxious families for information about the whereabouts of individual soldiers. She wanted to create a system by which she could match those enquiries with information provided by hospital workers, wounded soldiers, company captains, and prisoners—who were beginning to return. She came up with the idea of publishing lists of the missing in newspapers and requested anyone who had concrete knowledge to send it to her. She would be a pass-through for the information and would give it to the War Department and to the families.
This was a homemade, cottage project, but the information was almost impossible to find in any other way. Barton tried to see Lincoln about it in February 1865, but he wouldn’t see her. (Lincoln did not like “strong-minded” women and more or less “dissed” them all—including Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna Dickinson, and others who were working for his cause.) Barton got her friend Senator Henry Wilson to lobby for her and in the end General Ethan Allen Hitchcock—who was in charge of prisons—approved the project. She got her contacts in the newspaper world to print the list of missing men in the major papers of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. She had a little office for a while in Annapolis, where the returning prisoners were coming in—but later moved the operation—if that is the word for it—to her rooms on 7th Street in Washington. (Those rooms were recently rediscovered and are being restored at the moment.) She always hoped that the military would officially take on the project and give her a proper office and some staff, but for a variety of reasons that never happened. Some of this had to do with official red tape, some with personalities, some had to do with resistance to a woman—any woman, even Clara Barton—sitting in the male precincts of the War Department.
In the end she not only did virtually the whole job by herself, but paid for it. She had worked for free throughout the war and did so again during all of 1865. By the end of that year she had used up her ready cash and also her inheritance from her father. “It is not the first time in my life that I have come to the bottom of the bag,” she wrote in her diary that Christmas. “I guess I will die a pauper yet.” But in its way Barton’s scheme had been a success. She was receiving thousands of letters each week—what she called the “collective coinage of aching hearts.” The War Department was beginning to take her work seriously. And she had been able to identify more than 22,000 of the missing. Most of them were dead. But at least their families could move forward with certainty.
An important part of this story began on a day that a horribly thin young man named Dorence Atwater contacted Barton. He had been taken prisoner after Gettysburg and finally ended up in Andersonville Prison. Because of his exceptional handwriting, Atwater had been given the grisly job of cataloging each day’s deaths. The numbers grew so horrifying that Atwater began to fear prison officials would falsify or destroy the death rolls. So he secretly copied them. He was able to spirit them out when he was released in the spring of 1865. He brought them to Barton to compare with her own lists of missing men. More than 13,000 names corresponded.
Atwater also told Barton that the men had been buried in long common graves with only a number to mark the spot—but that he had noted the numbers next to the names of the dead on his ledger. Barton decided right then to go to the scene and properly mark the graves. It was in a sense a preposterous idea—that part of the South was all but destroyed and the mood there was angry—and she had no real way to get there. She took her plan to General Hitchcock, then to Secretary of War Stanton, who for once received her warmly. When Stanton heard Barton’s idea to make Andersonville a memorial to the men who had perished there, he embraced the plan. He asked Atwater to travel back to Andersonville with a military contingent, and he invited Barton to accompany the team.