To say that Barton’s work in the summer of 1865 was a pioneering endeavor is to understate the case. No one had taken the trouble to account for missing men—no one had even considered them important once they were off the field, except as a casualty statistic; no one had considered the dignity of recognizing every soldier, and the importance of every soldier’s family. No one had figured out even how to search for the missing, let alone honor them by caring enough to make the effort. In the later years of the nineteenth century a number of groups did make it their business—both North and South—to mark graves, erect memorials and pay tribute to unknown dead. And of course today the military credo is—that every individual counts—that no one is left behind. But in 1865 nobody was doing these things, except Clara Barton.
Barton’s work with missing men, at Andersonville, and with freedmen is very striking. Yet it was only after this experience that Barton began the remarkable efforts that I believe merit special commendation.
Because all these accomplishments did not leave Clara Barton self-satisfied. She could not just leave the war by raising a flag, or declaring victory and marching in a parade. To Barton much of her work seemed empty because it never should have had to be done to begin with—the lack of supplies—the understaffed and overcrowded hospitals—the long, long lists of missing soldiers—the unspeakable prison conditions both North and South. She saw little nobility in bragging about battles won or glorious deeds performed and she did not join in the collective sigh of relief that the war was at least over. Barton wanted to change the situation so that the terrible things she had witnessed would not happen again. Her take on the whole war, she wrote in a little poem, was that it was “a hampered work, its worth largely lost” But, she says—again I am quoting– “But through this came knowledge—and knowledge is power/ And never again in the deadliest hour…shall we be so beset….” “Never again in the deadliest hour shall we be so beset….” And that is what Clara Barton set out to accomplish.
Now Barton was no idealist—she didn’t campaign for an end to all war, or a ban on cruelty, or an instant reversal of every army regulation. In fact she was a pragmatist, and fully believed war would come again—and possibly soon. What she did think was that the ineptitude, lack of preparation, and the resulting anguish did not have to be so acute. And she began devising ways to avoid needless suffering.
One of the first issues she actually tackled while still working among the wounded on the field. That was the problem of identity. Though a fair amount of information was taken down about a soldier when he enlisted or was drafted, there was nothing to show who the physical person was—no name tag on the uniform, no number of the regiment and no personal identification. As uniforms became worn, and men exchanged pieces of clothing or lost items, it became even harder. Southerners, of course, were chronically short of clothes and often stripped fallen Yankees of their shirts or pants or belts, so that by the late war it became difficult even to tell which side a dead or wounded soldier was on. And of course, without becoming too grisly, the longer a body stayed on the field without burial, the harder it became to recognize even physical features. Soldiers were themselves well aware of the problem. You will recall the famous episode at Cold Harbor when Union men saw they were going to assault a position that meant almost certain death, and so penned their names on pieces of paper and pinned them to their backs so they might be identified. A few manufacturers advertised name tags for sale and some individual Union soldiers did buy them—but it was not an official system.
What Barton did was devise a scheme of what she called card tags—little papers that were pinned inside the clothing. She advised that they be the same size, worn in the same place, and removed only in emergencies. The tags listed name, regiment, company, and hometown. She cut out these tags for men in the hospitals, and she bullied surgeons and some captains who owed her favors into requiring them. It was not a perfect solution—the tags could get lost or damaged, clothing could be exchanged, etc. But it was more than existed at the time. The fustier members of the military did not accept the innovation so easily. Although Barton proposed it be adopted throughout the army, it was more or less strangled by red tape for a number of years. However—its interesting to note that Barton again raised the subject after the Franco-Prussian War—another war in which she worked with the wounded on the field. Here she saw the first “Hundemärken”—literally dog tags—which were made of metal and which the Prussian Army had issued to every soldier. She thought them a great advance on her own idea. Unfortunately, the US Army didn’t follow her advice until 1906—and Barton found herself complaining during the Spanish American war of exactly the same problem of lost identity.