At Fort Stevens, the only Civil War battle site in DC, President Lincoln came under fire. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress
7. Clara Barton’s Missing Soldiers Office
437½ Seventh St., NW
It was a tale of discovery reminiscent of King Tut’s tomb. In 1997, an official from the General Services Administration was poking around a federally owned building in DC’s Penn Quarter that was slated for demolition. On an upper floor whose rooms had been sealed off for nearly a century, he stumbled upon a historical trove: 19th-century letters, clothing, and a sign reading MISSING SOLDIERS OFFICE. 3RD STORY, ROOM 9, MISS CLARA BARTON.
In this building, Barton—like Whitman, a government clerk inspired to aid the Civil War wounded—established a privately run bureau to track down the fate of missing men. This was essential work in an era when thousands of anonymous corpses were recovered on the battlefield, with no formal system to notify relatives of a loved one’s death. Barton, who would go on to found the American Red Cross, provided information to the families of more than 20,000 men.
The building was saved, and restoration has begun; it will eventually become a museum. (It’s still closed to the public except for occasional special tours; for information, contact the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.) Barton’s rooms—where she also lived—remain a time capsule. The 19th-century wallpaper she installed hangs from the walls in tatters. One door, marked with the number 9, has a narrow mail slot through which letters by the tens of thousands once passed, bearing tidings that reunited families or broke hearts.
8. Walt Whitman Inscription
Dupont Circle Metro,
Connecticut Ave. and Q St., NW
Of all the Civil War monuments in Washington—bronze generals, marble goddesses, even the Lincoln Memorial—none moves me more than the words carved into the granite above the escalators at this exit from the Dupont Circle Metro. They are lines from Whitman’s Civil War poem “The Wound Dresser”:
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way
through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with
I sit by the restless all the dark night—some
are so young;
Some suffer so much—I recall the experience
sweet and sad . . .
The inscription, engraved in 2007, was designed to honor not just Whitman but also those who, in a similar spirit, cared for people with AIDS when the disease ravaged the Dupont Circle area in the 1980s and early ’90s. It is, in its minimalist way, a profound work of art. It unites present and past.
Its placement above the escalators suggests both descent into the afterlife and resurrection. Each day, it reminds thousands of self-absorbed commuters to step outside themselves, to make caring for others a duty as routine and quotidian as their office jobs—just as it was for the good gray poet a century and a half ago. Opportunities for heroism, it tells us, do not come only on the battlefield.
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