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Clara Barton Accomplished Way More Than You Think

Clara Barton Accomplished Way More Than You Think

We all know Clara Barton as the founder of the American Red Cross, a dedicated humanitarian, and a volunteer who cared for wounded and sick soldiers during the Civil War. But you might not realize that in 1853, she started her own school in New Jersey, and worked as a clerk in the Patent Office until, according to, her anti-slavery opinions made her too controversial. After the war, she was the American Red Cross’ first president and volunteered in Cuba during the Spanish-American war. 

“To say that Clara Barton is a nurse is a gross understatement of her importance,” says George Wunderlich, Executive Director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. “The fact is that she was a relief organizer at a time when women didn’t do that.”

In 1865, Barton hired a staff and opened the “Office of Correspondence with the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army,” an organization intended to locate missing soldiers through letters with their friends and family. By 1867, she had established the whereabouts of over 22,000 men.  

Her 19th century office still exists today as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office in Frederick, Maryland, and an unusual project is bringing new life to the establishment. 

The Clara Barton Sessions is a recording project incorporating music from the Civil War and new, original songs about the era by a group of DC-based performers. They’re recording live in the Missing Soldiers Office. We spoke to musical director Jonny Grave about how playing music in Clara Barton’s old office gives people a window into women’s history:

What inspires you about Clara Barton's story?

When I first visited the Missing Soldiers Office, I was given a tour by a young woman named Sara Florini. Sara asked me if I knew who Clara Barton was. I grew up in Washington DC, heard stories about her work during the Civil War, and simply replied "Well, she was a Civil War nurse, wasn't she?" Sara told me that the word "nurse" implies years of training in the medical field. ClaraBarton, in fact, had very little to do with the medical field until the war broke out. Sara then goes on to say that "she was simply a determined humanitarian, who saw need, and did whatever she could. She had just had a liberal arts degree. I have a liberal arts degree. I could have done what she did.

When her brother's health was failing, and doctors refused to treat him further, she nursed him back to health. When her position as the first female clerk at the US Patent Office was brought down to the level of a mere copyist, she didn't stop campaigning for equal pay and equal status. When the war broke out, she ran to the front lines. When the war was over, she helped families find their loved ones. She was determined, fearless, and unflinching, but still an ordinary human being. I find inspiration in that.

Why approach her story through music?

From "Yankee Doodle" to "Blowin' in the Wind," music has always played a prominent role in American history. I grew up in a musical family, and learned early that songs can provide a connection to the past. Songs of Clara Barton's time helped inspire hope, like Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More." Some songs told stories and carried news from far away, like "The Cumberland and the Merrimac." When we sing these songs, the window to the past is opened, and we can hear what people heard a century and a half ago.

Furthermore, songs have a funny way of begetting songs. All of the artists I asked to join with me on this project were asked to play two songs-- One song from Clara Barton's era, and one original tune. Everyone has written a song for this project, in an effort to help carry on the memory of Clara Barton into the 21st century.

What performers did you invite to play?

I've been playing in the Washington DC area all my life, and have been lucky enough to cross paths with truly talented and skilled musicians. Some of the musicians I called in have studied and played Civil War tunes for years. For others, it's their first time exploring the era's music. As Clara's led a truly diverse life, I wanted to assemble a similarly diverse cast of musicians. We have an accomplished upright jazz bassist, a banjo-playing ethnomusicologist, a New Orleans-born classical violinist, and an Asheville-born songwriter, to name a few. All of us are Washington DC-based artists. 

To learn more about the artists and support The Clara Barton Sessions, check out their Kickstarter.