guest post by Marian Moser Jones
Last week, a man identifying himself as George Jones from Chicago left a cryptic voicemail on my office phone: “I have some information for you about Clara Barton. Please call.” In the months since the publication of my book, The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal, I had encountered people who recounted stories of relatives who worked for the Red Cross, but nobody promising an inside scoop on its iconic founder. Barton, who gained wide renown for her Civil War aid work, organized the American Red Cross in 1881. Perhaps Mr. Jones had uncovered some new evidence about her—a blood-encrusted battlefield diary or a trove of steamy love letters.
The truth, of course, proved more mundane. It nevertheless raised profound questions about the historical importance of place—questions that have become especially relevant as we commemorate the 150th anniversaries of major Civil War events, including, today, the Gettysburg Address.
While researching the history of the site on which his daughter’s house in Washington, D.C., was built, Mr. Jones told me he had learned that Clara Barton had stayed at the original house on that site in 1877. He suspected that this might have been where the American Red Cross held its inaugural meeting on May 21, 1881, but he had been unable to confirm this. Did I know the meeting’s location?
I was embarrassed to say I did not, but a quick search in a database of historical newspapers led me to a May 23, 1881, article in the Washington Evening Star, which listed the meeting’s address as 1326 I Street. Mr. Jones told me this made sense, as Barton had been living at this address in 1881 with her friends Rev. William Merritt Ferguson and his wife, according to material Mr. Jones later supplied me from diary entries and an obscure biography.
Is the I Street location marked with a plaque or something similar? Again, I didn’t know. I drove to downtown Washington, D.C., to investigate, and quickly found that the row of houses that once stood on the site, according to a 1903 architect’s map that Jones supplied me, had been razed and replaced by a 12-story monolithic office building. I got out of my car and walked into the building’s imposing, columned lobby. But I found no historic markers—only a directory of law firms and bank offices.
Perhaps it is more honest to let the geographic past be overwritten by the present. The high-ceilinged lobby of 1300 I Street, with its massive, tree-trunk Greco-Roman columns and its shiny marble floor, serves as an apt monument to the power of large moneyed interests in twenty-first century American politics (as do similar buildings on K Street, across a small park from this one). Then again, a plaque to commemorate the founding of the American Red Cross might remind passersby that it has not always been this way—that a single woman, armed with little more than reputation, friends, and uncommon tenacity, organized on this very site an organization that later became a powerful global force for humanitarian aid and even convinced the U.S. to sign the Geneva Conventions. Such a plaque would both recognize and utilize the historic value of place. Commemorating the space where a world-changing event occurred with a marker or ceremony (or both) acknowledges the importance of that past event to humanity while imbuing the space with new meaning in the present.
This type of transformation is exactly what Lincoln effected when he gave the Gettysburg Address. While the ostensible purpose of the ceremony at which he spoke was to honor the dead, his speech served primarily to galvanize the living by utilizing the audience’s immediate sensory experience of fresh burial sites. “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us,” he stated, “that we here highly resolve that these dead (emphasis added) shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” In imposing this new living meaning on the death-site of Gettysburg, Lincoln transformed a place of senseless internecine carnage into the birthplace of a new America, and re-conceived the war deaths as meaningful sacrifices in a struggle for the fulfillment of our national ideals.
Since the delivery of the Gettysburg Address, many battlefields and other sites of mass death have been commemorated in a similar manner. But why don’t we also commemorate sites of creation, of uncommon generativity? If blood has been spilled on ground, does this render a place more sacred than if it has held the sweat (even metaphorically) of those who labored on its site to create a new organization or movement?
I would say no. And yet there are far too few commemorative markers for such peacetime events. A museum slated to open earlier this year on the site where Barton organized her campaign to find missing soldiers after the Civil War, on 437 7th Street Northwest, remains unfinished, and everyone seems to have forgotten about the I Street location. Everyone, that is, except Mr. Jones. He may not have discovered the secret Clara Barton diary, but in acknowledging the importance of the past by working painstakingly to trace the physical site on which Barton founded the American Red Cross, he is doing something important.
Marian Moser Jones is an assistant professor of family science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and a former DeWitt Stetten Fellow at the National Institutes of Health, Office of History. Her book, The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal, is available from JHU Press.