Clara Barton and the Lincoln Assassination

Editor’s Note: In this post, Amelia Grabowski, Education and Digital Outreach Specialist at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum, shares insights about pages from the diary of Clara Barton. Learn more about the diary’s historical context below, and view the pages in our Remembering Lincoln collection.

I first learned about the Civil War in fourth grade. I remember staring at the two pictures in our Time for Kids handout, trying to imagine the thoughts and feelings of those who threw themselves into the fray. Those pictures were of President Abraham Lincoln and the pioneering nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, Clara Barton.

Pictures of those two appeared in textbooks and handouts again and again throughout my time as a student. As I stared at their pictures over and over, Lincoln and Barton became more than people to me—morphing from extraordinary Americans to icons synonymous with the Civil War itself.

Looking at primary sources like Clara Barton’s diary, I’ve rediscovered how human she was. In her diary entries we see a woman struggling with grief and shock, and looking for direction as the war came to a close in April 1865.

Barton’s Diary Entry: The Lincoln Assassination

Barton was not a dedicated diarist. She wrote in fits and starts, leaving whole months blank when she was busy or simply not interested in writing.

For instance, she doesn’t write about General Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, and the impending end of the war at all. Her sparse lines about Lincoln’s assassination may say little, but her decision to write about the events speaks volumes. Barton’s confusion, her need to help and her corresponding helplessness are evident in her words.

Barton recorded that she heard rumors of Lincoln’s assassination as she walked home from a friend’s house the night of April 14, 1865. Barton returned home, mere blocks from Ford’s Theatre, and recorded the news in her diary.

The next day, upon learning that Lincoln had died, Barton scrawled in her diary, “The whole city in gloom/ no one knows what to do.”

Jumping Into Action

Barton’s diary entries suggest she was searching for something to do—some way to help. This is a woman who had spent most of the past four years in a frenzy of activity: gathering medical supplies, bringing them to the soldiers, and assisting medical personnel on the battlefield and in Army hospitals. Not knowing what to do or how to help did not sit easily with her.

Just a month earlier, aware that her war work was coming to an end, Barton had obtained permission from Lincoln himself to help families search for the hundreds of thousands of missing Union soldiers. She opened the Office of Correspondence for Missing Men of the U. S. Army, more commonly known as the Missing Soldiers Office.

On April 17, two days after Lincoln’s death, Barton went to the Surgeon General’s office to “offer some help,” but no one had a task for her, so instead she devoted her energy to her Missing Soldiers work. That day alone, she recorded mailing more than 100 letters, inquiring about missing soldiers and delivering news to awaiting family members. Her work with the Missing Soldiers Office gradually located more than 22,000 veterans, some of whom were still alive.

Grieving Lincoln and Loved Ones Lost

Barton’s diary entries also show that it wasn’t only President Lincoln she was mourning in April 1865. Less than a week before the assassination, on the very day that Lee surrendered, Barton’s nephew, Irving, died. Barton was extremely close to her nephew, the son of her sister Sally.

In Barton’s diary, her sadness for the president mixes with her grief for her nephew, whom she called “Poor Bubby.” News of the president’s funeral and Irving’s internment in Massachusetts are reported with equal weight, often in the same run-on phrase.

What weighs more heavily: national mourning or personal grief? How do you balance the two? Barton answered this question by retreating from the crowds into her rooms and her work.

Despite living four blocks from Ford’s Theatre and two blocks from Lincoln’s funeral procession route, Barton didn’t visit the site of Lincoln’s death nor attend his funeral parade. While the city gathered in her neighborhood to honor the fallen president, she noted, “I remained in doors all day.”

Barton’s diary entries about the assassination aren’t long, clocking in at just over 200 words. However, through those few words, Barton conveys the confusion of the city and her personal grief at a turning point in American history. Reviewing these pages, I can see where she hurried to record something—her words coming out in one jumbled thought—and where she came back later to add more notes about the day.

As I stare at those pages, I can see Clara Barton as a person, and learn how she made it through those difficult April days. I see her as the individual, not the icon she was to me for so many years.

Amelia Grabowski is the Education and Digital Outreach Specialist at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum. She has a Master’s Degree in Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage from Brown University, where she received the Master’s Award for Engaged Citizenship and Community Service. Amelia has worked for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the Bullock Texas State History Museum, humanities councils, and community organizations: all endeavoring to connect the past to the present in engaging and creative ways.