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Historical Vignette 095 - Memorial to Women of the Civil War

The Corps of Engineers Built the Red Cross Headquarters Building as a Memorial to Women of the Civil War

The headquarters building of the American Red Cross, located at 430 17th Street, NW, in Washington, D.C., is an impressive classical structure. Now designated a National Historic Landmark, it was designed by architects Breck Trowbridge and Goodhue Livingston. The interior contains a number of notable features, including sculptural artwork and three large Tiffany stained glass windows in what is now the Board of Governors Hall. Though this building is well known, it is less known that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was in charge of its construction and that the building was conceived as a memorial to the women of the Civil War.

In addition to maintaining homes and households while husbands, sons, and brothers were serving in the military, a significant number of women “on both sides” served as volunteer nurses during the Civil War. Some died performing this service. Former Union General Francis C. Barlow is credited with the idea of building a monument to these women after his wife, Arabelle Wharton Barlow, died of fever contracted while working as a nurse at a Union hospital in Washington, D.C., July 1864. Following General Barlow’s death, a close friend, Capt. James A. Scrymser, worked to ensure this memorial was built in the form of a new headquarters building for the American Red Cross. The memorial would be an appropriate gesture for an organization founded in 1881 by a woman, Clara Barton, and dedicated to the relief of those affected by war.

In 1911 Scrymser enlisted the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), an organization of former Union officers, to raise funds and awareness. A bill passed Congress in 1913 appropriating $400,000 towards the project, though not without controversy. The original conception was to honor only Northern women, but Congress changed it to include all women of the Civil War in the bill’s final form. The change caused MOLLUS to withdraw from the project, though Scrymser personally contributed $100,000—nearly a quarter of the additional $454,897 needed to complete the building.

 

First floor construction on the Red Cross building, June 1915 (above);
building nearing completion, 1917 (below).

The authorizing legislation directed that “the memorial shall be constructed under the supervision of an officer of the Corps of Engineers appointed by the Secretary of War.” Lt. Col. William W. Harts was the officer in charge of Public Buildings and Grounds for the Corps, and he and his staff managed the contracts for the Red Cross headquarters building and disbursed the funds associated with its construction. Begun in 1915, the building was completed and dedicated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917. Though few now associate the building with its original inception, the inscription along the building’s facade proclaims it:

“A MEMORIAL Built by the Government of the United States and Patriotic Citizens To the Women of the North And the Women of the South Held in Loving Memory By now a United Country That their labors to mitigate the sufferings of The sick and wounded in war may be perpetuated This memorial is dedicated to the service of THE AMERICAN RED CROSS”

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February 2005

Special thanks to Vickie Watson Sopher, Curator, American Red Cross Museum