This lesson is part of the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program.
Resting on a slight knoll in a quiet, shaded yard above the Potomac River Valley, a large, pale yellow, warehouse-like structure stands as a memorial to the complicated personality and persistent character of Clara Barton. Gazing at the house, one can imagine the click of typewriters as clerks respond to the voluminous correspondence which arrived daily. The murmur of voices can be detected as Barton discusses Red Cross business with her loyal field agents. The smell of the mid-afternoon meal drifts over the house, alerting the staff that even as they work to benefit others, their leader would supply their own needs.
Built in 1891, the structure was initially used as a storehouse for American Red Cross supplies. It was remodeled in 1897 to serve also as the headquarters of the American Red Cross and the home of its founder. Rising three stories high, its 30 rooms soon became crammed with thousands of items stockpiled to help victims of war and natural disasters, box upon box of official Red Cross papers, and Barton's personal belongings. Few homes in America tell more about their owners than the Clara Barton House just outside Washington, DC.
About This Lesson
This lesson about Clara Barton is based on the National Register of Historic Places registration file, "Clara Barton National Historic Site"(with photographs), and other source material about Barton and the American Red Cross. The lesson was written by Joan S. Pryor, former Park Ranger and Program Director at the Clara Barton National Historic Site. TwHP is sponsored, in part, by the Cultural Resources Training Initiative and Parks as Classrooms programs of the National Park Service. This lesson is one in a series that brings the important stories of historic places into the classrooms across the country.
Where it fits into the curriculum
Time Period: 1860-1900
Topics: The lesson could be used in teaching units on 19th- and early-20th-century American history, especially as related to social change during the period. It also could be used to teach about the history of women in the United States.
United States History Standards for Grades 5-12
Clara Barton’s House: Home of the American Red Cross
relates to the following National Standards for History:
Era 4: Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
- Standard 4C: The student understands changing gender roles and the ideas and activities of women reformers.
Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
- Standard 2B: The student understands the social experience of the war on the battlefield and homefront.
Era 6: The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
- Standard 2C: The student understands how new cultural movements at different social levels affected American life.
- Standard 3C: The student understands how Americans grappled with social, economic, and political issues.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
National Council for the Social Studies
Clara Barton’s House: Home of the American Red Cross
relates to the following Social Studies Standards:
Theme I: Culture
- Standard A: The student compares similarities and differences in the ways groups, societies, and cultures meet human needs and concerns.
Theme III: People, Places, and Environment
- Standard G: The student describes how people create places that reflect cultural values and ideals as they build neighborhoods, parks, shopping centers, and the like.
Theme IV: Individual Development and Identity
- Standard C: The student describes the ways family, gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutional affiliations contribute to personal identity.
- Standard D: The student relates such factors as physical endowment and capabilities, learning, motivation, personality, perception, and behavior to individual development.
Theme V: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
- Standard B: The student analyzes groups and institutional influences on people, events, and elements of culture.
- Standard D: The student analyzes groups and institutional influences on people, events, and elements of culture.
- Standard F: The student describes the role of institutions in furthering both continuity and change.
- Standard G: The student applies knowledge of how groups and institutions work to meet individual needs and promote the common good.
Theme VI: Power, Authority, and Governance
- Standard D: The student describes the ways nations and organizations respond to forces of unity and diversity affecting order and security.
Theme IX: Global Connections
- Standard A: The student describes instances in which language, art, music, belief systems, and other cultural elements can facilitate global understanding or cause misunderstanding.
- Standard D: The student explores the causes, consequences, and possible solutions to persistent, contemporary, and emerging global issues, such as health, security, resource allocation, economic development, and environmental quality.
- Standard F: The student demonstrates understanding of concerns, standards, issues, and conflicts related to universal human rights.
- Standard G: The student identifies and describes the roles of international and multinational organizations.
Theme X: Civic Ideals, and Practices
Standard E: The student explains and analyzes various forms of citizen action that influence public policy decisions.
Objectives for students
1. To describe how Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross and the role it played in organizing help for those in need;
2. To explain how Barton’s Glen Echo home reflected her devotion to the American Red Cross;
3. To relate Barton’s dedication to expanding the role of women in public service;
4. To investigate the work of present-day Red Cross chapters in their area as well as other charitable organizations in the local community.
Materials for students
The materials listed below can either be used directly on the computer or can be printed out, photocopied, and distributed to students.
1. A map of Washington, DC;
2. Two readings about Clara Barton’s work;
3. A poem about nurses in the Civil War;
4. Two photos of Red Cross facilities;
5. A floor plan of Clara Barton’s home.
Visiting the site
The Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland, commemorates the life of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. It includes her home, from which she organized and directed Red Cross relief efforts for victims of natural disasters and war. The park is located just outside of Washington, DC, and can be reached by way of the Capital Beltway and the Clara Barton Parkway. It is open year-round except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's days. For more information, visit the park web pages.
What do you think this building was used for? Why do you think the Red Cross needed a hotel?
Setting the Stage
The Civil War was a turning point in the life of Clara Barton (1821-1912), a former school teacher and patent office clerk. At age 40, Barton began offering assistance to Civil War soldiers, first by garnering supplies and then by ministering to the needs of the wounded. As the shells burst over the battlefields, she cradled the sick in her arms and closed the eyes of the dying. She jostled from battlefield to battlefield by wagon and railroad car, slept in tents or not at all, and tried in a small way to provide comfort and ease. After the war, Barton continued to offer her services, both in the United States and abroad. These experiences prompted her to lobby for the establishment of the Red Cross in America. Barton's several years of dedication to this cause were rewarded when the American Red Cross was officially established in 1882. Barton became its first president, serving until 1904.
Locating the Site
Map 1: The Washington, DC area
By 1890 Barton was searching for a location to establish a new headquarters for the Red Cross. In 1891 she received an offer she could not refuse--a plot of land and workmen to build a structure in Glen Echo, Maryland. Although she intended to use the Glen Echo structure both as the headquarters and her home, the distance from Washington, DC, proved inconvenient, and Barton used the building instead as a warehouse. In 1897 when trolley lines made Glen Echo more accessible, Barton remodeled the Red Cross warehouse to serve as her home and the institution's headquarters.
Questions for Map 1
1) How far is it from the White House to Glen Echo?
2) Why might proximity to the capital city have been important to Barton?
3) What different forms of transportation would have been available to Barton while she lived in Glen Echo (1897-1912)?
Determining the Facts
Reading 1: Clara Barton, Advocate for Human Rights
Looking back at her childhood, Clara Barton remembered "nothing but fear." She saw herself as an introspective, insecure child, too timid to express her thoughts to others. Yet this girl who felt terror in all new situations possessed qualities that enabled her to overcome that fear, indeed to become a woman universally acclaimed as courageous.
Barton was born on December 25, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, and named Clarissa Harlowe Barton. Her parents had four other children, all at least 10 years of age when she was born. Thus Clara--as she was always called--was born into a world of adults and, as she later recalled, "had no playmates, but in effect six fathers and mothers."1
Clara Barton's mother, Sarah Barton, spent little time with her daughter. She was an erratic, nervous woman, with a reputation for profanity and a violent temper, who spent most of her time in compulsive housework. When Barton was six, her sister Dolly became mentally ill and the family locked her in a room with barred windows. Dolly's illness combined with her mother's bad temper must have added to Barton's timidity, but it never affected her loyalty to her family.
As an adult, Barton taught school for 10 years and then felt compelled to "find a school...to teach me something."2 She settled upon Clinton Liberal Institute in New York, where she was exposed to many aspects of social reform--abolitionism, women's rights, and education. Of women's rights Barton wrote, "I must have been born believing in the full right of women to all the privileges and positions which nature and justice accord her in common with other human beings. Perfectly equal rights--human rights. There was never any question in my mind in regard to this."3
After another stint teaching school, Barton left for Washington, DC, in 1855, where she found a job as a patent clerk. At that time she was the only female permanently employed by the federal government. When the Civil War broke out, she was alarmed to hear that regiments were lacking such basic necessities as towels, handkerchiefs, serving utensils, etc. She called upon New Englanders to provide her with such items so that she might see that each regiment was properly fitted out. Such garnering of supplies against unforeseen disaster eventually became a central characteristic of her later relief work. For a year Barton contented herself with soliciting supplies. Then, as the horrible effects of battle were reported in Washington, she began to think of aiding soldiers directly on the battlefield. Nurses were urgently needed at the battlefield, but she wondered if it was seemly for a woman to place herself directly in the lines of battle: "I struggled...with my sense of propriety, with the appalling fact that I was only a woman whispering in one ear, and thundering in the other [were] the groans of the suffering men dying like dogs."4
Late in the summer of 1862, at the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia, she "broke the shackles and went to the field."5 At Cedar Mountain and the subsequent battle of Bull Run (Manassas), she began a remarkable service which continued to the end of the war. At Bull Run, she found 3,000 wounded men lying in a sparsely wooded field on straw, for there was no other bedding. Most had not eaten all day; many faced amputations or other operations. She was unprepared for such carnage, but she distributed coffee, crackers, and the few other supplies she had brought. Scanty as her supplies were, Barton's aid was timely and competent. Army surgeon Dr. James I. Dunn wrote to his wife, "At a time when we were entirely out of dressings of every kind, she supplied us with everything, and while the shells were bursting in every direction...she staid dealing out shirts...and preparing soup....I thought that night that if heaven ever sent out a homely angel, she must be one."6
From that time on, Barton went from battle to battle, always bringing in needed supplies and nursing the wounded soldiers of both sides. She several times barely escaped injury or death from shells landing on the battlefields or the hospitals, but she never stopped her work.
Barton worked primarily alone--and she liked it that way. She did not seek glory, but she needed praise and did not wish to have it bestowed on the name of an entire group such as the Sanitary Commission, which was doing similar work. She liked being revered as an "Angel of the Battlefield." And, this woman who remembered always being afraid, deserved accolades. While serving others, she found she forgot herself. "When you stand day and night in the presence of hardship and physical suffering, you do not stop to think about the interest [of your work]. There is not time for that. Ease pain, soothe sorrow, lessen suffering--that is your only thought day and night."7
After the war, Barton worked to help ease the problems of newly-freed African Americans and for universal suffrage, writing reports and speaking at rallies. She also served as a vice president and featured speaker at the First International Woman's Suffrage Conference in Washington, D.C. She spent more than four years trying to identify more than 22,000 men missing in action and brought about the designation of Andersonville prison camp as a national cemetery. In 1868 while delivering a lecture in Boston, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent by her doctor to Europe for a rest.
Reading 1 was adapted from Clara Barton, Clara Barton National Historic Site (Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, 1981).
1 Elizabeth Brown Pryor, "The Professional Angel," part 2 in Clara Barton, Clara Barton National Historic Site (Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, 1981), 16.
2 Pryor, "The Professional Angel," 18.
3 Pryor, "The Professional Angel," 18.
4 Pryor, "The Professional Angel," 23.
5 Pryor, "The Professional Angel," 23.
6 Pryor, "The Professional Angel," 25.
7 Pryor, "The Professional Angel," 30.
Questions for Reading 1
1) In what ways was Barton's childhood unusual?
2) How did Barton feel about the rights of all people?
3) Why do you think Barton had difficulty deciding to go to the battlefields?
4) At one time, "homely" meant "domestic" or suited to the home, rather than unattractive. Yet when the press reprinted Dr. Dunn's description of Barton’s work at Bull Run, she crossed out the word "homely" and entered the word "holy." How does that incident help to explain Barton's perception of herself?
Determining the Facts
Reading 2: Clara Barton and the American Red Cross
After her many achievements during and after the Civil War, Clara Barton wrote, "I ought to be satisfied. I believe I am." Coming events were to show, however, that she would never be satisfied except by responding again and again to the call of human need.
The International Red Cross
Barton sailed for Europe in 1869 in search of rest; instead, she found a wider field of service. Friends in Geneva, Switzerland, introduced her to the new organization known as the Red Cross. Barton read for the first time the famous book A Memory of Solferino by Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross movement. That movement called for international agreements for the protection of the sick and wounded during wartime, without respect to nationality, and for the formation of voluntary national societies to give aid on a neutral basis. The first treaty embodying Dunant's idea had been drawn up in Geneva in 1864. Later, Barton fought hard and successfully for the signing of this treaty by the United States.
A more immediate call to action came to her with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Though not yet allied to the Red Cross, she knew the needs of war and went to the war zone with volunteers of the International Red Cross. To protect herself with the internationally accepted symbol, she used a red ribbon she was wearing and made a cross to pin on her coat. She helped to distribute relief supplies to the destitute in the conquered city of Strasbourg. She also opened workrooms where the inhabitants of the city could help themselves by making new clothes, thus anticipating the production of great quantities of clothes and comfort articles by today’s American Red Cross. Later, she distributed relief in many French cities.
Founding and Leading the American Red Cross
After her return to the United States in 1873, Barton corresponded with Red Cross officials in Switzerland. Because of her service to France, they looked on her as the natural leader for carrying the Red Cross movement to this country and for influencing the U.S. government to sign the Geneva Treaty. Despite Barton's persistent efforts, the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes looked on the Geneva Treaty as a possible "entangling alliance" and refused to sign it. Finally, in 1882, the treaty was signed by President Chester A. Arthur and ratified by the Senate.
Anticipating American acceptance of the treaty, Barton and a group of supporters formed the American Association of the Red Cross in 1881. Reincorporated as the American National Red Cross in 1893, the organization was given charters by Congress in 1900 and in 1905.
The American Red Cross, with Barton at its head, devoted itself largely to disaster relief for the first 20 years of its existence. The Red Cross flag was flown officially for the first time in this country in 1881 when Barton was appealing for funds to aid victims of forest fires in Michigan. In 1884 she chartered steamers to take supplies to many sites along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to help flooded families. In 1889 she helped to relieve Johnstown, Pennsylvania, after its great flood. In 1892 she organized assistance for Russians suffering from famine and in 1896 directed disaster relief operations in Turkey and Armenia. Barton introduced the idea of Red Cross disaster relief to many other national societies, and many foreign countries honored her with decorations. She was one of three U.S. delegates to the Third International Red Cross Conference in Geneva in 1884, the only woman delegate present. An amendment to the Geneva Treaty was adopted at the conference that sanctioned peacetime aid by the Red Cross for calamities. This amendment, called the "American Amendment," was a direct result of Barton's work in the United States. Her personality and prestige and her record of response to national and international disasters influenced the proceedings of other International Red Cross Conferences, including the sixth, in Vienna (1897), and the seventh, in St. Petersburg, Russia (1902).
Barton’s most significant act during her closing years as head of the American Red Cross was to take supplies to Cuba on a specially chartered ship during the Spanish-American War. Aid was given to the American forces, to prisoners of war, and to Cuban refugees. This effort was the first step toward the broad programs of service to the armed forces and to civilians during wartime that have become traditional in the American Red Cross. On resigning as president of the organization in 1904, Barton left a foundation of service to humanity for others to build on.
Reading 2 was adapted from "Clara Barton, Historic Woman," Washington, D.C., 1961. Courtesy of the American Red Cross. All rights reserved.
Questions for Reading 2
1) How did Barton's actions during the Franco-Prussian War embody the principles of the Geneva Treaty?
2) How did Barton's experiences in Europe influence the beginnings of the American Red Cross?
3) Why might the Geneva Treaty have been considered an "entangling alliance" by some people in the United States?
4) Discuss Barton's unique situation as the only woman delegate to the International Red Cross Convention in 1884. In what way did her earlier relief efforts influence the proceedings of the convention?
Determining the Facts
Reading 3: The Women Who Went to the Field
Barton wrote the following poem as a toast to women who served in the Civil War. It was first presented at a gala dinner held in 1892 by the Women's Relief Corps and was later printed in many newspapers and magazines. The goal of the members of the Women's Relief Corps, many of whose husbands had served in the Civil War, was to ensure that all Civil War veterans were honored and remembered. They helped maintain battlefields and cemeteries and erected many monuments to the troops.
The women who went to the field, you say,
the women who went to the field; and pray
What did they go for? just to be in the way!--
They'd not know the difference betwixt work and play,
What did they know about war anyway?
What could they do? -- of what use could they be?
They would scream at the sight of a gun, don't you see?
They would faint at the first drop of blood, in their sight.
What fun for us boys, -- (ere we enter the fight;)
They might pick some lint, and tear up some sheets,
And make us some jellies, and send on their sweets,
And knit some soft socks for Uncle Sam's shoes,
And write us some letters, and tell us the news.
And thus it was settled by common consent,
Of husbands, or brothers, or whoever went,
That the place for the women was in their own homes,
There to patiently wait until victory comes.
Of those we recall, there was scarcely a score,
Dix, Dame, Bickerdyke, -- Edson, Harvey and Moore,
Fales, Whittenmeyer, Gilson, Safford and Lee,
and poor Cutter dead in the sands of the sea;
And Frances D. Gage, our "Aunt Fanny" of old,
Whose voice rang for freedom when freedom was sold.
And Husband, and Etheridge, and Harlan and Case,
Livermore, Alcott, Hancock, and Chase,
And Turner, and Hawley, and Potter, and Hall.
Ah! the list grows apace, as they come at the call:
Did these women quail at the sight of a gun?
Will some soldier tell us of one he saw run?
Will he glance at the boats on the great western flood,
At Pittsburg and Shiloh, did they faint at the blood?
And the brave wife of Grant stood there with them then,
And her calm, stately presence gave strength to his men.
And Marie of Logan; she went with them too;
A bride, scarcely more than a sweetheart, 't is true.
Her young cheek grows pale when the bold troopers ride.
Where the "Black Eagle" soars, she is close at his side,
She staunches his blood, cools the fever-burnt breath,
And the wave of her hand stays the Angel of Death;
She nurses him back, and restores once again
To both army and state the brave leader of men.
And what would they do if war came again?
The scarlet cross floats where all was blank then.
They would bind on their "brassards"* and march to the fray,
And the man liveth not who could say to them nay;
They would stand with you now, as they stood with you then,
The nurses, consolers, and saviors of men.
*Armbands with distinctive designs meant to distinguish the wearer in some special way.
Reading 3 came from the Papers of Clara Barton, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
Questions for Reading 3
1) What personality traits of the author can be discerned from reading her poem?
2) How does Barton depict the citizenship qualities of the women she writes about?
3) According to the poem, what roles were women expected to play in the Civil War? What functions did they in fact perform? How do those jobs compare with the ones women have in the military today?
4) Barton mentioned many notable women. Which names did you recognize? Why did she include them? A textbook or reference book (such as Vincent Wilson, Jr.'s The Book of Distinguished American Women) can provide information about the others Barton mentioned. What were their accomplishments?
Photo 1: No. 2 Red Cross Hotel, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1889
In May 1889, more than 2,200 people lost their lives in the devastating Johnstown Flood. Over the next five months, Clara Barton and Red Cross volunteers administered relief to flood victims, including building and furnishing temporary shelters or hotels such as this one.
Questions for Photo 1
1) Why would structures like this one have been an important part of Red Cross relief efforts following natural disasters?
2) How do you think survivors of the Johnstown Flood felt about Clara Barton and the Red Cross?
Photo 2: Clara Barton’s Home in Glen Echo, Maryland, 1897
This structure originally was used to store Red Cross supplies. After extensive remodeling in 1897 it became the headquarters of the American Red Cross as well as Clara Barton's home. She lived here until her death in 1912, at the age of 90. The 30-room structure overflowed with supplies, official Red Cross papers, visitors and volunteers. At times, as many as eight or nine staff members lived in the house with Barton.
Questions for Photo 2
1) Compare Barton's home to the temporary shelter pictured in Photo 1. What might account for the similarities? What might account for the differences?
2) How does this structure reflect Barton's dedication to the Red Cross?
Drawing 1: Floor Plans of Clara Barton’s Home in Glen Echo, Maryland
Questions for Drawing 1
1) Compare the number of rooms used personally by Barton with the area used by the American Red Cross for housing volunteers, for office space, and for storage of supplies. What conclusions can you draw about the activities that took place in the house?
2) Using the measurements provided, calculate the building's approximate total square footage. How does that figure compare to the place where you live? Would you like to live in such a large house? Would you like to live and work in the same building? Why or why not?
3) Examine the floor plan carefully. What features of modern-day houses can you find?
Putting it All Together
The two most important periods of Barton's life were the Civil War and the 22 years she spent as president of the American Red Cross. She was very proud of her own wartime service as well as that of other women who made similar sacrifices during this period. Her total dedication to the American Red Cross gave it a secure foundation for a service which continues today. To commemorate her extraordinary dedication to service, Congress established the Clara Barton National Historic Site in 1974. It was the first unit in the National Park Service dedicated to honoring achievements by a woman.
Activity 1: Dealing with Disasters
Have the students research newspaper accounts of recent natural disasters. Examples include Hurricanes Hugo (1989), Andrew (1992), and Iniki (1992); the San Francisco earthquake (1989); and the Northridge earthquake (1994). How did the Red Cross respond to these disasters? What services did the Red Cross provide for the victims? Invite a representative of the local Red Cross chapter to speak to the class, focusing on how the organization deals with disasters both nationally and locally and what other services it provides to the community. Have the students compare the methods used by the early Red Cross under Barton's direction and the methods used by the modern organization. How have the methods of transportation and medical care changed over the past 100 years? (Students may need to refer to some of the sources listed in Activity 3.)
Activity 2: Women’s and Men’s Work
Have students brainstorm what are thought of as women’s and men’s careers. Make a chart of these stereotypical “male” and “female” careers. Are the lists different? What are some of the obstacles women face professionally? Compare these obstacles with those faced by Clara Barton and other women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. How are they different? How are they alike? Have some obstacles disappeared? Have new ones appeared? Ask students to write an editorial to a school or local newspaper expressing their views on equality.
Activity 3: Researching the Life of Clara Barton
Students may wish to do further reading about Clara Barton. Have them present their research in oral or written reports or in panel discussions. An excellent biography of Barton is Elizabeth B. Pryor, Clara Barton: Professional Angel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987). An interesting book about her involvement in the Civil War is Cathy E. Dubowski, Clara Barton, Healing the Wounds (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett, 1991).
Activity 4: Local Assistance Groups
Have students (individually or in small groups) investigate the other organizations in their area which offer assistance, including YMCA, YWCA, community centers, homeless shelters, boys and girls clubs, houses of worship, etc. What similarities and differences exist among the organizations? How were these organizations started? Compare the origins of these organizations with that of the Red Cross. Discuss how the similarities and differences help each organization meet the needs of the community. Brainstorm ideas for assistance within their own community and discuss ideas with an organization representative. Work with the organization representative to design a project that would allow the students to assist the organization.
Clara Barton National Historic Site
Clara Barton's home in Glen Echo, Maryland is now a unit of the National Park Service. The park's web pages detail its history, including photographs, descriptions, and materials for teachers.
Antietam National Battlefield
Clara Barton's efforts to care for the wounded began during the Civil War, and the website of this battlefield provides more information about her work.
National Park Service Civil War Website
Visit the official National Park Service Civil War website. Offering the current generation of Americans an opportunity to know, discuss, and commemorate this country's greatest national crisis, while at the same time exploring its enduring relevance in the present, the website includes a variety of helpful features and links that offer stories from various perspectives. Also included are links to Civil War Parks, NPS education programs, and much more.
Teaching with Historic Places
Teaching with Historic Places lesson plans that are particularly relevant to the material in Clara Barton’s House: Home of the American Red Cross include Run for Your Lives! The Johnstown Flood of 1889 and Glen Echo Park: Center for Education and Recreation.
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