Maryland: Clara Barton National Historic Site Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This house in Glen Echo, home to nurse Clara Barton (1821-1912) and her American Red Cross, is the first National Historic Site dedicated to a woman’s life and public record of achievement.

Site Office

Clara Barton National Historic Site

5801 Oxford Road

Glen Echo, MD 20812

ph: (301) 492-6245

Web site: www.nps.gov/clba/

This National Historic Site was established in 1974 to commemorate Clara Barton’s dedication to public service. Within it are preserved the beginnings of the history of the American Red Cross and the last home of its founder, Clara Barton. Barton spent the last fifteen years of her life in this Glen Echo home, usually busily occupied with the affairs of the American Red Cross. The National Park Service has restored eleven of the Glen Echo house’s thirty rooms; including the Red Cross offices, Barton’s parlors, and her bedroom. Visitors to the site receive a guided tour through the three levels of the home to witness how completely interwoven Clara Barton’s life was with her humanitarian commitments.

Barton Merges Private and Public Life

Barton’s home at Glen Echo was the result of a charitable donation by two brothers, Edwin and Edward Baltzley, who planned to develop an intellectual and cultural community in Glen Echo. The Bartleys hoped that attracting a resident as famous and admired as Clara Barton would validate their project. In 1890, Barton was also searching for a new headquarters and supplies warehouse for the Red Cross. In a characteristic act that testifies to how inseparable Barton’s life was from her work, the site was deeded to her as a private individual, but it was publicly announced as a property owned by the American Red Cross. Built in 1891, the Glen Echo house was initially a storehouse for Red Cross supplies, and in 1897 it was remodeled to serve both as official headquarters for the American Red Cross and as the home of the organization’s founder. Located just outside Washington, D.C., the thirty-room house speaks volumes to visitors about the Red Cross and the tireless zeal of Clara Barton on behalf of humanitarian causes. Throughout her life, Barton was happiest when she was busily responding to urgent human needs caused by war and by natural disasters.

One biographer, Elizabeth Brown Pryor, has analyzed Barton’s personal motivation for public service: “In reality her whole life had been spent in a search for the public acclaim that served as a salve for the indifference of her family.” She seems to have suffered, Pryor adds, from “a sad lack of self-esteem and a need to project an image of perfection,” dying her hair well into her eighties and lowering her age when asked it. Barton’s autobiographical memoir, The Story of My Childhood (1907), portrayed her actions and achievements in as idealized a manner as possible. In her memoir, Barton sometimes falsified facts in order to make herself the center of attention. Clearly her self-doubts and her need to overcome the struggles of her youth against an indifferent and often hostile mother played a powerful role in her efforts to compensate for the inadequacies of her upbringing.

Added to her painful family history as she grew up were the rigid social assumptions about women and their appropriate behaviors in the decades leading up to and just after the Civil War. Barton was probably correct in her view of herself as a social outsider, torn between a social imperative toward conformity and her urgent emotional and psychological tendencies toward rebellion. The traumatic results of this inner division occurred when she was not a battlefield nurse or agent of the American Red Cross. Periods of inactivity or passivity usually culminated in severe bouts of depression or in periods of nervous breakdown.

Nineteenth Century Attitudes Toward Women

Clara Barton’s pattern of emotional difficulties was not unusual for women in the nineteenth century. Energetic and ambitious women were prescribed the Weir-Mitchell rest cure when they were diagnosed with hysteria, neurasthenia, or nervous depression. According to this “cure,” intellectual activity of any sort was forbidden and rest, seclusion, and inactivity were prescribed to restore the natural balance in a woman’s well-being. Women, however, often understood their symptoms differently than the male medical establishment.

For many women in Barton’s time, the conflict between their worldly public aspirations and their need for recognition were diametrically opposed to the prevailing Victorian and American ideal of domestic life and wifely devotion, often called “The Angel in the House” ideal after a popular British poem celebrating female virtues. As late as the 1920’s, the British novelist Virginia Woolf wrote of the constricting power of the Angel in the House mentality that was directly opposed to a woman having a mind of her own. Woolf wrote that she strangled the Angel herself, in order to have freedom to think, to create, and to write. Certainly internalization of the domestic ideal harmed and inhibited female expression in some women. The Angel in the House metaphor embodied repression of female energies by cultural sanctions.

Driven by her own demons of personal and professional ambition, Clara Barton, rather than become the angel in the house as some man’s wife and the mother to his children, chose to become the Angel of the Battlefield. During the Civil War, as a single woman not trained as a nurse, Barton worked tirelessly to bring medicine and supplies to the front lines of combat.

A Life of Vital Activity

Even the barest outline of Clara Barton’s life is full of crises and incidents. She was born December 25, 1821, in Oxford, Massachusetts, and christened Clarissa Harlowe Barton after a melodramatic heroine in Samuel Richardson’s 1747-1748 novel Clarissa. She was educated in the Liberal Institute at Clinton, New York, from 1850 to 1851, and in 1852 in Bordentown, New Jersey, she began a free school that enrolled over six hundred pupils. The townsmen, unwilling to permit a woman to head so large a school, subsequently appointed a male principal, and Barton decided to resign rather than face demotion. Barton was an early advocate of equal treatment for the sexes, and her actions were as defiant as her words. She once told a school board, “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.” On another occasion, she appeared in a classroom with a horsewhip to command the attention of unruly students.

She sought advancement as the only single woman employed at the Patent Office in Washington, D.C., from 1854 to 1857 and again in 1860, where she often endured the ridicule and derisive comments of her male coworkers about her lack of womanly modesty in choosing to work. At the outbreak of the Civil War, she organized supplies and medicine for the soldiers wounded at the first Battle of Bull Run. “If I can’t be a soldier, I’ll help soldiers,” she said. Not content with sending supplies to the battlefield, Barton decided to join the effort as a nurse. Both sides of the conflict lacked nurses; soldiers’ wounds were often made lethal by infection and neglect. Some died of thirst while waiting for transport to hospitals. Barton’s father, a military captain, encouraged his daughter to follow her conscience. In the Second Battle of Bull Run, she found three thousand wounded soldiers lying on straw, many without food, awaiting amputations or operations. Her timely aid and distribution of supplies during this crisis earned her the tribute of the title the Angel of the Battlefield. At war’s end in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln made Barton responsible for the Bureau of Records to aid in the search of missing soldiers.

After the war Barton worked for the extension of suffrage, or voting rights, to women, and for the empowerment of the newly freed blacks. She spoke at the American Equal Rights Association and at rallies with Frederick Douglass, the former slave who spent his life as a powerful orator on behalf of the rights of women and African Americans championing equality. In 1869-1870, she went to Europe for a rest, where the Franco-Prussian War erupted, and Barton found herself again in the midst of a relief effort for war victims. While in Geneva, she met the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross. This organization was created by the Geneva Convention of 1864 and produced a treaty aimed at the humane treatment of the wounded, prisoners of war, and civilians during wartime conditions. The Geneva agreement had been inspired by a memoir of wartime events written by Jean-Henri Dunant, Un souvenir de Solferino (1862; A Memory of Solferino, 1939). Dunant dedicated his life to seeing that European nations ratified the Geneva Convention, and he received the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

In America, Clara Barton personally petitioned the administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes to approve the Geneva Convention. Hayes was succeeded by President James A. Garfield, but the process of ratification was deferred several months by the assassination of Garfield in 1881. The new president, Chester A. Arthur, supported the Red Cross, and on March 16, 1882, the United States Senate formally ratified the Geneva treaty. Barton’s “singular perseverance and her powers of persuasion,” in the words of a biographer, founded a monument to her industry–the American Red Cross.

At age seventy-seven, Barton led the relief workers to the Spanish-American War in Cuba for civilian aid and to relieve the wounded. Under her leadership, the constitution of the Red Cross was amended to provide relief during peacetime for famines, floods, earthquakes, cyclones, and pestilence. Barton served as president of the Red Cross until 1904, when complaints about her authoritarian management style forced her to resign, as did lack of support for her leadership from President Theodore Roosevelt. Barton died at her Glen Echo home on April 12, 1912. Her death at age ninety occurred after two bouts of double pneumonia she suffered that year.

The Clara Barton National Historic Site is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The house is shown by guided tours only, which start on the hour. Admission is free, and visitors should allow thirty to forty-five minutes for the house tour.

For Further Information
  • Burton, David H. Clara Barton: In the Service of Humanity. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Covers Barton’s life and career thoroughly.
  • Mann, Peggy. Clara Barton: Battlefield Nurse. New York: Coward-McCann, 1969. Barton is considered exemplary material for writers of juvenile biography. This is part of the Famous Women series for grade-school readers. A good effort at dramatized telling of the highlights of Barton’s life.
  • Oates, Stephen B. A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. New York: Macmillan Press, 1994. A good discussion of Barton’s role on Civil War battlefields. Heavy emphasis on Civil War military history.
  • Pryor, Elizabeth Brown. Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987. A comprehensive biography interested in Barton’s psychology based on her letters and diaries.
  • U.S. Department of the Interior. Clara Barton National Historic Site. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981. Available for purchase by writing to the Government Printing Office, this richly illustrated handbook to the National Historic Site offers one of the best and most succinct biographies of Clara Barton and a capsule history of the major events of her time. A chapter by biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor is also included, as well as summary descriptions of other historic sites of related interest.
  • www.civilwarhome.com/images/barton.jpg. Offers summaries of events in Barton’s life and questions and answers for student readers to evaluate.
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