Clara Barton House Readings

Clara Barton House 
Determining the Facts Readings

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 had to lock 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 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, D.C., 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.

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?

Reading 1 was adapted from Clara Barton, Clara Barton National Historic Site (Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, 1981).
1Elizabeth 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.
2Ibid, 18.
4Ibid, 23.
6Ibid, 25.
7Ibid, 30.

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.

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?

Reading 2 was adapted from "Clara Barton, Historic Woman," Washington, D.C., 1961. Courtesy of the American Red Cross. All rights reserved.

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.

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?

Reading 3 came from the Papers of Clara Barton, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.

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