Visit the Clara Barton House to celebrate the month

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

March is a big month! It's not only Women's History Month, but also American Red Cross Month. There's probably no better way to learn about the historic woman who founded the American Red Cross than to visit Clara Barton's house in Glen Echo.

On a guided tour of Barton's home, you'll learn what a strong and determined woman Barton was. During the Civil War, Barton was known as "The Angel of the Battlefield" because she helped soldiers fighting for the North and the South, getting them supplies and taking care of them when they were wounded or sick. At the battle of Antietam, she removed a bullet from a soldier's cheek with her pocketknife. All this despite people thinking that the battlefield was no place for a lady.

Barton, who was born in 1821, was a shy woman, but by the time the war ended, she had become famous. So she traveled around giving speeches about the rights of women and freed slaves.

She got the idea to start the American Red Cross when she volunteered to help soldiers in Europe as part of the International Red Cross. At first, people in the United States weren't interested in the Red Cross, especially during peacetime. But Barton realized that an American Red Cross could help not only during wartime but also during natural disasters including hurricanes and fires. She established the American Red Cross in 1881. Today, her organization is helping the survivors of the earthquake in Japan. (See story at right).

You'll learn all this while standing in the dark, long hallway in the house where Barton lived the last 15 years of her life. The house has 38 rooms and 58 closets! That's a lot of space for blankets and bandages and things that people might need in a disaster. Barton first used the house as a warehouse while she was living in Washington. Even when Barton moved into the Glen Echo home, she still used it as an office and warehouse, and many of her volunteers lived there with her. (Barton put anyone who stayed with her to work.)

In the offices in the back of the house, you'll see Barton's invitation to President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball and a chair that is missing its back. As Barton got older, people thought she was too old to keep working, so she cut the back out of her chair to prove to them that she was strong enough to support herself.

You'll learn a lot of cool, personal stories on the tour of the house. Barton, who never married or had children, kept a diary from the time she was 13 to the time of her death at age 90. Through her life, 23 U.S. presidents were elected; but because women were never allowed to vote during her lifetime, Barton didn't vote for any of them. A visit to her house will give you a real sense of what an extraordinary woman Barton was.

- Moira E. McLaughlin

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