Clara Barton National Historic Site
5801 Oxford Road,
LOCATION: The nine-acre site adjacent to Glen Echo Park is managed by the U.S. Park Service.
HOURS: Open for hourly guided tours starting at 10 a.m. daily except New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King and Washington birthdays, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Last tour 4 p.m.
CONTACT: www.nps.gov or 301.320.1410
On the morning of the single bloodiest day of the Civil War, Clara Barton was ready. It wasn't easy, preparing for the death and destruction that was about to be unleashed before her.
At dusk on September 15, 1862, she was caught 10 miles behind the front, stuck in a blockade of Union Army wagons. But once the wagons stopped for the night, Barton waited until midnight, then boldly forged her way ahead of the building forces, past South Mountain and into the valley of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, where she arrived that evening.
Barton wrote about her night there: “It was a miserable night. There was a sense of impending doom. We knew, everyone knew, that two great armies of 80,000 men were lying there face to face, only waiting for dawn to begin the battle. It gave a terrible sense of oppression.”
Her estimation of the size of the two armies was off – the Union had approximately 87,000 men against 45,000 Confederate soldiers – but her sense of doom was prophetic.
The next day was September 17, 1862, and by nightfall, nearly 23,000 men would be killed, captured, wounded or missing. Military historians consider the Battle of Antietam a draw.
Barton earned fame as an independent nurse who cared for soldiers fighting in the Civil War, but she is perhaps best known as the founder of the American Red Cross.
After the war ended in April of 1865, Barton tirelessly worked on searching for and reuniting missing soldiers with their families. She pursued domestic and international relief efforts and it was on a trip to Europe in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War that Barton discovered the International Red Cross.
Upon her return to America, she began lobbying for a domestic branch of the relief organization and when the American Red Cross was founded in 1881, she served as its leader until her resignation in 1904.
Her home in Glen Echo eventually became the headquarters for the American Red Cross after two twin brothers, Edwin and Edward Baltzley, offered Barton free land and labor as part of their plan to develop 516 acres overlooking the Potomac River. Ironically, when the Red Cross responded to the Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania in 1889, Barton had lumber and building materials from a Red Cross facility in Johnstown destroyed by the flood brought back to Glen Echo. As her new home and headquarters were being built in 1891, she requested that the lumber be used in their construction.
Barton participated in the design of the Victorian-style home and warehouse that was modeled after relief shelters that the Red Cross used at Johnstown. But the design couldn't moderate the arduous commute she faced each day to Washington, D.C., so Barton only lived in the Glen Echo space for a year before she moved back to the city.
For the next six years, the house, which became a historical site in 1974, served as a Red Cross warehouse where supplies were stored and shipped as needed. By 1897, the electric trolley line connected Glen Echo with Washington, D.C., allowing Barton and her staff to return to Maryland and remodel the site as her home as well as the first permanent site of the American Red Cross.
Although the three-level, 30-room house transferred to private ownership shortly after Barton's death at age 90 in 1912, the new owners apparently respected the historical significance of the place, made few changes and preserved the furniture and belongings left behind. When the U.S. Park Service was given administration of the property in 1975, it continued restoration efforts and now the house stands as a place frozen in time.
Visitors enter a dimly lit, dark-paneled residence with rooms, parlors, storage areas and offices filled with items from Barton's era as well as her travel mementos, paintings, portraits and gifts from foreign governments grateful for her work. A pair of windows feature stained glass with red crosses while cabinets and other storage areas still house stacks of relief supplies. Much of Barton's original furniture is still on hand as are everyday work-related items like typewriters, telephones and a graphaphone, the forerunner to the model dictation machine.
Maybe it was her frugality or that she had access to a ready supply of cotton bandages, but Barton insisted that the ceilings be covered with the cloth instead of plaster.
All of those insights and more are included in the 45-minute tour of the home of the woman known as “the angel of the battlefield.”